Director: Leste Chen
Writer: Endrix Ren, Leste Chen
Cast: Xu Zheng, Karen Mok, Hu Jing, Li Fangcong, David Wang, Lu Zhong, Yang Kaidi, Guan Le, Dai Ming, Song Ci, Jiang Ditong, Jin Shunzi, Yin Hang, Song Yanzhou
Running Time: 102 min.
By Kyle Warner
You know how sometimes you’re watching a film and think, ‘I bet so-and-so would really enjoy this movie’? Well, I’m willing to bet that M. Night Shyamalan would really dig The Great Hypnotist. A psychological thriller that withholds its secrets until the final act and then yanks you on a hard right, throws a plot twist at you that completely changes your understanding of the film’s world, and leaves you putting together the pieces like a drunk working on a puzzle in the dying light. When the plot twist is delivered, I suspect half the audience is going, “Now hold on one gosh-darned minute,” while the other half is muttering to themselves, “Ohhhh, now I see…” And then the solitary figure of M. Night Shyamalan stands up in the middle of the crowded theatre and exclaims, “What a twist!” … Yep, it’s that kind of a movie.
Before the twist, we have two main characters that dominate the film. Xu Zheng plays famous psychiatrist Dr. Ruining Xu, who specializes in hypnotherapy. A former teacher comes to him with a difficult case: a woman who claims she can see ghosts. Xu reluctantly agrees to meet the woman after hearing how she’s scared off all other psychiatrists and has proven exceptionally difficult to treat. Karen Mok’s Ren walks into his office and so begins a battle of wills as she tries to convince the doctor of what she’s seen while he tries to cure her of her delusions. But there’s more at play here. The questions begin mounting up and reality starts to bleed away as we’re left unsure of who to believe, doctor or patient.
Thankfully, The Great Hypnotist is more than just a ‘twist movie,’ giving us plenty of dramatic content before the finale. Most the narrative takes place in Dr. Xu’s office while doctor and patient recount stories from the past. When Dr. Xu hypnotizes Ren, he doesn’t exactly follow her into her dreams, but the film’s style suggests something similar. In these moments, it’s like Inception meets HBO’s In Treatment. What I found interesting is that the film gives us two unreliable narrators to tell the story. Dr. Xu is a skeptic that’s more hell-bent on exposing lies than he is in helping people and Ren’s ghostly visions don’t match up with our perceived reality. Who to trust?
Or perhaps more importantly, who do we want to trust? Well, that one’s easy: Ren. The film’s chief flaw is that Dr. Xu is a completely unsympathetic person and I wanted him to be wrong. Arrogant, short-tempered, and showing very little empathy for the people he’s assigned to help… I thought he was a complete asshat. Maybe that was the point? Fiction and film are full of psychiatrists that do more harm than good and it can’t be ignored that the character’s full name is Ruining Xu. I mean, that’s a little on the nose, isn’t it? Still, whatever the intentions of the character, I turned against him long before the end, so some of the later plot developments fell flat for me. Xu Zheng taps into the educated arrogance of the character but fails to find any redemptive qualities (self-pity doesn’t count). He’s good in the back-and-forth with Karen Mok, though, and keeps his side of the story interesting enough when the film is little more than a two part argument in a nicely lit office. I have seen very little of Xu Zheng’s work but he’s fast becoming one of the most popular and profitable actors in China, having starred in and directed two of the country’s biggest box office sensations, Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong. While I didn’t like his character here, he’s clearly a capable performer and I expect to see much more of him in the future.
Karen Mok has long been one of today’s most underrated actresses, playing basically any part under the sun. With the character of Ren, Mok gets to play with many interesting emotional states that would normally be spread out across multiple roles. Ren is part femme fatale, part confused victim, part scheming intellectual, and part creepy ghost whisperer. It’s a great role and Mok navigates the complicated eccentricities with exceptional skill. The movie will try to draw you in with creepy supernatural promises and a male lead in the prime of his career, but make no mistake; Karen Mok’s the best part of The Great Hypnotist.
The film is directed by Taiwanese filmmaker Leste Chen, who made his directorial debut with 2005’s ghost story The Heirloom. Chen and his crew make their film suitably creepy while also keeping you guessing about whether Ren really sees ghosts or if she’s just a creative liar. However, I found that the supernatural business started strong and then faded before the end. There’s one moment early on that elicited a verbal, “Oh shit!” from this viewer, and I thought that this was Chen setting the tone for things to come. But unfortunately that was the only such moment from the film, and the rest rarely attempts to surprise you and instead only hopes to outwit you.
The film’s not able to remain consistently interesting, perhaps due to its setting or its unlikable male lead. I felt a bit fatigued by the back-and-forth nature of truth and lies before the finale. Despite some ghostly happenings, it’s not a horror film. And despite the twists and turns, it’s not much of a thriller either. The Great Hypnotist is a mystery movie at heart, one that’s sure to appeal to film fans that love it when a story takes them in unexpected directions. Stylish and thought-provoking, The Great Hypnotist is more clever than the usual psychological thriller, but because it fails to forge a connection to its audience it fails to ever become truly involving.
Kyle Warner’s Rating: 6/10