Skip to content

Plot: young couple are haunted by ghosts in their new home.

Midnight Hair (夜半梳頭 or Comb your Hair in the Middle of the Night, released in some markets under the more simple title of Fatal Beauty), is another in a long line of, frankly, featureless and virtually interchangeable Mainland China ghost horrors that - two decades removed from the infinitely superior Ringu (1998), and a decade-plus from such diverse and atmospheric genre pieces as The Eye (2002), Ju-on (2002), and even Dark Water (2002) – bears more of a resemblance to Netflix fodder as We Are Not Alone (2016) and Verónica (2017). It’s anybody's guess why China insists on churning out these things en masse and it beggars belief why the Film Bureau insists on greenlighting so many of these things since they’re all the same anyway. Not even Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Haunted Sisters (2017) were as desperate and convoluted as this flaming trainwreck of a production. It has the ominous shadows, the stereotypical synth score, and enough completely telegraphed jumpscares to scare the non-horror fan witless. Much scarier of a prospect, however, is that Midnight Hair is so unbelievably uniform in its conformity that not even Daniella Wang Li Danni’s ample (and often gratuitously displayed) cleavage is able to offer any solace.

Daniella Wang Li Danni (王李丹妮) is a fashion model that was discovered on the 2010 China Fashion Underwear Model Contest. Wang is perhaps best described as the Amy Yip Ji-Mei of the Instagram generation. Chinese netizens have crowned Daniella “China's Goddess of Boobs” (never mind that Wang’s of Mongolian descent) because China has something of an obsession with boobs. Not that we mind. Whereas Yip became famous for her “Yip tease” (where she went to great lengths not to show anything in her contractual nude scenes, kind of like Chingmy Yau with Jing Wong) Wang’s early fame was built on exactly the opposite. Daniella did famously expose her bust (and pretty much everything else) in Due West: Our Sex Journey (2012) and Due West 2: Our Sex Vacation (2015). Unfortunately Daniella won’t be letting her famous puppies loose here with this being a Mainland China production. That doesn’t stop Midnight Hair from exploiting Wang’s presence and curvature to the fullest. Say what you will about Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜), Frieda Hu Meng-Yuan (胡梦媛), Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang (潘霜霜), Pan Chun-Chun (潘春春), Miki Zhang Yi-Gui (张已桂), Yang Ke (杨可), and Zhu Ke Er (朱可). They never had to lower themselves to the assorted indignities of the Category III genre. Believe it or not, Wang has actually managed to eke out a very respectable career on the big and small screen.

A Mu (Lee Wei) moves with his two months pregnant wife Le Xiaomei (Daniella Wang Li Danni) into the villa of his friend A Ming (Dai Xiang-Yu). Once they are settled in Xiaomei begins to see the apparition of a ghostly woman in the house, a painting that keeps reappearing no matter how many times she disposes of it, and a creepy doll that keeps turning up in the strangest places and times. The situation doesn’t get any beter when a series of boxes with threatening messages arrive at their doorstep. One day the couple visit the orphanage where A Mu and A Ming grew up together. Aunt Zhang (Sun Gui-Tian) tells Xiaomei how he maintained a long relationship with Gingqing (Yang Zi-Tong) that lasted well into adulthood, but acrimoniously ended when Gingqing left him for another man. Xiaomei comes to the realization that they ghosts that have been haunting her abode aren’t ghosts in the metaphysical sense, but ghosts from the past. Now that the secret of A Mu and A Ming is out, who can she trust?

Usually there are two types of Chinese ghost movies: those made in Mainland China and those produced outside of it. Typically (but not always) those made outside of the Mainland are far stronger in every aspect that matters. Places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and the Koreas have a good enough pedigree in that respect. Generally they are subject of laxer regulations and government censorship, and thus allow for more unbridled creativity, irrespective whether they are based on ancient folklore or more urban examples of the genre. Mainland China, being the hermetic and isolationist society that it is, is bound by a completely different set of government-sanctioned regulations than the rest of the country and its culturally similar neighbors. To dispense with the obvious (at least to anyone who has seen one or two of these things), Mainland China ghost movies never feature any actual ghosts, unless they are adapted from old folkloric tales. Anything in an urban setting typically never does. A good writer and director might be able to skirt around these regulations, but more often than not these productions are helmed by inexperienced younglings.

