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Plot: young tech employee meets a girl who might, or might not, be a cyborg.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, wrote English writer Charles Caleb Colton famously in 1820. It’s an old adage that rings true across various spectrums of the art world but none illustrates it better than cinema. Entire national cotton industries were spawned to accomodate imitations of the latest cinematic trends. Italy dominated the market for such ventures from, say, the sixies through eighties – but the rest of Meditterranean Europe (especially Spain) and the Philippines were never close behind. The Far East has a long cinematic tradition of the sometimes quite bizarre. In recent years China has emerged as number one in imitating popular movies from the world over on a fraction of the budget and without any of the talent. The Temptation of the Maid (released regionally as 超能萌女友 or Super Cute Girlfriend and The AI Housemaid, depending on your preference) is a Chinese reimagining and partial merging of two popular Japanese movies from a decade prior. As always with these kind of ventures it behoofs one to see the originals prior to this tolerable derivation.

Whenever a movie reaches a certain point of cultural – or critical mass regional imitations are bound to follow. The Temptation of the Maid (or alternatively The AI Housemaid, as it will be referred to hereafter) from director Xu Zeyu is not only a loose remake of Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but attempts to tug on the heart strings very much in the way of Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009) and even has Zhang Lijun dressing up as a French chambermaid just like Bae Doo-na did in the earlier movie. The AI Housemaid fares as well as you’d expect under what are far from optimal circumstances, most of which can be leveled at the screenplay from Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao as well as this being a Q1Q2 production. Both men understand what made Jae-young Kwak’s original work so well yet their screenplay blunders in some pretty crucial areas. A few details have been changed around to hide the obvious thievery and the men even stumble onto a good idea occassionally either intentionally or by mistake. Suffice to say The AI Housemaid never come close to My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) in terms of emotional resonance, although it never stops trying.

In a surge of electricity white-hooded Xiao Xia (Zhang Lijun) appears in a parking garage in Shanghai. There she runs into an understandably confused Sam Jiaoshou (Cao Shengming) from who she picks up speech patterns and a simulacrum of humanity. In a department store in the city she runs into Cao Xiaoming (Chen Yuan) who is in the process of buying himself a present for his 32nd birthday. There Xiao Xia steals some expensive clothes, walks funnily in front of him and buys a cake at the bakery. The two end up Xiaoming’s favorite restaurant and, after an extended detour across the city, Cao realizes that Xiao Xia (or Little Summer) isn’t a ghost, a stray, or a beggar girl, and decides to take his new companion to his apartment. There he learns that she’s a cyborg sent to him by his senior aged, paralyzed future self (Fang Shialing) to look after his needs in the present time. At first he’s irked by Little Summer’s child-like antics but he eventually warms up her innocence and naivety. As an employee at a technology company Little Summer inspires him to invent a line of housemaid cyborgs, prompting Sam Jiaoshou to stage the world’s worst planned home invasion to obtain said designs. As always The AI Housemaid intervenes and diffuses the situation. Many years pass and Cao Xiaoming has fallen deeply in love with Little Summer. He realizes that The AI Housemaid has changed his destiny several times by just being with him.

At the forefront of Chinese cinema in the past several years have been the Film Bureau and Q1Q2. Both have been flooding the Internet with some of the cheapest (and, occasionally, good) productions across a variety of genres. Whereas the Film Bureau usually helms moderately budgeted genre pieces Q1Q2 always manages to do whatever the Film Bureau does far quicker, cheaper and with considerably less star-power. Before anything else The AI Housemaid is a largely faithful Mainland China remake of the Japanese movie My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) from a decade before. For the most part The AI Housemaid is able to work around its more obvious budgetary limitations (there is no grand disaster set to happen, special effect shots are kept to a minimum as is Zhang Lijun’s wardrobe, and choreography-centric action are fazed out almost entirely). What keeps The AI Housemaid from reaching its full potential is a widely uneven screenplay that checks all the boxes for a remake, occasionally wanders into a good idea but most of the time staggers around with no sense of direction. The pre-credit opening montage gives the impression that The AI Housemaid will be going for Cutie Honey: Tears (2016) production design but no such thing will be forthcoming.

