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Body count: 5
Entertainment value: 2/5
Eek factor: 1/5
Ooh factor: 2/5
Ouch factor: 1/5
Plot Elements
  • ghosties
  • haunted house
When a film opens with a room of hanged people, you know you’re in for a ride. Zhai Bian will take you on that ride, but at a pace so slow, you almost might as well get out and push.

James Yang, a Chinese man raised mainly in England, has inherited a Western-style mansion from distant relatives. It’s dilapidated in some ways, but the architect in Yang can appreciate its subtleties. He’s advised to sell it, but he opts to keep it—after all, he’s getting ready to propose to his girlfriend (who seems to be an interpretive dancer of some kind). Yo, on the other hand, isn’t ready to settle down—seems she’s turned James down more than once. And she finds the mansion creepy.
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James thinks it’s all in her head, but the house does have some problems, which they discover after about half an hour of creeping around the house. The family shrine on the fourth floor has an unusual number of pictures in it, and Yo and James find child-sized footprints running all over the floor. Even worse, people who visit find themselves back inside the house when they go to sleep.
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It turns out that James’s family has long practiced Xiao Guei. Xiao Guei is, according to the opening sequence of the film, an old Chinese folk practice in which dead babies are fed the blood of their masters. These “child ghosts” can become very powerful, and the Yang family used them to eliminate their enemies and rise through China’s social ranks. It came with a price besides the blood. The Yang children began to be born with illnesses and deformities, until finally a poorly-treated daughter used the xiao guei to force everyone (except her sister and her son) to hang themselves.
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I can’t be the only one who found the ending anticlimactic. James attempts to end the family curse by ending the family line—he punches Yo repeatedly in the stomach, trying to induce a miscarriage, then cuts his wrists. I thought he was going to use her unborn baby to perform more magic. Since James doesn’t really do much through the movie, I thought his attempt to save Yo was wimpy at best.
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The visuals and music help to redeem Zhai Bian. A lot of horror film soundtracks just sound like spooky noises with a few cellos thrown in for good measure, but Zhai Bian’s music is refreshing and Danny Elfman-esque. Terri Kwan as Yo puts on an excellent performance; James not so much. I don’t normally appreciate interpretive dance, but it’s pretty clever the way the second dance (in white) has been choreographed to match up with the happenings of The Event.
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The deeper meaning here is what people do with their “unwanted” members of society—the handicapped, the terminally ill, and—yes, I’ll go there—the unborn babies. They don’t let them live; instead, they find a way to “use” them or get rid of them. Zhai Bian raises the opportunity to think about these things, but it doesn’t have much to say about what you should be thinking. Probably the most intriguing part of the film is the title—is the heirloom the mansion, or the family curse?

Zhai Bian works on several levels, but none of them leave me fully satisfied. I’d recommend renting this one before you buy.