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Plot: urbanites are haunted by strange apparitions in their luxurious villa.

Cold Pupil (冷瞳 or, alternatively, Dark Eye in some markets) is another Chinese ghost story. Not just any story. A Mainland China ghost story so inoffensive, so vanilla, so telegraphed and obvious that it might as well be a domestic drama or extremely light thriller. Well, this being a Mainland China production it is a drama, first and foremost, albeit one that flirts with surface elements of Asian ghost horror. Mediocre even by the very forgiving ghost horror standards of Mainland China Cold Pupil is enlivened only by the presence of the always enjoyable Chrissie Chau Sau-Na. If you found We Are Not Alone (2016), Verónica (2017) or the more recent Terrified (2017) “scary” and "tense", this will be right up your alley. For everyone else, this is another good example why it is best to avoid Mainland China out of principle. It truly speaks to the mediocrity of a feature when Midnight Hair (2014) becomes the better alternative.

The director of Cold Pupil is one Cheung Kwok-Kuen, an editor that took to directing. As an editor he received multiple Hong Kong Film Awards in the mid-to-late eighties. His editing credits span all the way back to 1972 and as a director he has developed a predilection towards Category II b and ghost horror features. His work runs gamut across genres with horror as the main focus. He was responsible for the absolutely deranged Snake Curse (2004) that makes Hisss (2009) sound like a good idea. He has become a better director over time even if Cold Pupil might not look like it. No. Scratch that. Cold Pupil looks exactly like a feature you’d expect from an editor. It’s slick and polished enough from a technical standpoint, except that it never develops a pulse. Even Haunted Sisters (2017) from director Mo Sa-Li was livelier than this, and he somehow managed to have a career after Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016). While it’s pretty enough it doesn’t make for a compellng viewing. Often it feels twice as long than it actually is, and it takes forever for something nothing substantial to happen.

To celebrate their latest victory in the cutthroat corporate world elderly businessman Mr. So (Lau Sek-Ming) offers his daughter Su Yuchen (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) a relaxing retreat in an opulent villa he has rented for the occasion. Joining Yuchen is So’s trusted associate Xu Bowen (Sam Lee Chan-Sam) and the free-spirited Kent Zhong (Calvin Sun Zu-Yang). Both vie for the attention, romantic and otherwise, of Yuchen. Their peace at the villa is disturbed when old man So suffers a heart attack for no apparent medical reason. The entire episode is enough for the three to rent the villa longer than originally scheduled. Just when peace and quiet has returned Yuchen claims she saw the apparition of a young woman. The two initially shrug it off as a figment of Yuchen’s all too vivid imagination after her father’s health scare. To take Yuchen’s mind off things the three head to the King’s Bar where they always get special attention from owner Fang Yuen (Zhang Shi-Xu). As the hauntings persist the three agree to install digital surveillance, in the form of portable digital cameras, all around the house to catch a glimpse of the red-dressed ghost. Her interest piqued Yuchen talks with the landlord (Wong You-Nam) about the building’s past and its history with previous tenants. Unbeknowst Yuchen and Kent happen upon a long-buried sordid family secret involving the Cold Pupil, one of Mr. So’s extramarital affairs (Izumi Liu Yu-Qi, as Liu Yu-Qi), and one startling revelation that Bowen is prepared to murder for to keep secret.

Even at an economic 90 minutes Cold Pupil fails to leave much, if any, impression – even after multiple viewings. As a ghost horror, or even as a thriller, there’s never any suspense and the lack of tension is exceeded only by the thinness of the proceedings. It’s incredible how it is simultaneously immensely belabored and convoluted as well as unbashedly shallow at the same time. For one the screenplay from Zhang Er and Yan Sufang is a staggering mess that does nobody any favors. The cinematography from Chen You-Liang is decent enough but is dull for the most part. The individual performances are tolerable enough, but these features are hardly the right place to look for emerging new talent. Lift to Hell (2013), however futilely, at least attempted to keep up the façade of horror. Suffice to say, Cold Pupil is anything but riveting. In fact Cold Pupil is so unengaging, stilted and superficial that you might as well start paying attention to other things. The cast, for one, has its share of familiar webmovie faces.