It’s easy to blame Daniella Wang Li Danni for this debacle, but in truth she’s merely a symptom of a far bigger problem that director Liu Ning and writer Tang Jia-Qi have allowed to fester. That is, despite all the convoluted plot twists and last-minute revelations, Midnight Hair is a garden-variety thriller (and not even a very good one at that) masquerading as a supposed ghost horror. It has all the basic hallmarks of a ghost horror (creepy dolls, ominous portraits, cryptic notes; dark shadows, plenty of telegraphed jumpscares, et al) yet by all accounts is a by-the-book thriller that isn’t exactly very riveting or thrilling, for that matter. The ghost aspect is preposterous to begin with because Mainland China doesn’t allow for ghosts per government rule. As a result many of these features tend to be on the vanilla side of perfunctory and bland in their stark utilitarianism. Often, once you have seen enough of these things, the most interesting part is guessing which convoluted excuse the writers used in whatever feature you happen to be watching to explain the non-appearance of a ghost. The writing isn’t exactly terrible with Midnight Hair, but it makes you wonder why they insisted on making this a supposed ghost horror when it worked beter as a thriller.

This being a general market release Daniella Wang Li Danni isn’t allowed to do much in terms of nudity and as such isn’t able to steam up these exceedingly dull proceedings the way you’d expect. There’s a strange duality to the way Midnight Hair treats its sole star. She painted as the stereotypical innocent ingénue and prerequisite damsel-in-distress for the majority of the feature, yet in the same breath she’s hypersexualized and (often for no discernable reason whatsoever) an unwilling victim of groping and extensive near-softcore cleavage shots and simulated lovemaking scenes. The obligatory shower scene is accounted for, and just like Bollywood filmmakers in the eighties director Liu Ning shows unexpected creativity in finding ways of keeping Daniella covered without resorting to optical fogging or having her wear a swimsuit. Unlike those ancient Spanish fantaterror flicks no nudity-heavy international market versions seem to exist and Midnight Hair is strictly aimed at the domestic market.

Just like Three On A Meathook (1972) or the more recent Mainland China ghost horror Haunted Sisters (2017) this one is also heavily indebted to Alfred Hitchcock’s masterclass in suspense Psycho (1960). It speaks to the inventiveness of Hitchcock’s most enduring work that filmmakers from every corner of the world and across genres are still imitating his innovations some 50 years after the fact. Midnight Hair does have the obligatory shower scene, but Chrissie Chau Sau-Na’s in Cold Pupil (2013) was at least somewhat in the general direction of the famous Janet Leigh scene. Neither offers up a gander of either actress’ figure in silhouette the way old Alfred did. The similarities with Psycho (1960) continue with the third act last-minute revelation as to the nature of the killer’s homicidal psychosis. Just like in Three On A Meathook (1972) there’s an amateurish info dump towards the end after which Midnight Hair abruptly ends, Italian style. William Girdler wasn’t able to handle it in the seventies, and neither is writer Tang Jia-Qi some four decades later. There’s a throwaway scene in the beginning where Midnight Hair implies it’s going to be a Chinese version of Candyman (1992), but that would require, you know, actual effort from the writer and director.

Were Midnight Hair to play to its mild giallo-lite strengths it might have been a whole lot more interesting. Since this is a Mainland China feature no such thing will be forthcoming. Had this been a straight-up whodunit or hyper-stylized murder mystery perhaps Midnight Hair could have been something. It would have certainly given Daniella Wang something to do. Had this been produced in Hong Kong it could have been a contemporary Amuck (1972), Strip Nude For Your Killer (1975), or The Killer Must Kill Again (1975) or even a lesser example of the form as The French Sex Murders (1972), Naked Girl Killed in the Park (1972), or The Sister Of Ursula (1978). The script from Tang Jia-Qi is certainly convoluted, labyrinthine and filled with enough familial dysfunction, kink, and mania to warrant comparison to the average giallo. Short on both suspense and pretty much bloodless Midnight Hair is closer to Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Haunted Sisters (2017) than to any of the classic Asian ghost horror of yore. Like so many of these Mainland China ghost horror features it is competently made but barely tends to leave any impression at all. It’s competent and featureless, just like the ghosts that typically inhabit this strangely popular subgenre.

Plot: scholar falls in love with a beautiful girl who might, or might not, be human.

