The Chinese film "The Matrimony" (shortened to just Matrimony for the U.S. release) is one of those presentations that may be setting up false expectations with its delightfully gruesome DVD cover. Sure, the grotesque severed and rotting hand will grab attention--but those looking for a graphic horror story will likely feel a bit short changed by the actual film. And those that might appreciate the film's subtlety and surprisingly gentle tone might be put off by the awesome unpleasantness of this image. So to help better align viewer expectations, I'll say that "Matrimony" plays as a moody ghost story as opposed to a grisly shocker. And in contrast to many of the Asian supernatural pictures that have flooded the DVD marketplace, this isn't just an ominous spectre wreaking havoc and death--this is one with love in her heart and a plan to win her man back at any cost.
After a surreal and dreamlike opening in which a man loses his fiance to a tragic accident, the film settles into the main story line. The man (a solid Leon Lai), now unhappily attached in an arranged marriage, can't relinquish the spirit of his true love. But his current wife (a radiant Rene Liu) has genuine feelings for her husband. When approached by the restless spirit of the other woman (Fan Bing Bing), Liu forms a tentative partnership to try to bring peace and lightness into Lai's life. But as joy starts to creep back into the man's world, both of his loves seem to be waging a battle for his affection. Only one problem--both have to do it through the corporeal presence of the lady with an actual body! Things get decidedly more bleak as it becomes clear that co-existence is no longer a viable proposition.
"Matrimony" isn't necessarily the most original film you're likely to encounter, but it has a genuine sweetness at its core. For me, this was its most surprising element. As wallflower Liu starts to gain confidence and the attention of her husband, she literally lights up the screen. And their relationship develops in believable ways as their shared past is revealed in flashbacks. This really is a story of love lost AND love found, and the principle actors bring real depth to the narrative. The fact that you care about the outcome makes the final confrontations more impactful. Again, this is more character driven than horror infused--like an adult ghost story. There's a bit of a twist, which you may love or hate, but ends things on a poetic note. A pleasant and sweet surprise--despite what the DVD artwork would have you believe. KGHarris, 7/11.