After warming up with pics like “Curse of Lola” and “The Door,” China gets its first all-out ghost movie with “The Matrimony,” a technically slick exercise that should keep Asian specialty labels busy. Mainland director Teng Huatao, who debuted with the realist backstreets drama “One Hundred … ” (2001), and then helmed the 2003 “Sky of Love” (a Hong Kong remake of South Korean time-warper “Ditto”), assembles a pan-Chinese cast and tech crew for a ’30s Shanghai haunter that’s light on shocks but otherwise purrs along nicely. Pic went out in China as a Valentine’s Day attraction.
Pre-credits sequence has an unidentified femme radio host narrating the latest installment of a romantic potboiler, in which a rich guy ditches his g.f. but then writes asking her forgiveness and her hand in marriage. As the announcer speaks, the story is shown onscreen, with pretty Xu Manli (China’s Fan Bingbing, channeling “Amelie”) cycling to meet Shen Junchu (Hong Kong’s Leon Lai) on a busy Shanghai street. Just as they spy each other, she’s hit by a car and killed.
A year later, Junchu is holed up in a vast family manse with the mousy, devoted Sansan (Taiwan’s Rene Liu), whom he’s been forced to marry by his domineering mom (Zheng Yuzhi). Spurned by the asthmatic Junchu, who’s still pining for Manli, Sansan roams the spooky mansion and starts getting visions of the dead g.f.
The ghostly Manli finally proposes a deal to Sansan: If she can occasionally enter Sansan’s body, to touch and talk to Junchu, both women might benefit in their relationship with him.
But later, Sansan, with some help from the manse’s ghostbusting housekeeper, Auntie Rong (Xu Songzi), finally has to face down the evil Manli. A twist coda, based on the opening sequence, rounds off the tale.
Western viewers may notice a few similarities with “Rebecca,” with Liu in the Joan Fontaine role, Lai in Laurence Olivier’s and the older Xu not a million miles from stern housekeeper Mrs. Danvers. However, the ghost elements are thoroughly Chinese in their inspiration. And though the script only surfs the sexual implications of Manli and Sansan sharing the same body for Junchu’s delectation, the pic spins an elegant, sometimes sensuous web of tangled emotions, underscored by Lee Xinyun’s sinuous music.
Lensing by Taiwan’s Mark Lee (a veteran of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar-wai’s movies) is succulent, with vivid reds, moldy greens and warm blues in a rich mix. Period setting and duds have a look that underlines the pic is really just an exercise in high style.
Original Chinese title means “Ghost in the Heart.”