A brooding psycho-mystery which pits a confident hypnotherapist against a beautiful patient who claims she can “see dead people,” “The Great Hypnotist” reconfirms Taiwanese helmer Leste Chen as an accomplished stylist capable of dressing up B-movie material in a classy package. However, despite lush visuals, a melodic rhythm and a pair of screen-chewing lead perfs, the film is still hamstrung by Ren Peng’s screenplay, which not only blatantly steals from “The Sixth Sense” but extinguishes all suspense via an inane twist. Even so, local Chinese auds and Asian genre fans may respond to marketing hype exaggerating the film’s mind-bending elements.
Following the vapid but commercially successful romance “Say Yes,” Chen reconnects with his horror roots, dormant since his spine-tingling haunted-mansion debut, “The Heirloom,” back in 2005. With a bigger budget (approximately $8 million, bankrolled by China major Wanda Media) this time round, he mounts a brisk, tony-looking production, but falls short of first-class genre ranks by failing to elevate the concept of hypnosis into a mesmerizing cinematic experience. Neither mystifying nor demystifying the process, the film simply ignores the subject’s vast potential, visualized these sequences as little more than fancy montages or stylized dream sequences.
The film’s prologue channels stock elements from Asian horror movies (including a long-haired girl, whispering corridors) to demonstrate the ingenious methods Dr. Xu Ruining (Xu) has developed for treating patients with guilt complexes, while an early anecdote about child trafficking hints at the film’s moral — that people are not who they seem. At a lecture, Dr. Xu expounds on the technicalities of hypnotism, guaranteed to leave laymen more confused than ever. Soon afterward, he is enlisted by his academic mentor, Prof. Fang (Lv Zhong), to help Ren Xiaoyan (Mok), a patient who has stumped numerous psychiatrists with her claims of psychic powers.
Ren turns up after dark at Xu’s creepy clinic just as something is going bump upstairs. The film wrings some haunting atmospherics from the lusciously-lit Euro-style mise-en-scene. However, as soon as Xu puts Ren under hypnosis, the story changes course and turns into a more routine mystery. As Xu probes into Ren’s past as an abandoned child adopted by Hong Kong parents, repressed facts and feelings, including her engagement to fellow orphan Lu Yusong (David Wang) come pouring out. Her visions are shot in striking, de-saturated images by Charlie Lam with a fluidity that recalls Chen’s flair for gorgeous tracking shots in his sophomore film, the gay coming-of-ager “Eternal Summer.”
A parallel emerges between her obsession — the need to explore not “what” she sees but “why” she can see these startling visions — and Xu’s conviction that the ends matter more than his professional means. At one point, when Ren seems to have counter-hypnotized Xu, auds may begin to suspect the whole story is being filtered through an unreliable subconscious. Alas, these intriguing shifts in power balance and clever manipulations of narrative are ruined by the predictable final twist.
Under the Chinese film bureau’s restrictions on how supernatural elements can be represented onscreen, it’s unrealistic to expect full-blown horrors of a ghostly nature, but the pseudo-scientific point-by-point exposition tacked on to the reveal is so ludicrous and gratuitous it cancels out the relative sophistication of the mentalist sparring that went on before. Not content to just spill the beans, Ren’s pedestrian screenplay even smothers the final moments with cloying sentimentality.
Hong Kong singer-thesp and fashion maven Mok (who hasn’t starred in anything that fully utilizes her range and sensuality since Zhang Yibai’s “Lost Indulgence” in 2008) gives her title role all the layers she can. Sultry at first and softening gradually to reveal vulnerability and neurosis, she never compromises Ren’s intelligence and keeps auds guessing as to her motives. Xu, who became a celebrity for directing and starring in China’s highest-grossing domestic film “Lost in Thailand,” sheds the on-the-nose performance style he displays in comedies like “Lost” and Ning Hao’s “No Man’s Land” to deliver a calibrated portrayal of hubris. He creates palpable excitement opposite Mok without upstaging her.
Tech credits are above average for a mainland genre film, especially Zhao Nan and Yang Jing’s Dolby Atmos sound design, which eschews the usual foreboding hints of horror-film background sound to evoke natural sounds like rain with sharpness, and is seamlessly aligned with Benson Chen’s alternatively playful and romantic score to conjure a mood of teasing uncertainty. Lam’s swirling camera movement lifts the talky scenes in Xu’s office out of monotony, though the substantial portion of the pic shot underwater by Zhang Wei reps an ugly combo of blurry closeups and poorly framed shots of flailing bodies.