Sunday, October 25, 2020

Jiu suo (1977)

... aka: 舊鎖
... aka: 古厝夜雨
... aka: 殘燈幽靈三更天
... aka: Can deng you ling san geng tian
... aka: Ghost of the Broken Lantern, The
... aka: Gu cuo ye yu
... aka: Night Rain in the Old House
... aka: Old Lock, The
... aka: Rainy Night in the Ancient House
... aka: Third Watch of the Broken Lamp Ghost, The

Directed by:
Yao Fung Pan (Feng-Pan Yao)

Director Yao's filmography is a complete mess online. It's such a mess I haven't even been able to figure out just how many genre films he made over the course of his career. Let's just say it's a lot. Thus far I've dug up over 20 different horror films made from 1969 to the early 80s, which makes him one of the most prolific directors from this time; perhaps the most prolific director that almost no one (at least outside of Taiwan and Hong Kong) has ever even heard of before. Because of that, and because he deserves better, I'm determined to try to work this all out eventually. As far as this particular title is concerned, I've found it listed on certain sites under one title, and on other sites as something completely different. I've seen incorrect plot synopses pretty much everywhere. I've seen the wrong posters being used. I've seen the release year fluctuate from 1975 up to 1979. And I've seen this being mixed up with a number of other Yao films. In fact, what I sat down thinking I was watching and what I ended up actually watching were two completely different films! I'll try my best to explain...

What I thought I had a copy of was Pao's 1979 film 古厝夜語, which translates to Gu cuo ye yu or "Night Whispers in the Ancient House." However, what I ended up with was 古厝夜雨 which also translates to Gu cuo ye yu but instead means "Rainy Night in the Ancient House." This is a re-title of Yao's 1977 film 舊鎖 / Jiu suo / The Old Lock for the home video market. At some point, a distributor swapped out the original title screen for Lock and replaced it with a plain blue screen with this new title. Why? You got me! This is also sometimes listed under the titles Ji long qi hao fang and Keelung Room No. 7 though I couldn't find an actual release bearing either title. What's kind of embarrassing to admit to is that it wasn't until about the 20th shot of an old lock that it clicked in my brain that I was actually watching The Old Lock and not the other film!

Set during the Japanese occupation, tea house worker Hsiu Tzu, whose expected duties are to perform dances and serve as a geisha / prostitute, gets an ardent admirer in the married Teng Ko Lin (Yang Yueh). Mr. Lin soon becomes dangerously infatuated with the beauty, wants her to quit and promises to take care of her if she does. He even offers to kill his own wife, Fu-Mei (Ling Fan), if she'll agree to marry him. When Hsiu Tzu rejects his offer, he goes crazy, stabs her (non-fatally) and is then beaten up by Japanese officer Ho Yeh (Yeh Tien), who's also is in love with the geisha. The officer slashes his face repeatedly with a sword, which disfigures him and ruins one of his eyes. Mr. Lin is then dragged off to the police station and thrown into prison.

A year later, destitute widow Tsu Chen (Bi-Hui Fu) and her two daughters; high school aged Mei Chih (Barbara Wang) and the younger Mei Hsing, travel by foot to the home of their grandmother-in-law Liao (Li-Yun Chen) looking for a place to stay. Unfortunately, she doesn't have the extra space for them as she runs a general store out of her home. Instead, she directs them to an abandoned hilltop home that belongs to Mr. Li, who's been in jail ever since attacking the geisha. As far as anyone knows, his wife has left him and taken their son with her. Heavily damaged since it's been unoccupied for so long, the outside is overgrown with weeds, an old rusty lock put on the front door simply falls off to the touch and the inside is covered with dust, dirt and cobwebs, infested with mice and littered with broken furniture. It looks almost as if someone has intentionally destroyed the place. Granny goes to the prison and gets Mr. Li's permission for them to live there for the time being. His only request is that they only occupy the downstairs and not go into a locked room upstairs, which he claims is full of valuables. The ladies immediately get the work cleaning it up.

Tsu quickly gets a job in town and hopes to save back so they can afford a new place. It also means she's gone a lot, leaving her two daughters alone most of the time. Mei Chih starts back at school and they seem like they're on the path to rebuilding their lives. However, strange things start going on in the home. Mei Chih is kept up late at night by sounds coming from upstairs. She hears footsteps, faint voices and creaks and bangs that sound like someone is breaking things. When she tells her mom, she's not having it. She's already stressed enough as it is. A young boy, Ah Hsiung (Ying-Hsun Huang), shows up one evening claiming to be Mr. Li's son. According to him, he returned home from a school field trip and his mother was gone. His father then sent him to live with his uncle prior to going to prison and he hasn't seen his mother since.

The tragic story of Mrs. Lin is told in many flashbacks from numerous characters. Her husband is a mean drunk and a wife-beater who pushes, slaps and kicks her, calls her "disgusting" and pawns her jewelry and other belongings; even going so far as threatening to sell their house so he has enough money to impress his mistress. They were once wealthy but he's burnt through all their money. Mrs. Lin eventually confronts the geisha / mistress, which is a pretty interesting scene in that the women aren't nasty to one another but instead have a kind of unspoken understanding as both deal with cruel men on a regular basis; one as a sex worker and the other as an abused housewife. When Mr. Lin finds out the two have met, he goes into a rage and takes it out on his wife. She ends up dead at the end of the altercation and, obviously, it's her ghost haunting the home.

This was pretty painful to watch, not because it's a bad movie but because the only available print is in terrible shape and really does a disservice to the film itself. The score and sound design are eerie and excellent. Some of the scenes, like lightning flashes illuminating a figure standing behind some curtains, Mei Chih walking down the hallway with a candle as flickering blue light behind her shows the ghost closing in and the ghost detaching its head and letting float around, are genuinely creepy. You can tell great care has been put into the lighting design (which features lots of bold blue, purple and red) and art direction to make the old house as atmospheric as possible. The director makes good use of widescreen photography as ghosts often unexpectedly appear on the periphery of the frame; the same place he often places his actors. Unfortunately, most of the above is diminished (if not completely lost) due to the poor quality full screen print, which is all that's currently available. If someone bothered to remaster this I bet it would look amazing.

The strength of the visuals unfortunately isn't entirely matched by the script. This has a real tendency toward melodrama and the weepy Mrs. Lin character is "virtuous" to the point of implausibility. Modern audiences are likely to find her annoyingly weak, pitiful and subservient, though that's at least counterbalanced somewhat by making the leads four strong ladies of varying ages, which you don't see too often. There's also the predictability factor: We figure out what's going on well in advance of the characters (removing the element of surprise). A dumb (though brief) comic subplot involving an escaped convict comes from out of nowhere. Knowing he'll be executed if he's caught, he breaks into the home, tries to spend the night upstairs, has an encounter with the ghost and then flees because he's rather take his chances with the Japanese! Still, if by chance this ever gets restored, I'd recommend giving it a look.

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