Running Time: 97 min.
Producer: Michelle Yeh, Aileen Li
Director: Leste Chen
Cast: Jason Chang, Terri Kwan, Chang Yu-chen, Tender Huang
Story: Young architect James Yang (Jason Chang) returns from the UK to take over his inheritance, a musty mansion on the outskirts of Taipei. His modern ballet dancer girlfriend, Yo (Terri Kwan), wants to study abroad, but then, she inexplicably moves into the spacious house to keep him company, never referring to her previous plans (and plane tickets bought). Several mysterious disappearances and deaths later we get to see what made her change her mind. But should we care?
Review: HEIRLOOM spoils any surprise and mystery in the very first 10 seconds: too proud of its idea, it spills it out in the inscription preceding even the prologue. In it, we are told about the practice of hsiao guei ('raising child ghosts') which consists of keeping dead fetuses in special jars, and 'worshipping' them through regular feeding with their master's blood. Allegedly, dead baby ghosts have enormous power, and can be used to further the wealth of a person or whole family. They can also be used to kill an entire family, as evidenced only seconds later in a decidedly spooky prologue: a dozen bodies are hung in the attic, their feet waving, producing a morbid sound with their tight ropes.
After a well-designed credits sequence and operatic-romantic-gloomy music which would not feel out of place in a Chanwook-Park film, HEIRLOOM opens with a highly economic introduction of its main characters and situation. But then, fifteen or twenty minutes later, just when you sit back in your armchair and start drooling 'Yeah, now let's see some of that dead fetus action!' – the film forgets its high concept, and starts falling apart in a series of dull, cheap, uninteresting and/or silly goings on. People hear strange noises; people investigate strange noises; sudden sights and sounds create cheap jolts; people disappear and reappear while you wonder: 'Why did they bother to waste such a great premise as dead fetus worship if they're going to spend half of the movie investigating entirely stupid phenomena such as some guys' being lifted out of or into the old house? This is not what the flick was supposed to be about!'
Other than the almost-wasted concept of baby ghosts, HEIRLOOM's centerpiece is the old house, the setting for majority of the film. This masterpiece of production design is certainly among the spookiest ever seen in Asian horror film, and Kwan Pun-leung's more than excellent cinematography makes the most of it. Simply, it is a joy to watch: pastel colors, great shadow play, inventive framing... all of it makes you fall in love with the place. Unfortunately, it also makes you want a more involving plot going on in this place. Because, the problem is, nothing of interest really happens until the very (anti-climactic) end. The scare scenes are often rushed or ended with cheap shocks, while murders are so misdirected that it ain't funny! In all of them the director is so shy of scaring you or of creating a memorable set-piece that his results are poor not merely in terms of horror, but in terms of basic filmmaking. You'll be left scratching your head: 'What have I just seen? What happened there?' What's even worst, some of them sound good on paper. If you imagine people hung by invisible ropes and lifted into the air, you'll have much better scenes in your heads than the botched, incomprehensible, forgettable ones that Leste Chen (un)delivers.
The script is lazy, most obviously in the tired cliché of a 'person who knows' coming out to fill in the gaps in the family's history. In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson: ''How convenient!'' The opening seems to promise some drama, but HEIRLOOM pretty soon forgets about its bland characters and goes on with its main business: creating a heavy atmosphere of gloom and spookiness and delivering some uninspired scares. We can forgive such convenient details as the characters' moving into undecorated, dilapidated house with paint still peeling off the walls, because had they done the reasonable thing and repainted it in bright colors the film would have lost its sole attraction. But dropping the characters for the sake of plot mechanics is not a good idea, especially if you're not substituting drama with some set-piece-oriented frightfest a la EVIL DEAD TRAP. Music video director Leste Chen opts for the 'style over substance' approach, but his debut as a horror film director lacks conviction and talent to create genuine fear or shock, or to fully exploit genuinely morbid concept of 'hsiao guei'. Instead, he goes the safe and unimaginative way, and produces merely an average, forgettable eye-candy. It is a bit ironic that this flick is part of Tartan's 'Asia Extreme' series, since the only 'extreme' thing about it is its basic idea: sadly, very little of it is there on the screen!