Our fair, historically-rich Beijing is the setting for The House That Never Dies (京城81号), the recent thriller and box office triumph from Hong Kong director Raymond Yip. Setting our scene in the actual mansion that occupies 81 Chaoyangmen Inner Street, the film finds its inspiration in this sublime achievement of French Baroque style that recalls the heyday of Qing opulence, and also in the fact that the real house exists in real life and happens to be super duper crazy haunted.
In real life. For real. Ghosts! Really!
Here's 81 Chaoyangmen Inner Street:
Chilling. Even in the daytime.
Roundly heralded by China film critics as a stirringly not-terrible Chinese horror film, The House That Never Dies combines the latest 3D film-making technology with recent advances in being a Chinese production and supposedly not being really boring. It's capitalized at the box office (25 million USD, 81,360 screenings and 4.37 million admissions, according to CRI), and launched a bit of a social phenomenon regarding this house. 81 Chaoyangmen has come under the ownership of the Beijing Catholic Diocese at some point -- I guess these Qing architectural forces were so demonic the Catholics had to get involved -- and they've been compelled to lock the gates to discourage the throngs of visitors that have been turning up since the movie's release late last July.
The House That Never Dies -- it's Chinese filmdom's summer hit. It's a thing. Here's the cast celebrating their success by pouring alcohol over a big, ice 3D sculpture. As you would.
We went and checked out The House That Never Dies (京城81号) for yourself. You can too if you like -- they've got English subs. Here's where it's playing.
The House That Never Dies opens in an idyllic and non-haunted house in Taiwan where Xu Ruoqing (Ruby Lin), a serene novelist and her charming daughter, Xiao Meng are off to Beijing to reunite with Ruoqing’s heartless book-editor-husband (Francis Ng) and live in the aforementioned House of Architectural Splendor and Possible Paranormal Presences.
Ruoqing and Xiao Meng settle into their grandiose, shadowy, worryingly-isolated new digs and all is peachy in the world of serene novel-writing until Xiao Meng’s bedroom is visited by a mysterious “jiejie” who wants to “play ball” and all hell breaks loose. Which is to say, it gets sort of windy and stuff moves of its own volition. Ruby Lin, who has perfected a look of wide-eyed terror, does great service in a role where her direction can only be assumed to have been “just stand there looking scared.”
Flashback: turn-of-the-century, pre-Haunted house, where the production design is sumptuous and the inter-generational family politics confusing. Hookers fawn over studly bachelor Lian Qi (Tony Yang), who’s just returned from the Far West. He wants to make an honest woman out of Lu Dieyu (also Ruby Lin) and move her into his manor. Naturally, his noble family is happy to welcome a prostitute into their bloodline. Just kidding. Stuff happens. Dieyu gets stuck living in the basement of #81 Haunted House Road with her fatherless child as the family’s Resident Shameful Slut. The seeds of future hauntings have been sewn.
Present day. Ruoqing is having a tough time controlling the long-dead hookers that keep popping up in fits of medium-gross CGI bloodlust. The spookiness factor is through the roof for her, and about at a three or four for the audience. Even with 3D, the biggest bump in the night is rote horror stuff like a hand reaching out from a mirror and a bathtub filled with blood.
While The House That Never Dies doesn’t really work as horror, it scores with elegant production design and a surprisingly poignant emotional twist. Ruby Lin’s performance is nuanced as both wronged-contemporary-woman-in-haunted-house and wronged-historical-woman-in-not-yet-haunted-house. It’s refreshing to see a horror movie that privileges female characters and doesn’t sacrifice character development for (too many) cheap scares. At the film’s core, a romance gone awry is supplanted by the connection between two women across time, united by the yoke of domestic subjugation and bonds of motherhood. The commercial success of THTND suggests a future for female-driven genre films in which shoes aren’t the major plot point.
And the ending is so amazing I have to blurt it out...
It’s not haunted! It’s drugs! In one awesome Deus Ex Machina, the whole thing’s chalked up to Ruoqing being dosed with LSD. Yes.
It's an extended acid trip explains the ghosts, the husband’s infidelities, the entire madwoman in the attic trope. We may never know what ills truly dwell in The House that Never Dies, but, man, what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Whoa! Here's the info again for the screening times of The House That Never Dies