The most famous of the cast is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). By 2012 Chau had paid her dues after years and years of starring in Category II fodder of various stripe. Cold Pupil was indicative that she was commencing an upward trajectory in her career. In 2013 alone sweet Chrissie did 11 (!!) movies, among them Lift to Hell (2013), Kick Ass Girls (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Ghost horrors and fantasy wuxia have been something of a staple in Chrissie Chau’s filmography since debuting in 2006. It’s hard to imagine that Chrissie would star in the critically savaged Jing Wong comedy iGirl (2016) and a year later would win the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actress for 29+1 (2017). iGirl (2016) elevated Chrissie Chau Sau-Na to the mainstream and with Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018) from director Yuen Wo-Ping she landed her most prestigious project. Since then sweet Chrissie’s star continues to rise and it’s about time some brave Western director casts her in an English-language production. If Ni Ni (倪妮) can survive The Warriors Gate (2016) and Yu Nan (余男) was one of the reasons to stay awake for The Expendables 2 (2012) the world is ready for our girl Chrissie.

The other star, although more nominal compared to Chau Sau-Na, is Liu Yu-Qi (刘羽琦) or Izumi as the Japanese know her. Chinese netizens have dubbed her "Small Heavenly Queen of Adverts" or the "Most Beautiful Chinese Woman on the Web", depending on where you look. Liu Yu-Qi rose to fame in 2006 after winning the National Football Babe Competition and went on to star in numerous real estate - and beverage magazine adverts. After Cold Pupil she went on to star in the wuxia comedy Da Song Fei Wen Lu (大宋緋聞錄) (2017) as a rite of passage of sorts that virtually every up-and-coming Chinese actress has to go through at some point. That feature, of course, made extensive usage of Yu-Qi’s famous curvy 34D figure. Chrissie Chau isn’t given a whole lot to do, besides walking around in her nightie, taking a shower or a bath, and occasionally looking at herself in the mirror and (very badly) screaming her head off. Liu Yu-Qi is just there to look pretty and is killed off almost immediately after she’s introduced. Nothing is as Chinese as a pretty girl in a flowervase role. At least things have gotten better in recent years.

As much as Cold Pupil focuses on the romantic permutations of its fairly attractive cast, there isn’t nary any chemistry, or sexual tension, between any of them. Chrissie Chau Sau-Na and Calvin Sun Zu-Yang are supposedly longtime lovers, or at least romantically entangled for quite some time. Yet they play it as if they are brother and sister and thus are not in the least sexually or romantically interested in each other. In a flashback scene Liu Yu-Qi briefly is able to raise the temperature but with this being a Mainland China feature approved by the Film Bureau the scene is ended before something, anything, happens. There’s enough shower scenes for everybody, but none of them ever amount to anything.

Daniella Wang Li Danni in Midnight Hair (2014) and Zhang Lan-Yi in Haunted Sisters (2017) both had far more daring shower scenes in their respective movies, and the comparisons that have been made to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) are far-fetched, to say the least. Cold Pupil isn’t going to win anybody over with its originality and what little scares there are are completely telegraphed. Hong Kong, Korea, and Thailand do the ghost horror far better than China, by far. Also, who in their right mind casts Chrissia Chau Sau-Na and Liu Yu-Qi and does proceeds to do completely nothing with them? Talk of a waste of talent. There’s a case to be made that by 2013 sweet Chrissie was too good for inconsequential drivel like this. For years she had been working her way up from the muck of Mainland China webmovie exploitation – and if Cold Pupil is indicative of anything, it’s that Chrissie was on her way to bigger and better things. Mainland China ghost movies, sadly, remain as turgid (not to mention pointless) as ever.

Plot: hospital is haunted by apparitions and suspect slayings.

