The Heirloom Review
I like Leste Chen; he comes across as a sincere chap, so wish I could l could give him a few points. But it doesn’t quite work like that. Despite the young director’s good intentions in trying to make his feature-length 35mm debut a unique horror/thriller experience, the fact of the matter is that it’s quite an ordinary and laborious piece of work which doesn’t do a great deal to make it stand out in an familiarly overpopulated genre.
The story concerns a man named James Yang (Jason Chang), who has recently returned from the UK to inherit a rundown family estate located in Taipei. Joining him is his fiancé Yo (Terri Kwan), a dancer who has decided to give up moving abroad for the time being. James and Yo’s friend soon pay visit to the house and things start to go downhill from there: a series of unusual happenings, such as people being magically transported back to house at the stroke of midnight, convinces the couple that the house must be haunted. When deaths begin to occur and a detective enters the fray, the truths behind the ghostly deeds are soon revealed, and by soon I mean really soon.
The idea behind The Heirloom couldn’t be any simpler. Leste Chen draws upon Chinese family life, which he professes to relate toward, and seeks to unravel certain complexities faced in larger family units; with further aim here to detail the fragility of human emotions when housed in unnaturally controlled environments. As he states on the DVD he further wishes to establish the concepts of sacrifice and stairs I think.
But it’s nonetheless quite detached from real life, which inevitably sees to it being yet another tale involving ghosties harbouring grudges type fare, but with dead babies littered here and there. Being rather typical of Asian horror, no matter the country, here we have the psychological variety, owing a more cerebrally challenging experience than a gore-infested one. The Heirloom, at just over a light 90 minutes, still somehow manages to meander from time to time and plod along unperturbed by its seemingly weighty narrative, chock full of uninspired jump scares (the kind that aren’t proper scares, where character’s turn around and jump, but it turns out to be just another person behind them, which happens a few times throughout), twists involving plentiful flashbacks and suicides. And during all of this the film remains largely bereft of meaningful character development. Dorian Li’s (an acquaintance of Chen) script is often an unfocused mess, lacking a solid build up to its ultimatum; in fact around the one hour point it spends ten minutes delivering all of the expository material needed (think Silent Hill, but much earlier), so that there’s nothing left to surprise us with. That leaves a further thirty minutes of characters depressingly wandering about in the dark, while the viewer sits there and ponders over an ever increasing amount of inconsistencies, mainly regarding James and his family, while the director continues to indulge himself on filmic food.
Leste Chen has a right to be proud of The Heirloom’s aesthetics, however; there’s certainly no faulting cinematographer Kwan Pung-Leung, who conjures up a suitably atmospheric picture, even if the concept of the house being a character itself may well appear to be a highly worn concept, but one in which the director seems to find great worth in detailing all the same. Above all the sets do encompass the overall narrative and envelop the film’s characters with a great sense of urgency and uncertainty. Chen uses this structure rather methodically and slowly builds up a nonplus amount of tension: you can clearly see what he’s trying to achieve, but it never reaches beyond a certain point, other than depicting a ridiculously large house with very steep stairs and crumbly walls. But on the whole it is nicely composed and there’s enough in the way of promise for Chen and his future career in film making, so long as he stays away from a genre that he doesn’t quite fully understand.
The Heirloom is a fairly dreary looking film, with a muted colour palette of cold blue shades and brown hues. Yume’s presentation retains this as much, but unfortunately it’s a rather muddy looking anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. Edge enhancement is quite nasty throughout, but the biggest killer is poor contrast and ropey black levels, which results in poor definition. The picture below is a good example of such interference between foreground and background details. The film is barely two years old and really shouldn't look quite so poor. As per usual the conversion is NTSC-PAL, which surely doesn’t help a great deal in this respect.
Audio fares a lot better though. We have a choice of Mandarin 2.0 and Mandarin 5.1 Surround, the latter of which I took in for this review. The Heirloom’s sound design is another one of its better aspects, and although the surrounds aren’t given much of a workout they count where it matters. The rear channels pick up some nice ambient effects and emphasise certain key aspects, such as little things like the ticking clock proving to be beneficial. Dialogue is situated across the front channels and presents no faults.
Optional English subtitles are included and they offer an excellent translation, with great timing and no major errors.
The biggest draw to the disc is a 22 minute “Making Of”, which covers all of the usual bases, starting with director Chen explaining his intents for the film. He certainly appears enthusiastic about the project and he makes a good enough case for it, despite the feeling that he seems unaware of just how many times ambiguous families living in a spooky house type films have been made over the years. He talks it up a treat, so it’s a shame then that the ideas he wanted to explore ultimately weren’t quite so well implemented. He also talks about designing the house and using multiple locations for shooting; it’s here we go behind the scenes as the crew work hard to make several environments feel like one piece. As the chapters go on Chen talks about the visual motifs throughout, predominantly hanging and he also discusses casting his main stars, along with brief interviews from the principal members. There’s further input from the film’s screenwriter, as well as a look into the challenges faced when filming; the overall visual style; uniqueness (hrmm) and final words.
The rest of the bonus features are very light, with four TV Spots, a director’s filmography and short bio, and finally two trailers: one international and a theatrical teaser.
A photo gallery is listed on the box, but it doesn’t exist.
It’s easy to imagine The Heirloom working far better as a short film; the bulk of the material here isn’t exactly well suited to a lengthier run time, which is evident in the sheer amount of padding on display and the incessant need to give too much away far earlier than it should, thus resulting in a predictable and awkward finale. Leste Chen’s film is a decent looking picture, however, showing some nice production values, in addition to being supported by competent enough acting, which is to say that despite all the story has to offer there’s very little for these actors to work with; the entire point of the tale with its social and family underpinnings is undermined by routine horror conventions. Worth a rent perhaps, but another one to add to the list of underwhelming Asian offerings of recent years.
5 out of 10
5 out of 10
8 out of 10
5 out of 10