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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 Enchanted 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 elevator 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.

Plot: Xi Li-Ya vows to wreak havoc on One-Eyed for killing her father.

The Return Of the Shelia (希莉娅归来) is the second part - more of a continuation rather than a true sequel - of Mad Shelia: Virgin Road (瘋狂希莉婭) (2016) from a year before. Since it came from the same eight-month shooting as the original there isn’t much, if any, difference between the two. Instead of having bigger set pieces, wilder chases, and more explosive action The Return Of the Shelia is… well, more of the same. It’s the second half of the story that should have been part of the first, but for some unfathomable reason never was. Mad Shelia (2016) didn’t end on a cliffhanger; it abruptly ended in the middle of the story and called it a day. Fu Xiao finally gets to do something in the movie bearing her name, and Lu Lei at long last manifested that he was not nearly the hack his early work might make him out as. All of which a long way of saying that The Return Of the Shelia is not only the epic conclusion to the not-so-epic Mad Shelia mini-saga, but probably Mainland China’s most enduring webmovie classic of the past several years.

The Far East has always had a rich and storied history in exploitation filmmaking. Once budgets in Hong Kong dwindled a cotton industry sprung up in Taiwan, and Malaysia. Japan, Thailand, and Indonesia themselves all had regional exploitation industries that spawned a veritable slew of classics across genres themselves. Mainland China, with its government-mandated censorship and the restrictive laws enforced by the Film Bureau, lagged behind for a long time for exactly those reasons. As far as we’re aware the wangluo da dianying (网路大电影) or webmovie is a fairly recent phenomenon, one that grew parallel with streaming services and their need for content. The 2010s heralded an exploitation resurgence of sorts as now movies were produced fast and cheap for streaming services and delivered straight to the customer without any middleman. With box office returns no longer a concern this meant that every niche imaginable could be catered to as long as the movies in question were beholden to the law. Where the West relies on DIY and underground filmmaking the East is, once again, ahead of the curve – pioneering a practice that hasn’t caught on in the West yet.

After escaping an all-out assault from roving gangs in the desert Mad Shelia (Fu Xiao), reformed bounty hunter Bo En (Gu Quan), and madly babbling vagrant Shadiang (Li Da) continue their journey to Oil City. Meanwhile, as the smoke clears and the chaos of the assault subsides, it dawns upon Ore City ruler Fei Biao (Tian Jin Xi-Ge) and the Peach Blossom brothers Red Peach (Yue Han) and Spade (Wang Jia-Qiang) from Island Country that Chang Mao (Shi Xiao-Fei) and his Wild One gang have taken to chasing Mad Shelia for their own gain. The two parties decide that perhaps they’re better off working with instead of against each other. All three parties run into One-Eyed (Li Yan) and his armed forces. He suggests that all gangs put their vendettas and territorial disputes aside, and form an alliance in pursuit of their common goal: Mad Shelia. The Wild One gang takes the lead, and the newly forged union runs into an ambush. A clash follows and One-Eyed executes all of his former allies in cold blood. After an extended chase and the inevitable explosive confrontation that follows Mad Shelia, Bo En, and Shadiang emerge victorious. Once arrived in Oil City capital the Duchess (Na Duo) says that the title of Duke should rightly go to Bo En. He, however, passes the title onto virtuous Shadiang believing him to restore justice and order in the city. Shadiang meanwhile is happy he finally gets to enjoy the company of the Duchess, and the two dimwitted but comely court maidens (Wang Yi and Wang Ru) he so long pined after.

As this is just the second half of material shot during the same eight-month period that birthed Mad Shelia (2016) the same critiques apply. A production like this would have benefitted tremendously from live pyrotechnics and old school prosthetic/practical effects. There’s an almost Eurociné and Neil Breen quality to some of the shoot-outs, the wounds, and the props. You don’t truly appreciate the level of care and attention to detail that went into the weapon replicas that Peter Jackson manually produced for his horror comedy debut Bad Taste (1987) until you see what they use here. The rare prosthetic effect used for bodily carnage is uniformly and universally cheap, and thankfully the camera never dwells on them long enough. While the usage of digital effects is understandable from an economic point of view it still doesn’t change that most of them usually have an adverse effect instead. The few explosions that do occur would have been so much better with actual pyrotechnics, and the firefights feel stilted and miss the gravitas, the weight, and the impact they need to impress. Vehicular damage, smoke, fire, and just about everything that cost yuans is done digitally. The slow-motion chases are legendary by this point, and you know a movie is in trouble when Angel Warriors (2013) and Ameera (2014) become the better options.

Not that Lu Lei hasn’t redeemed himself since the Mad Shelia days but it remains a sore point. This could have been so much bigger and better. Everything just looks one or two several paygrades below what it should’ve probably been. Fu Xiao does her best with what little writer Yu Huan-Huan gives her. The action direction from Lei Zhen-Dong is, well, non-existent – and it’s no surprise he has never worked again. Few hand-to-hand sequences occur, and when they do they possess no sense of weight or scale. The “welcome to my private warehouse” scene is a direct abridged re-creation of the corresponding scene in the Mexico segment from Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). The poster art is misleading in that it makes The Return Of the Shelia looks much larger than it actually is. Not that it’s the first time that an exploitation movie is guilty of that particular offense, the genre is littered with larger-than-life promises, misleading poster art, and deceiving promo trailers across several decades. The thing is that China normally does this kind of thing far better. The HK actioners that are Mad Shelia’s most logical precursors also often were cheap affairs, but they always had that something. Outside of the novelty factor Mad Shelia has very little going for it, except Fu Xiao. And it’s unfortunate that she has so little to do here. This is very much an instance of Nemesis 2: Nebula (1995) and Nemesis 3: Time Lapse / Prey Harder (1996) all over again. Mad Shelia could’ve been something – but apparently that wasn’t in the cards.

And what did Lu Lei do after the excursion into Mongolia that was Mad Shelia? Well, he directed the Fox-Spirit trilogy. First, he did A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) or a budget re-enactment of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and followed it up with the two-part A Fox's Story (2019) mini-saga. While that was a counterfeit version of Tsui Hark’s big budget fantasy wuxia The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) it too was guilty of the same sins as Mad Shelia and its sequel. For hitherto undisclosed reasons A Fox's Story (2019) too was awkwardly cut into two chapters. And just like Mad Shelia (2016) they don’t make a lick of sense if you happen to see them out of order. A constant in Lu Lei’s recent endeavors is Fu Xiao, and his later works give her far more to work with. She’s far better in A Fox-Spirit Story (2017) and A Fox's Story (2019) than she’s here. While The Thousand Faces Of Dunjia (2017) has its own problems, A Fox's Story (2019) is an almost scene-per-scene re-enactment of the Tsui Hark production, and it’s admirable in the sense that somebody saw it fit to imitate it on such a minuscule budget. It’s the sign of the times possibly. There’s nothing that Mainland China can’t imitate on a fraction of the budget and with none of the talent. If Mad Shelia and The Return Of the Shelia are testament to anything, it’s that exploitation is alive and kicking in 21st century China. Here’s hoping we get a no-budget Disney Star Wars (2015-2019) imitation soon.