My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was Jae-young Kwak’s love note to James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The AI Housemaid ends up imitating several of the Terminator inspired scenes from the original but apparently has no idea why they were there in the first place. Most of the key scenes have some kind of equivalent in The AI Housemaid and where the screenplay deviates from the Japanese original is typically where it falls short too. The only thing that the screenplay by Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao actually improves upon is by giving the cyborg a name and making her the viewpoint character. The AI Housemaid is, first and foremost, the story of Little Summer whereas My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was ostensibly told from Jiro’s perspective. Chen Yuan is scruffy and likeable enough but he’s no Keisuke Koide. Not even by a long shot. In her part news anchor Zhang Lijun (张丽君) is adorable enough but Yang Ke, Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang, Ada Liu Yan, Patricia Hu, Liu Zhimin, or Ni Ni (neither of whom this production could possibly afford) would’ve been a far better fit for the part that Haruka Ayase played. Despite that one major improvement, The AI Housemaid never becomes more than the sum of its various borrowed parts.

The initial meet-cute on the streets is virtually identical and it even copies the same joke (Cao Xiaoming crashes into a lamppost), like Haruka Ayase in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) Zhang Lijun too zaps someone in the mall (not with her eyes, but with her fingertips), and the obligatory dance scene is rather improvised compared to the “do the robot” dance scene in the original. In The AI Housemaid it’s Lijun who gorges on spaghetti the way Keisuke Koide did in the original and the inciting incident is a home invasion instead of a restaurant shooting. Both cyborg girls project a holographic recording from their future masters out of their eyes but with Little Summer there’s no dramatic build-up to the third act resolution. That Xu Zeyu and Zhang Miao don’t grasp the original’s far more subtleler moments is abundantly clear through out. There’s no equivalent to the “thumbs up” scene, there’s no pet named Raoul (or a counterpart for such), and Cao Xiaoming doesn’t travel back to his hometown either. One of the most genuinely touching moments in My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) is when Jiro breaks up with Cyborg She in a confused, drunken stupor and immediately regrets his decision afterwards. When the Tokyo earthquake hits and the two confess their feelings for each other it offers a profoundly moving emotional resolution to the second act conflict. The AI Housemaid blunders most catastrophically by not setting up any meaningful conflict or break-up in whichever form and thus there’s no dramatic tension. When Cao Xiaoming and Little Summer do get together in the third act it irrevocably rings hollow as neither has experienced any sort of growth or arc.

In recent years there has been a considerable influx of mostly Chinese imitations. Whether it’s the more conceptually ambitious and action-oriented Super Robot Girl (2015) or more plain comedic exercises as Jing Wong’s iGirl (2016) (with Chrissie Chau Sau-Na, Connie Man Hoi-Ling, and Joyce Cheng Yan-Yi), Heavenly Machine Maid (2017) (with Liu Zhimin), the Mainland China iGirl (2017), or Be Careful! Single Pain (2018) (with Wu Hao) they all draw heavily from either Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) or Hirokazu Kore’eda’s Air Doll (2009). More often than not they seem hellbent on combining the two to varying levels of success. What they all invariably have in common is that sooner or later one or more of the cyborg girls will end up in a French chambermaid costume. Another thing these imitations all have in common is a tendency to be emaciated in terms of plot and feature tubby, blackrimmed glasses wearing socially handicapped nerd types in need of a confidence boost. The cycle of otaku fantasy fulfillment movies aren’t all that surprising in light of China’s fairly recent adoption of Japanese culture and entertainment. The problem of socially withdrawn youths or hikikomori seems to be manifesting in China as well. That domestic cinema would pick up on that shift seems only natural and logical. A decade-plus removed from the original it’s puzzling that there has been neither an American or Bollywood remake at this point, especially in light of the original My Sassy Girl (2001).

That there was going to be a world of difference between The AI Housemaid and My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) was all but expected given the decade between both. Given the modesty of its budget it never was going to be able to compete with the original and its muddy screenplay only serves to make matters worse. Had this been given the big budget remake treatment then perhaps it would have fared better. Most remakes try to recreate the magic from the original without always grasping what exactly inspired said magic in the first place. The AI Housemaid is no different in that regard. It slavishly recreates many scenes from My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) but hardly, if ever, understands why they worked so well in the original. Vanilla Sky (2001) was a soulless Hollywoodization of the Spanish fantastique Open Your Eyes (1997), the American The Ring (2002) and The Eye (2008) barely understood why Ringu (1998) and The Eye (2002) worked so well within their respective cultural confines. After all China’s CCTV6 remade National Treasure (2004) as The Empire Symbol (2013). Remakes that improve upon the original are far and few to begin with. The AI Housemaid is a valiant attempt to interpret a Japanese/Korean movie for a Mainland China audience and, to a certain degree, it works as intended. More importantly, however, is that The AI Housemaid never resonates quite in the same way as Jae-young Kwak’s original work from whence it was derived. As hard as it might try The AI Housemaid is not the sprawling romance it probably ought have been – and that’s a pity because Chinese culture is usually better attuned to this sort of thing.

