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A lavishly mounted suspense thriller, The Great Hypnotist offers a departure for its star and a homecoming of sorts for its director. Xu Zheng, who also serves as the film’s executive producer, is obviously trying to prove his mettle beyond the comedic métier which has propelled him to A-list status after the record-shattering hit Lost in Thailand; the Taiwan-born Leste Chen, meanwhile, is revisiting the genre of his breakthrough directorial debut The Heirloom (2005) before he morphed into an established rom-com operator on mainland China (with his latest hit being last year’s Say Yes).
With the pair’s aspirations all played out thanks to the resources they are privy to — the production is backed by the filmmaking arm of Dalian Wanda, the mega-conglomerate which purchased the AMC cinema chain in 2012 – The Great Hypnotist really seeks to mesmerize. Concluding this year’s Beijing International Film Festival on Apr. 24 before unspooling across mainland China on Apr. 29, the film boasts of excellent production values, sturdy performances and an ambitious plot zipping in between dream and reality, as a buoyant psychotherapist engages in a battle of wits with a mysterious and strangely belligerent patient.
It’s more than obvious that Hollywood cerebral blockbusters serve as a template for Chen and Xu: the enthralling mood-setting title sequence – a montage of scientific diagrams about time, space and the human mind – plays out like something out of a David Fincher movie, while the narrative itself bears more than a whisk of Inception. And indeed The Great Hypnotist beguiles until the inevitable big reveal arrives: rather than keeping it simple, the compounding twists – all apparently an effort to dial the melodrama up to 11 – is akin to the conjurer having his tricks stripped bare and reduced to a grand charlatan.
The disjointed denouement is a shame, given the film’s very poised start. In an opening sequence, Chen deftly illustrates his protagonist at work and seemingly at the top of his game: a middle-aged woman’s desperate attempts to escort a girl from a pursuing madwoman is revealed to be just a figment in a dream, as Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) appears within her reverie and tells her how the nightmarish scenario is just a figment in her imagination to suppress a trauma from yesteryear.
As the woman awakens, the camera zooms out and we are suddenly in a school hall: the patient’s sessions on Xu’s couch is actually being shown on a big screen as the therapist delivers what seems to be one of his trademark, packed-to-the-rafters lectures. A grandstanding performer, he makes his points in jest and puts down questioning students with a wave and a smirk; Chen (and his co-screenwriter Ren Peng) has even allowed Xu a cheeky in-joke here, as the shrink discusses the subliminal aspects of modern advertising – a pert remark, given the notoriety of blanket product placement in Chinese commercial filmmaking today. (The shrink’s point was made with a big McDonald’s logo behind him.)
And then, the fall: the common trajectory, it seems, of what we can now describe as a “Xu Zheng film,” in which the actor’s character, be it an arrogant business executive (in Lost on Journey or Lost in Thailand)or a successful lawyer (No Man’s Land), would inevitably be yanked from his yuppie complacency and forced to face the hard truths in life. Here, the beginning of the end comes when Xu’s mentor, Professor Fang (Lu Zhong), brings to him Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok): according to the matriarch-like academic, the young woman’s trauma was so great and her self-denial so overwhelming that she has already frustrated even veterans in the profession.
And so the struggle begins as Xu and Ren meet – and one can see from the very start who’s going to come out worse, as the shrink is matched step by step by his patient, and his sanity reduced gradually to smithereens (perhaps it’s not a coincidence he’s called Ruining). The ambivalence of the film’s title – so who’s exactly is “The Great Hypnotist” here – is perhaps made significant here; and as the attrition builds, Ren’s much-repeated question rings loudly: “It doesn’t matter what I saw – but why I saw them.”
It’s a question The Great Hypnotist seeks to unpeel and address: but unfortunately the answer is convoluted and hardly unconvincing. The film is at its best when it’s posited as a battle between the pair, with the balance of power gradually shifting; as Chen introduces more and more distractions into what could have been an effectively simple premise, logic flounders.
Just like a desperate illusionist panicking about being seen as too straightforward, the complications merely reveal his tricks – and so goes The Great Hypnotist, as even the most heightened suspensions of disbelief is tested to the brim with a challenge to the most basic tenets of the therapeutic profession and even human nature itself.
It’s not a good sign when the film had to spell out the intricacies of the truth in a five-minute finale – and if it’s not enough, there’s still an ending seemingly made to sound profound by offering the glib moral that “it’s only you who could forgive yourself”. It’s a whimper to conclude what could have been a remarkably effective visual and psychologically taut spectacle, a disappointing end to proceedings lit up by Charlie Lam‘s camerawork and Luo Shunfu‘s meticulous and stylish production design.
Venue: Closing Film, Beijing International Film Festival; opened Apr. 29, 2014 (mainland China)
Production Company: Beijing Golden Cicada Film, in a Wanda Media presentation
Director: Leste Chen
Cast: Xu Zheng, Karen Mok, David Wang, Lu Zhong, Hu Jing
Producer: Tina Shi, James Li
Executive Producers: Gillian Zhao, Abe Kwong, Cary Cheng, Xu Zheng
Screenwriters: Ren Peng, Leste Chen
Director of Photography: Charlie Lam
Art Director: Luo Shunfu
Editor: Yang Hongyu
Music: Benson Chen
International Sales: Wanda Media
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