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Meng Gui Fo Tiao Qiang
(Bless This House) (1988)

"My master had me guard this place. I’ve been trying to destroy the evil spirits…. You should have taken my advice. There’ll be a tragedy in your home tonight…."

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Director: Ronny Yu

Starring: Piu Tung (Bill Tung), Deborah, Loletta Lee, Stephen Ho, Leung Shi Lung, Manfred Wong, Chan Cheuk Yan

Screenplay: Jims Yuen, John Ng, Clifton Ko

Synopsis: Hong Kong architect Bill Cheung (Piu Tung) delivers a set of plans for a development that totally ignores the laws of fung shui. The Chinese agents who examine them are angered, and when Bill receives a summons to his boss’s office, he fears the worst. However, the boss tells him that the people who commissioned the design are atheists anyway, then announces that Bill has been promoted to Design Manager. This new position comes complete with a villa in the hills. Bill, his wife, their two daughters - teenager Jane and toddler Yan - and Jane’s boyfriend, known as "Muscles", drive to the villa. They are delighted to discover that it is a huge house, luxuriously furnished. However, their delight turns to dismay when a group of removalists takes away every single piece of furniture, and then the electricity is cut off. Jane finds some matches. When she strikes one, she is terrified by a strange face at the window. The next day, some new, inexpensive furniture is delivered. Bill takes some things down to the basement, and discovers a set of ceremonial spears. Mrs Cheung arranges the living-room, not seeing one of her plants move by itself. At the same time, a mysterious figure watches from the roof as Jane unpacks the car. Jane encounters the stranger of the night before, who warns her that the family must leave the house. Watching from a window, Jane discovers that the stranger lives in a broken-down house nearby. The family carries some boxes to the attic, which is cluttered with things belonging to the previous tenants. An old photograph reveals that this family, like the Cheungs, consisted of the parents and two daughters. That night, Bill is woken by strange music. He follows the sound to the attic, but sees nothing. When Jane joins him there, he denies having heard anything. Jane tells him that the stranger next door claimed that the house was haunted. At the supermarket the following day, Mrs Cheung is again accosted by the stranger, while at the villa, Jane discovers a sinister drawing beneath some wallpaper, and a disembodied voice suggests to Yan that she ride her tricycle at the banisters….

Comments: Bless This House is another charming little Hong Kong horror-comedy that manages to use its rapid-fire delivery of scares and laughs to convey a message of respect for tradition. The film is the story of modernist architect Bill Cheung, who scorns the teachings of fung shui in favour of the purely functional, and is taught a severe lesson as a consequence.

Bill’s strictly practical view of the world endangers both himself and his family when they move into their company-owned house, an isolated villa with a tragic past. The house’s previous tenant was an opera singer whose career ended when he was crippled in an accident. Bitter and brooding, the man came to believe that his young daughter was not really his child, and in a blind fury killed his family and then himself. These are the spirits who inhabit the villa, their haunting of the Cheungs being carried out with a terrible purpose: to live again by taking over the bodies of their house’s new occupants.

This purpose is made all the easier by Bill’s refusal to accept what is going on in the house. His denial makes him vulnerable to the spirit of the dead opera singer, who possesses Bill at night, forcing him to act out passages from the singer’s life. Nor does Mrs Cheung recognise the full extent of the danger, although she becomes aware of its effects in the crumbling of her family’s unity. In the end, it is not the adults but the level-headed Jane who heeds the warnings of the mysterious stranger next door; who recognises the significance of the hidden drawing and sees the terrible threat posed to Yan; and who finally saves herself and her family by turning to the stranger for help.

As with all of these wonderful Hong Kong fantasies, a certain balance is struck between the humorous and the horrific. Although overall Bless This House tends more to the former, the shocks, when they come - an encounter in the attic, a face at a car window - are genuinely jolting. Also disturbing is the immediacy of the danger in which the baby, Yan, is placed, particularly towards the end when she (or at least, a reasonable facsimile of her) is thrown about in a manner you can hardly imagine happening in a Western film, where violence towards children is still usually kept discreetly offscreen.

On the whole, though, there are more laughs than scares here. The early stages of the film are entirely comedic, lightly sketching in Bill’s character as a harassed but loving husband and father. Particularly amusing is the scene in which, having taken his family to a ritzy restaurant to, as they think, confess that he has lost his job, his convincing lugubriousness compels a young waiter to admit guiltily that the special "Japanese lobster" is (oh, shame!) merely the local variety. Celebrating their new home, the Cheungs revel in the unexpected luxury (sign of the times – their rejoicing is to the strains of "Rule Britannia") until cold, hard reality arrives in the form of the company removalists.

It is shortly after this that the supernatural begins to manifest itself, but still a light touch is maintained. For example, in a scene both hilarious and truly ooky, Muscles is nearly seduced by a masked figure that he thinks is Jane, but – ulp! – isn’t. (The terrified teen ultimately decides that this ghostly encounter is a sign that he should stop trying to scheme his way into Jane’s bedroom.) Even when Bill is finally told the tragic story of the house’s history, it is tempered by the revelation that the haunting has continued because "the boss was too stingy to hire an exorcist". This mixture of moods continues until the climactic sequence, which is a dizzying mixture of ghosts, storms, martial arts and magic.

One of the best things about Bless This House is the way it manages to keep the viewer guessing: no-one turns out to be quite who you expect. The scary stranger next door, for instance, is actually a Taoist monk on the side of right; while the "expert on the supernatural" who seems so patently phony (his first act is to try to drive "the evil" out of Jane by – ahem! – laying his lands on her chest) proves to have sufficient knowledge and power to disturb the house’s inhabiting spirits. (In a wonderful scene, the spiritualist’s use of holy powder is combated by a demonic vacuum cleaner!) Even the ineffectual, free-loading, perpetually horny Muscles turns out to be a good man in a crisis, saving the day when he puts the Taoist monk’s advice into practice in the very nick of time.

Another factor that will appeal to horror buffs is the clever referencing of a myriad of other films. Here we have (among others, I’m sure) the swirling camera from The Evil Dead; a bleeding wall from The Amityville Horror; a picture beneath the wallpaper from Deep Red; a child-on-a-tricycle scene more sinister than the one in The Omen; and a bit of business with a wheelchair reminiscent of the marvellous Canadian ghost story The Changeling.

Footnote: The English language credits on my print of this film were extremely sketchy, while the IMDb has no information on it at all beyond Ronny Yu’s directorial credit. If I have misspelled or mis-structured any of the cast names, I apologise; and if anyone can give me any more complete information on the film, I would be very grateful.

Check out all the details of this movie on the IMDB