Plot: thirty-something girl anxiously awaits her date… or is she?

Spain has always been fertile ground for fantastic – and horror cinema. With several decades of history to draw from and the old masters rightly enshrined as the innovators that they were Spain never really stopped producing horror or weird cinema. Over the last twenty years Álex de la Iglesia and Jaume Balagueró have been the prime names associated with Iberian terror and suspense and the country continues to produce horror at a steady pace. Over the past several years Norberto Ramos del Val has been producing low budget horror and terror. Lucero is our first exposure to his work and since then he has directed, among others, Heaven In Hell (2016) and Killing Time (2022). It’s impossible to gauge how important he will become to Spanish fantaterror, but new blood is never bad. Whether he is the de la Iglesia or Balagueró for this generation only time will tell.

In the Lucero barrio (neighborhood) of Madrid 34-year old Eva (Claudia Molina) attends the Sacrament of Penance during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) procession. After returning to her apartment it becomes clear that Eva is mentally unstable and deeply unwell. She is interested in witchcraft and has the literature to prove it. On top of that, she’s probably neurotic, is constantly itchy, and possibly suffers from OCD. Her boyfriend Angel (Edgar Calot) has left her – and she’s understandably saddened and frustrated with the whole situation. Tonight she has a date with Lucas (Jaime Adalid) and she’s fighting against the hours for him to arrive. As the shades of night descend it dawns on Eva that her date might not be coming tonight or at all. This triggers her anxiety even further and as memories of her time with Angel wash over her she sinks deeper into depression and loneliness. As Eva is consumed by paranoia and explores the deepest chasms of her soul a terrifying secret is bound to surface…

The opening montage with all the footage from Madrid and Claudia Molina in high couture sort of gives off the vibes that this might turn into a modern day giallo but once Lucero settles on the apartment as its one and only location any such pretensions or ambitions are, sadly, instantly abandoned. At a brisk 68 minutes it still takes forever for something nothing substantial to happen – and when it does, it happens oh so very, very slowly. For a good 53 minutes Lucero sort of flows glacially (or serenely, whichever you prefer) with no apparent direction or specific destination in mind until it suddenly explodes into a phantasmagoria of Satanic covens and full frontal situational nudity. The only novelty (if it can be called that) that Norberto Ramos del Val introduces is that Lucero has no dialogue whatsoever. None. Not a single line is uttered. It might seem like an odd creative choice at first but on second glance it seems perfectly logical.

And then there’s the title itself, Lucero, that can refer to any number of things. For starters, there’s Venus, the morningstar. Second, it’s also another name for Lucifer, which probably goes a long way explaining the skeletally thin Satanic cult subplot that really begged further exploring as well as the international market title Fallen Angel that this has gotten in some territories. If Lucero accomplishes anything it’s making us wanting to see more of Claudia Molina. Molina wonderfully succeeds in carrying what little story there is all by her lonesome. This being Spanish the bathtub scene (and the fact that Eva doesn’t utter a single syllabel for about 68 minutes) suggests that Ramos del Val probably has seen Female Vampire (1973). The solitary kill scene is effective in its brevity and functional minimal gore. It sort of echoes She Killed In Ecstasy (1971) passively and the coven scene indicates that Ramos del Val has seen his fair share of either Jean Rollin or any early seventies Meditterranean horror of your preference. Sadly, this is also where Lucero wastes most, if not all, of its potential. There’s so much here and so very little is done with it. Hopefully one day Ramos del Val will make the Satanic coven and witchcraft (lesbian or otherwise) movie that’s alluded to here.

If you were feeling charitable perhaps Lucero could be described as a Spanish take on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) but truthfully this is closer to Pål Sletaune’s hugely atmospheric and occassionally gripping Next Door (2005). Except that that had actual characters and story – and this not necessarily does. There’s only so much a naked Molina in the third act and a sufficiently ethereal ambient score (that could have come from Simon Boswell or Michael Stearns) can possibly redeem. The problem isn’t so much what Lucero is but what it could have been. Some dialogue would have worked wonders here. As much as the non-verbal route allows the viewer to project whatever they want onto what they see informed by their own experiences, it also makes the entire thing inconsequential on its face. An entire Jean Rollin or Paul Naschy type fantastique could be extracted from the coven and witchcraft scenes. For most of the time Lucero is closer to the oeuvre of Rene Perez than to Paul Naschy. Much more of a moodpiece rather than a character study Lucero is style over substance.