Tapping the subconscious

New film pioneers a new genre and is rewarded at box office


Hypnotic performance: Mok

To say that Xu Zheng boosted Chinese tourism to Thailand single-handedly may not be an understatement. Thanks to Lost in Thailand, a blockbuster that Xu both directed and starred in (see WiC177), an influx of Chinese visitors flocked to the Land of Smiles.

The film, which portrays Thailand as a charming place of adventure and natural beauty, even caught the attention of Yingluck Shinawatra last year. In fact, the then prime minister even invited Xu to Bangkok to thank him personally for the positive PR.

Early this month, Xu was causing a stir again, this time for his role in a new movie genre. Or to be more accurate, one that is new for China, albeit more familiar to Western audiences thanks to films like The Sixth Sense. The Great Hypnotist, which stars Xu and Hong Kong’s Karen Mok, has been a success since its release two weeks ago. The horror-flick-cum-psychological thriller, also produced by Xu, has already surpassed Rmb200 million ($32.08 million) in box office receipts but cost just Rmb50 million to make.

It tells the tale of a renowned hypnotist (played by Xu) and a troubled patient (Mok) who claims to see “dead people”. The story is an unusual one by Chinese standards because the country’s film bureau normally restricts how supernatural elements are represented onscreen. For example, the first instalment of the Pirates of the Caribbean series is said to have been banned because it contained ghosts.

“Censors do not allow ghosts and aliens in films. So no matter how the supernatural elements are portrayed, in the end, the director basically has to slap his own face by arranging a reasonable explanation for the phenomenon, explaining that they are man-made,” according to a contributor to Zhihu, a popular chat platform.

To work within the restrictions, The Great Hypnotist presents many of the plot’s supernatural elements in pseudo-scientific terms. Not all the critics think that this compromise works (Variety’s review calls it “ludicrous”, for example).

But comments on weibo suggest that most local filmgoers are won over by the novelty.

“Many people labelled the film suspense and horror, but I think it’s far better than using scary sound and lighting to create an atmosphere that’s typical of horror films. It is not just about telling a mysterious story but it is also carefully packaged, cleverly designed, includes a play within the play and it evolves until the very last moment!“ praised one netizen.

“I really like The Great Hypnotist… The suspense thriller drama is so well produced it sets the right tone for domestic production. I hope more directors are like Chen Zhengdao and try new genres,” one netizen wrote.

Other viewers said that the film shows that Chinese directors lack experience in making horror films or complained that the that movie’s climax is a let-down. But the main complaint is a familiar one: a tendency towards plagiarism (an ever-present source of controversy, see WiC236). This time the charge is that Xu has borrowed too heavily from earlier Hollywood hits. “The mystery aspect of the film is very similar to The Sixth Sense. The part about hypnosis is clearly borrowed from Inception. The twist at the end is straight out of Shutter Island,” one critic wrote on weibo.

If the plot sounds familiar, that’s probably because it is. The screenwriter Ren Peng told the Yangtze Evening News the story is only “semi-original”, admitting that he drew references from Vanilla Sky and Shutter Island. He also took inspiration from TV shows like Medium (which starred Patricia Arquette) and American Horror Story, says China News Net.

Still, the success of The Great Hypnotist is impressive given that Hollywood blockbusters have been offering stiff competition at Chinese cinemas. In addition to Disney’s Captain America, which has grossed more than $115 million, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also opened this Sunday. Godzilla, too, will arrive in coming weeks (presumably getting past the censors on grounds that dinosaurs have scientific provenance).

But another Hollywood blockbuster will not be shown in China, with the Russell Crowe film Noah failing to get a release slot. Perhaps that’s because of the story’s religious origins. Christianity is a touchy topic and last week there were protests in Wenzhou when a church was bulldozed by local officials (they claimed it violated building codes, reports the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, but church leaders said it was part of a broader crackdown on Christians in the city). Some of Noah’s scenes of environmental degredation might have had audiences nodding along sadly too. But other insiders speculate that the film was blocked out of commercial concerns (i.e. to divert audiences back towards domestic productions). Certainly, the move came as a surprise for Paramount, the Hollywood studio that produced it. It was widely believed that Noah had been accepted for release and director Darren Aronofsky was even scheduled to visit China to promote it next week. But now he will travel only to Japan.

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