Ghosts are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and folklore. They were part of oral tradition before writing developed during the Shang Dynasty (1600 - 1046 BCE). From there out they came one of the earliest stories in ancient Chinese literature and they are very much part of everyday life in China to this day. The Chinese pantheon of ghosts and apparitions is especially interesting as it mixes ancient concepts of the cycle of life, death and rebirth with philosophical traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. In Chinese folklore there a multitude of different ghosts; some benevolent, some malevolent and the majority of them happen to be female. Roughly speaking there are three categories of female ghosts: the vengeful, the orphaned, and the hungry. The vengeful ghost seek retribution against those that wronged her in life, the orphaned ghost has no living descendants to offer libations in her name and thus she is forced to wander the mortal realm, while the hungry ghost is typically condemned for transgressions or wrongdoings engaged in during life. Just as in folklore and culture ghosts have been part of the Chinese cinematic landscape since the dawn of filmmaking. Asia has a long history in having some of the best ghost movies.

Whether it are classical examples like The Enchanting Shadow (1960), and The Ghost Of the Mirror (1974), post-modern fantasy-infused efforts like A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), or more contemporary outings as Ringu (1998), Ju-On: The Grudge (2002), Dark Water (2002), and The Eye (2002) Asia has a long history with ghost horror and has contributed many a classic to the subgenre. While hardly the worst of its kind Lift to Hell (電梯驚魂) occasionally manages to push the right buttons but isn’t exactly what you’d call riveting. It was based on the internet novel 18 Floors Underground (地下18層) by Bu Zhoushan Sanren and while we can’t vouch for how faithful it’s to the source material, it’s able to scrounge up an atmospheric scene here and there. Most of the time however Lift to Hell is, sadly, emblemic of Mainland China ghost horror at large in so many ways. It remains ever popular with young filmmakers due to how easy they are to make (consider them the Sino equivalent of found footage, slashers, or paranormal horrors) in general and the subgenre shows no signs of… well, giving up the ghost, you could say. Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia do this type horror far better, for all the obvious and not so obvious reasons.

In the old Peninsula Hospital in northern China head nurse Ma (Yang Qing) dies under mysterious circumstances one night after failing to take her medication. In her dying moments she remembers the 18th floor incident and the walls adorned with the words “today, it’s your turn!” written in blood. That same night Dr. Lin Fei (Blue Lan Cheng-Lung), son of hospital dean Dr. Lin Siyuan (Su De), sees what he believes to be a female ghost through the telescope from his flat in the opposite building when watching his girlfriend nurse Bai Jie (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). Lin Fei is not liked by everybody, the nurses like him well enough, but for senior heart surgeon Dr. Zhang Tiankai (Robert Lin) his youthful idealism are a grave annoyance. One day Tiankai is accused by a journalist of the Medical Daily of plagiarising a German medical dissertation for one of his recent publications. He assumes that since they had their professional differences that Lin Fei must be behind it. When the elderly doctor too receives a “today, it’s your turn!” note in his email, he commits suicide by jumping out of the window.

All of this prompts the hospital’s geriatric custodian Hu Wei (Cai Hong-Xiang) to try and exorcise the ghost. When Lin Fei tries to consult the custodian he finds him not only unreponsive but he too commits suicide driven mad by terror. The spate of mysterious deaths stoke the rumors of the hospital being haunted among nurses and staff. The mysterious deaths compel Lin Fei to dig deep into the case history of the hospital. Since Lin Fei was the last to see old man Hu alive the good doctor is, understandably, among the suspects. This forces Bai Jie to end their relationship to safeguard her own reputation and future employment. As Lin Fei plunges deeper into his investigation Bai Jei starts dating Lin Fei’s senior Dr. Ouyang Ke (Tse Kwan-Ho). As Lin Fei follows the clues he discovers a medical malpractice case the hospital went to extremes to cover up. Will he live long enough to exonerate himself off any alleged wrongdoing, uncover the sordid truth behind Dr. Ouyang Ke, the mysterious death of Ouyang’s mother Dr. Ye Zi (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) on the 18th floor, and the alleged ghost that now seems to haunt everybody involved with the case?