The Extreme Fox (非狐外传) is about the last thing you’d expect from actor-producer-director Wellson Chin Sing-Wai. Chin started out as an assistant director under famed action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping and actor-producer-director Sammo Hung Kam Bo, and is a specialist in action and comedy, or some combination thereof. Wellson Chin is mostly known around these parts for helming the enduring action comedy franchise The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) or the Police Academy (1984-1994) from Hong Kong as well as the delightfully insane Girls with Guns actioner Super Lady Cop (1992) with Cynthia Khan. In recognition of his human interest features The Third Full Moon (1994), Once In A Life-Time (1995) and The Day That Doesn't Exist (1995) Chin has received multiple Film of Merit awards (in 1994 and twice in 1995) from the Hong Kong Film Critics Society. While primarily active in the environs of Hong Kong Chin occassionally branches out into Mainland China and The Extreme Fox is a good example of a director doing a genre he isn’t typically associated with.

As far as we can tell The Extreme Fox is a loose adaptation of the short story The Painted Skin from Liaozhai Zhiyi, or Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, from Qing Dynasty writer Pu Songling. Songling’s writing has been the basis for a variety of adaptations including, among others, The Enchanting Shadow (1960), and its famous Tsui Hark reimagining A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), Green Snake (1993), Painted Skin (2008), Mural (2011), and Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016), and is considered a timeless monument of Classical Chinese literature. The beauty of many of Songling’s stories is that they can be interpreted as either tragic romances or horror stories, depending on how you choose to read them. The Extreme Fox chooses the romantic aspect with only the bare minimum of horror scenes required to tell the story. While Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016) was the more faithful adaptation it never quite reaches the heights of The Extreme Fox, which as far as perfectly serviceable period-costume romances is concerned, is on the smoother end of unremarkable and utilitarian. It never exhibits the creativity of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) neither does it possess the thick fairytale quality of Green Snake (1993). In those times before the hypnotically beautiful The Enchanting Phantom (倩女幽魂:人间情) (2020) this was a fairly faithful adaptation. Filmed in Hong Kong and aimed at the Mainland China market The Extreme Fox is extremely well-produced and beautiful to look at for what, for all intents and purposes, is a cheap webmovie.

Over the years we’ve taken quite a shine to Chrissie Chau Sau-Na (周秀娜). Chau rose to fame as a lang mo model with her 2009 and 2010 photobooks. Even though sweet Chrissie debuted in 2006 it wouldn’t be until Womb Ghosts (2010) four years later until it became apparent that she wasn’t just another model that stumbled into acting. Chau - famous for her 32D figure and the once-and-future queen of cleavage - was a spokesmodel for luxury lingerie brand Lamiu and in 2012 released her own lucrative bra line. In 2013 Chrissie appeared in 11 (!!) movies, among them Cold Pupil (2013), Lift to Hell (2013), and Kick Ass Girls (2013). In a career now spanning over a decade and sixty-plus productions Chrissie has worked everywhere from Hong Kong, and China, to Taiwan and Malaysia. Chau has played everything from the imperiled love interest, the enchanting spectral maiden, and the tough as nails action girl to more stereotypical romantic - and comedic roles. To our knowledge she never played a mermaid when that was something of a minor thing in Chinese webcinema a few years ago. Hampered by the same problem as Betty Sun Li (孙俪) and many far less than prominent (or talented, for that matter) Mainland China actresses Chrissie’s only fluent in her native Mandarin and Cantonese and she seems content to remain in regional and cultural borders. It’s unclear whether Chrissie speaks English (her Western social media at least suggest some basic knowledge and mastery of English, but her usage of it is inconsistent) and, if so, if she would be able to break into the Anglo-Saxon world in the same capacity as Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Q, Fan Bingbing, Yu Nan, and Ni Ni have.

In ancient Beijing narcoleptic Confucian scholar Wang Sheng (Alex Fong Lik-Sun) remains steadfast in his ambition to become a public servant in the bureaucracy of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Unfazed by the fact that he has failed the Imperial Examination three times in a row already, he travels to a small, sleepy farming hamlet in the village of Liuxian in the province of Wuxia. Liuxian has apparently been haunted for some time by a Kitsune or a fox spirit (why refer to it by its Japanese name if this is supposed to be ancient China?) if the Mayor (Lam Suet) is to be believed. Unable to afford bed and board Wang attracts the attention of gambling con artist Xiao Cui (or Glitter of Dawn) (Renata Tan Li-Na) and a very superstitious local girl (Cai Zi-Fen) before tavern hostess Li (He Mei-Tian) throws him out into the streets. He travels to the Miduo temple and is stunned to meet the beautiful Xianer (or Rosy Clouds Inside) (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na). What Sheng doesn’t realize is that Xianer is actually Princess Xianxia (Noble Summer or Noble Glow of Sunrise) who has spurned her lover General Wu Zhen (Huang Jun-Qi) and now exists as a húli jīng or nine-tailed fox. As Wang Sheng and Xianer face dangers, both ethereal and terrestrial, together a deep romance blossoms between the embattled fox spirit and her virtuous mortal suitor.

