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.