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.