Since this was a production from the Film Bureau it guarantees two things: first, there will be nothing that could be in any way construed as offensive to Chinese cultural sensibilities and/or to the state-sanctioned Chinese national identity. Second, the Film Bureau is in the habit of contracting a lot of models in their productions. In this case the prerequisite model is Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau, the once-and-future Sino queen of cleavage, didn’t become a superstar overnight. She was a veritable internet phenomenom in and around 2009. In that capacity she was invited to the Knowledge Unlimited seminar at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology that year where she was unable to answer a number of philosophical and existential questions. A year later veteran actor Anthony Wong singled her out for criticism and ridicule as a pseudo-model (models without formal training and who don’t meet the criteria for catwalk models, what the Chinese refer to as lang mo) calling them “bimbos”. Second, after slaving away in thankless decorative and flower vase roles of no real weight or importance in romances, ghost horrors, and comedies for almost a decade Beach Spike (2011) was sweet Chrissie’s first genuine hit and signaled that her career was on the uptick. 2013 was a busy year for her. In just twelve months Chau was in a whopping 11 (!!) movies including, but not limited to, Kick Ass Girls (2013), Cold Pupil (2013), and The Extreme Fox (2013). Of course, since sweet Chrissie cuts a dashing 32D figure you can bet that she’ll be changing clothes and taking a shower. This being Mainland China everything always stays within the realms of respectability.

Even in such a target-rich environment as the Mainland China ghost horror scene Lift to Hell is an abomination. Mired with a mess of a screenplay as well as cinematography and special effects that range from decent to amateuristic Lift to Hell is hardly a vital contribution to the subgenre. How many completely telegraphed (not to mention, obvious) jump-scares and creepy shots of darkened interiors can you throw at the viewer before boredom inevitably sets in? This is about as close to furniture - or interior design porn as you’re likely to get. There are endless meandering semi-creepy digital effects shots of elevators that you’d swear this is a Sino take on The Lift (1983) (which it isn’t, although it tries very hard to). How many shots of sweet Chrissie looking misty-eyed or constipated does the world really need? Cold Pupil (2013) had the good grace to make Chau an active participant in the plot. In what little Lift to Hell distinguishes itself from any other Mainland China ghost horror is that sweet Chrissie is given the opportunity to play multiple roles. Not that that in itself in any way an innovation, it’s an age-old continental European gothic horror convention dating back at least to the mid-sixties. The only really interesting thing that the screenplay has on offer is the explanation for its ghost. Not that that is much of a compliment as this is what Mainland China ghost horror is rightly infamous for. The law forbids it. There are no, and will not be any, ghosts, ever, in a Mainland China ghost horror. There are some mild allusions to the Diyu (地獄, or "earth prison”) of Chinese folk religion (that blends concepts of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism) but nothing is ever done with it.

Once every blue moon Lift to Hell generates a pulse and when it does so it’s able to conjure up a decent spooky image or good sound design. However rare said occurances might be it’s faint praise for a production abiding by pretty much all of the tried-and-true conventions. Lift to Hell is so rife with clichés and contrivances that it’s more fun to predict what’s going to happen next than it’s interested in scaring the viewer. On the whole it’s closer to We Are Not Alone (2016) in that it’s a good enough little genre exercise but nothing particularly compelling or even all that well written. It’s not nearly as subtextually rich as Verónica (2017) or P (2005). Chrissie Chau Sau-Na is easy enough on the eyes but at this point Blue Lan Cheng-Lung was a bigger star than she was. This means Chau’s relegated to the default position of love interest and Lift to Hell gives her practically nothing to work with. Not that sweet Chrissie is able to lift elevate Lift to Hell beyond the trite and mediocre. Don’t go in expecting a contemplative, introspective slowburn as Nobuo Nakagawa's Jigoku: The Sinners of Hell (地獄) (1960) neither hope for a grotesque bloodfeast with Mario Bava-esque lightning and set design in the way of Teruo Ishii's Jigoku: Japanese Hell (地獄) (1999). China, or Hong Kong, has spawned far better crafted ghost movies than Lift to Hell. This is not it.