No. 69 House
China (2019) Dir. Lei Zi
For some of us love will be nothing more than a fantasy, but what happens if the love you thought was real ends up being a fantasy for a different reason? Or worse still if you can no longer tell if you are currently living in the real world of a fantasy world? Confused? You will be…
Xu Feng arrives at a guesthouse in a quiet remote old town. He hears a woman crying and goes to check on her, only to be seduced by a creepy apparition instead. Meanwhile, a young woman in a bridal gown Ying Ning is wandering the same streets, lost and confused then suddenly wakes up from her coma, having been in hospital suffering from a severe illness, finding her fiancé Xu Feng has left her.
Ying Ning tries to move on and rebuild her life with the aid of her best friend Tong Tong, but wounds are reopened when they visit an art exhibition and see a painting Ying Ning and Xu Feng created together being shown off by a mysterious woman claiming it as her own work. Ying Ning confronts the woman who tells her to forget Xu Feng. Unsatisfied, Ying Ning and Tong Tong follow the woman to her hometown in search of answers.
Regular readers of this site may have noticed that the plot synopsis for this film doesn’t follow the usual pattern of attributing actors’ names to their roles, which is due to not having a cast list to refer to. Actually, this isn’t entirely true as the Amazon Prime listings page does have three names – Wang Peiwei, He Peng and LV Jing – but a Google search came up empty so I have no clue who played whom.
No. 69 House is clearly an upstart indie film and labour of love for director Lei Zi, judging by the absence of an IMDb page and any readily available information in English on the Interwebz. If it hadn’t been on Prime, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all but I was looking for something quick to watch and I must confess the promo image of the cute leading lady was the deal breaker.
The plot follows in the footsteps of many Chinese horror films by taking traditional and spiritual folklore as its basis to tell what actually transpires to be a story of the power of love. This isn’t revealed until the info dump heavy final act and certainly isn’t something one would have predicted given the preceding 80 minutes worth of random flashbacks and random hokum.
It doesn’t help that we have no clue who Xu Peng or Ying Ning when we first meet them wandering around the misty old town, which admittedly is the case with any story but Ying Ning in her wedding dress is very confusing indeed. Without context, we can’t tell if the next scene of Ying Ning in hospital is a flashback or present day, which applies to much of the narrative for the next 30 minutes or so, making this infuriating to follow.
Some clarity gradually filters through this fog of haphazardness via piecemeal drips of information, such as Xu Peng’s proposal to Ying Ning, his tending to her comatose body in hospital and a flashback to their first meeting as students. A typically inauspicious start thanks to Xu Peng’s paint covered hands, they bond over art and the romantic image Xu Peng has of an old house, which becomes the painting at the exhibition.
Xu Peng suggested they marry in this very house which Ying Ning happily agrees to, even though it doesn’t really exist (or does it?) but before they marry, they both involved in a car accident, following which Ying Ning becomes ill. When she awakens both Xu Peng and the painting are gone, which she takes to mean he didn’t really love her and has decide to move on, leaving her in a funk which Tong Tong helps her break out of.
Aside from the opening sequence and the odd hallucination from Ying Ning, there has not been much in the way of scary content thus far – truth be told, this isn’t much of a scary film at all. A supernatural romance story perhaps but not scary, with only the creepy old crone landlady of the guesthouse being a spooky presence. When the girls meet the woman in red passing of Ying Ning’s painting as her own, she doesn’t exude any spectre like qualities only a sultry femme fatale-esque mystique.
Even as we head to the climax, the mood descends into comedy mode with the two ladies now joined by tubby tour guide Zhang Tian, who fancies himself as a ghost buster with a light up sword, calf hoof, and other worthless affectations he thinks will repel any evil spirits they encounter. The payoff is likely to be as contentious the messy opening half depending on whether one is expecting a good vs. evil struggle and not the Mills & Boon explanation of love and sacrifice.
However modest the budget is for this film – and some cheesy homemade CGI heavily implies this as the case – the visuals are rather stunning, boasting some compositions and atmospheric tableau in the old town segments. Lei Zi must be a huge Tsui Hark fan if the replicating of Hark’s trademark blue misty nights and random use of slow motion is any indication.
I’d like to be able to credit the cast more formally but not knowing their names prevents this but I can say the three female leads are rather fetching, whilst the really cute one playing Ying Ning does all the heavy lifting performance wise, proving adept at drama, comedy and emotional content.
Unless you have nothing better to do for 90-minutes, No. 69 House is an earnest effort to pass the time and is very nice to look at, but don’t expect much of it to make much sense.