That The Extreme Fox is heavily redolent of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) goes almost without saying. Chrissie gets to wear a few beautiful dresses, there’s plenty of shots with Chrissie in a mist-shrouded forest, a condensed variation on the bathtub scene, but there’s no instances of Chau playing a guqin or singing. Neither are there any instances of martial arts, swordsplay, or characters breaking into impromptu song-and-dance numbers. Understandable as this was shot on the budget of the average television movie. The Extreme Fox is, fortunately, vastly superior in every respect than the ghost horror Ghost Story: Bride with Painted Skin (2016) while never reaching the epic scope of Painted Skin (2008), and Painted Skin: The Resurrection (2012) either. The Extreme Fox sits comfortably in between and truly makes the best of what it could accomplish on a limited budget. To its everlasting credit it’s far more faithful to its source material than Wilson Yip Wai-Shun’s A Chinese Ghost Story (2011) with Liu Yi-Fei (劉亦菲) from two years before. The production value is surprisingly decent for a webmovie for the Mainland China market. Had this been produced in Hong Kong it probably would feature a lot more action, but The Extreme Fox works the best as a supernatural love story. The two female name-stars apparently ended up on opposite ends of the cinematic spectrum. Renata Tan Li-Na would end up in the well-intended Girls With Guns action feature Angel Warriors (2013) and hasn’t acted since 2016, whereas Chrissie Chau Sau-Na has become a respected and respectable A-lister.

If your only exposure to Wellson Chin Sing-Wai was the The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988-1992) franchise and the loopy Cynthia Khan HK actioner Super Lady Cop (1992) you’d never expect him to be able to conjure up something as delightfully old-fashioned as this. It never quite reaches the lofty heights of Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) but that doesn’t stop it from at least trying to channel its essence. The Extreme Fox is closer in spirit to A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) than the ill-fated 2011 remake was. Joey Wong’s performance as the condemned ghost maiden is legendary for a reason, and Chrissie Chau Sau-Na does a close approximation of it here. On average (and given its slightly higher budget) Chau does a better nine-tailed fox than Shin Min-a (신민아) in the South Korean television series My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho (내 여자친구는 구미호) (2010). We would have preferred a prosthetic mask for the partial transformation scenes but digital is the way of today, so there’s that. Alex Fong Lik-Sun is tolerable enough as the clumsy and kind-hearted scholar but he’s no match for the late Leslie Cheung in one of his most memorable roles. Perhaps it’s the nature of the beast with this being a Pu Songling adaptation, but at key points The Extreme Fox re-enacts scenes from A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) sometimes almost verbatim. The most notable among these are the opening kill of an intrepid male wanderer, the truncated bathtub scene (albeit without the drifting rose petals, Chrissie Chau losing various articles of clothing, or any of the situational humour), and the scholar warding off various unholy forces of evil with a merry band of different allies. For reasons largely unexplained the nine-tailed fox (狐狸精) is referred to here by its Japanese name. Even the Korean gumiho (구미호) is more recognizable on average.

As it stands The Extreme Fox not only is one of the better Pu Songling adaptations, but also a Chrissie Chau Sau-Na feature that can be actively recommended for the casual viewer. It never becomes an epic or grand adventure on the scope of Mural (2011) but it compensates its lack of impressive setpieces with an abundance of dream-like atmosphere and a screenplay that understands the strengths of the story it’s adapting. It might not possess the oneiric, fairytale quality of Green Snake (1993), and in fact etches closer towards the stageplay quality of the Shaw Brothers classic The Enchanting Shadow (1960) from some five decades earlier. Mainland China has an abundance of fantasy wuxia on the small – and big screen, and the quality tends to be wildly divergent depending on any number of variables. The Extreme Fox comes to us by way of the Film Bureau which is usually never an indication of quality. Thankfully the opposite is true, and The Extreme Fox is a fantasy wuxia for a general audience. It might not be a match for Tsui Hark’s most celebrated works but it admirably rises to the occassion of transcending any number of limitations imposed upon it. That should count for something, and there’s Chrissie Chau Sau-Na too. Let’s not forget her….