The Returning (1994)

Directed by: Jacob Cheung
Written by: Jacob Cheung, Raymond To & Lee Chi-Ngai
Producer: Chung Chun
Starring: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Wu Chien-Lien, Sandra Ng, Fredric Mao & Joe Chung

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1995:
Best Actress (Wu Chien-Lien)
Best Supporting Actress (Sandra Ng)
Best Cinematography (Arthur Wong)

Chung (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is a magazine editor whose latest project is to compile the works of artist Siu Lau. To get the utmost feel, he even moves into her old house with his girlfriend Elaine (Wu Chien-Lien). Rumor has it that the place is haunted though and right on cue, Siu Lau begins manifesting herself slowly, setting her sights on Chung...through Elaine. An already frail relationship goes through its biggest test...

With Jacob Cheung at the helm, The Returning certainly isn't just another horror movie and probably wouldn't had been if had come out post Ring-craze even. Directing this with the UFO team such as Lee Chi-Ngai and Peter Chan supporting, The Returning is also clearly ripe for cliché target practice in terms of what we know of ghost/horror movies. The haunted house goingons, possession, jealous spirits...yep...most of them aspects are all here. While Cheung's film doesn't come out fully on top, I'm happy to report that he executes the ghost/horror well.

Pushing the classic familiar buttons, mostly taking place within the stylized house set, Cheung rarely sets out to startle but with a low-key approach, he successfully weaves an atmosphere of fair dread and unnerving tension, even well-before the possession storyline starts transforming into the emotional battle that The Returning is at heart. If there's a fault in Cheung's creation, it is the overuse of the ol' gothic choir score that goes awfully over the top places for even the smallest happenings but as a demo for how to inject slight freshness into seen, heard and felt clichés in the horror genre, Cheung's effort is a good example.

Turning his attention to the character drama revolving around Chung and Elaine's turmoil as a couple reveals the most interesting angles of the story (penned by Cheung, Raymond To and Lee Chi-Ngai with story credit going to Peter Chan). For once, the characters are quick to recognize that they are actually dealing with a supernatural being and it's an highly interesting setup for Tony Leung's character as we're not sure who he's drawn to and sees happiness with; his living girlfriend or the vengeful spirit within her body?

All is told without the aid of special effects (save for a select moment of gore), playing much to Cheung's strength as a drama director realizing that less is more for the atmosphere. Free reign is also given to cinematography maestro Arthur Wong that may very well go over the top with the visual palette outside of the central house set but the exquisite stylings of Cheung himself goes very well with Wong's professionalism, resulting in some captivating camera work and stylized lightning.

There's always a danger with these mysteries that a much compelling aura is built up but it's a fine art to wrap it up in a compelling way. Cheung has to resort to lengthy exposition towards the end that works fairly well but the pay off simply isn't very special and it doesn't exactly build as great as you would believe onto the final climax of character choices. Things unfortunately turn very predictable despite the professional frame and the final twist makes sure the grade comes down, sadly. Wong Jing even does these kind of narrative twists, Jacob!

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai disappointingly goes on autopilot here which still means that there's plenty of charisma present that several of today's young "stars" couldn't even compile if they tried all at once. The script does the best work for Leung as Chung is the typical dedicated worker and the mystery of how and why he's choosing to continue exploring the Siu Lau/Elaine relationship engages. Wu Chien-Lien shines though in an eerie performance where she skillfully switches between different demeanors in the most subtle of ways. One wonder if Jo Kuk took any inspirations from this when she logged a similar but equally successful performance in Visible Secret II. Sandra Ng provides fine support as a longtime friend of the couple.

Jacob Cheung rises above some tired conventions and creates an atmospheric ghost story. With a memorable and thoroughly captivating act by Wu Chien-Lien and Arthur Wong's exquisite cinematography, The Returning largely works in parts but narrative decisions towards the end clearly are beneath the skills of Jacob Cheung. It's a well-executed piece but when all is added up, it's merely an interesting one that initiated fans of the director and stars will get more out of rather than fans of the genre.

The DVD:

Cropped to 1.33:1 (as was the Laserdisc), Mei Ah's old dvd edition will have to do for the moment although the full 1.85:1 framing would be preferable as instances of cramped compositions are evident. Colours are good but overall the detail halts at VHS level and sharpness therefore is lacking.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track never strays from the center but sounds clear almost all throughout. Audio quality seems to go muffled on us at times though. A Mandarin 2.0 dub is also included.

The imbedded English/Chinese subtitles at times go off screen slightly due to the cropping but it's a well-worded translation with only a few spelling errors along the way. There are no extras or even a setup menu.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson