Curse Of Lola (2005)

Directed by: Li Hong
Written by: Xiao Ya & Yeung Kong
Producer: Gordon Chan
Starring: Tian Yuan, Francis Ng, Sui Jun-Bo, Ng Yuk-Fong, Xiao Xiao, Yu Min-Zhen & Sun Yu-Cai

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On the opening night of the dance show "Lola" in China, star Xia Mei (Sui Jun-Bo) is murdered in her dressing room. In the room with her but seemingly not the perpetrator is Tian Yuan (played by...Tian Yuan) and before her, an unknown presence soon rejected. What happened and does among others, Tian's boyfriend Zhen Yu (Francis Ng) have anything to do with it? Or was it an it?

A Mandarin language co-production with Hong Kong and Mainland China, female director Li Hong decides to play around with genre conventions as much as she can and it's no wonder those few of us picking up on Curse Of Lola thought it was another horror flick. All around Asia and the world, you'll find filmmakers either capitalizing in big budget ways on someone else's good idea, those spending less and mimicking said ideas or those capable of gathering funds to make something of their own (The Pang Brother's The Eye stands as one such example). Enter Li Hong who obviously can't go on a spending spree but Curse Of Lola is equipped with gifts that clears a path to a brighter future. That path isn't dug extensively yet which is why this film is involving yet somewhat lacking.

Shot in drab and bleak style by Chan Chi-Ying (Just One Look), as written and then visually conceived, the film doesn't seem to thoroughly correspond to a concrete reality. People's motivations, actions and dialogue are not manufactured as such but structurally we are in film territory no doubt so Li Hong opts to play up our already tragic reality. Starting with the fact that she possesses some quite distinguishable pair of eyes. While distinct shots of dancing, shadow play and close-ups of objects connected or perhaps not to our mystery may seem like a cover for the fact that none of the content is fresh, in the end Li leaps above the cliché bar. Amazing since the character gallery involves the competing, scheming dance troupe females, a creepy old lady and an intuitive cop as head of the investigation. Yet a decently emotional mystery is delivered. Since the film becomes pretty much zero on the horror scale, you realize the eerie build-up in the visuals and sound did not ever come off as that but it's clearly intentional to toy a little with the audience. Up to you if you like to be screwed around and to follow a rather slow-moving, low-key sparsely told narrative.

And I of course would've taken out the critique whip if none of this worked but Li Hong manages to make some statements within the manufactured story. It's not a terribly complex puzzle and the diversions can be spotted miles away as being diversions but the stylized yet reserved cinematic language attracts me as a lazy/looking for intriguing cinema type of viewer. Li Hong has a template of relationships, lies and jealousy to work from and gets fairly engaging emotional engagement out of the story. She takes on the challenge of balancing and yet doesn't fall. Only thing is that the tightrope was never that challenging to begin with but hey, if goals are achieved, the effort is worth something don't you think?

Having one veteran and one new, talented kid as leads has its fair share to do with the fact that Curse of Lola goes somewhere. Opting to leave home for a bit but bringing sufficient weight over to the largely based Mainland crew, Francis Ng in putting in effort-mode offers up subtle strength, quiet dignity and confusion as a character along the way. No reference material but his subdued skills plays in everyone's favour for certain moments. Tian Yuan (1*) follows up her fine debut in Yan Yan Mak's Butterfly in a way that doesn't transcend that first film but is a pretty good continuation of what might be a fine acting career. The central mystery of the film rests much on her character as we know little of any potentially supernatural angle, scheming or scarred memories in her until the very end. She goes about her behaviour rather quietly and is still a little rough presence. She's clearly in great development however, has decent chemistry with Francis and an emotional scene talking about a haunting childhood memory heading towards the final act is convincingly handled. Speaking of that final act, not only are we as an audience a bit betrayed by the over explained ending but a critical moment utilizing CGI takes us almost out of the film. Speaking of tightrope, eh?

With fine cinematography, sound and music, Li Hong's Curse Of Lola takes us on a slight, quiet roller coaster ride and it's not until very late we know what kind of movie we're in. The tease is welcome, if not brilliant but many potential cliché traps are avoided with grace and the mystery leading up to the almost requisite tragic crescendo warrants attention. It's not the signs of an instant great talent but showing signs of being able to divide her time between the technical and narrative-driven, Li Hong has given us a minor blimp on the Hong Kong/Mainland Chinese cinema map. This can be worked upon.

The DVD:

Megastar presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.75:1 approximately, with anamorphic enhancement. Print displays minor wear but has fine colours and sharpness.

The original Mandarin track is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 only but utilizes fronts and rears well for atmosphere. Distractions appear in the form of various pops and cracks on the soundtrack (unless that's intentional?). The alternate Cantonese dub is in Dolby Digital 5.1.

The English subtitles contains no apparent spelling or grammar nosedives. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available. The trailer is the sole extra.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) Also the singer in the band Hopscotch, that had several songs featured in Butterfly, Tian Yuan also performs the closing credits song for Curse Of Lola, called "Wo He Ni".