Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Great Hypnotist: Xu Zheng Gets into Karen Mok’s Head

Hypnosis is usually depicted as a dangerous tool of treachery in movies, going back to Svengali and the silent versions of Trilby before that. Dr. Xu Ruining might not help its image much. He is a reputable hypnotherapist, not a villain, but his bedside manner is rather brusque and arrogant. However, his latest patient might be more than his considerable powers can handle in Leste Chen’s The Great Hypnotist (trailer here), which releases today on DVD from Well Go USA.

When Dr. Xu hypnotizes patients, he really gets into their heads. In fact, we see him walking around their subconscious with them. It might be a bit of expressionistic flair on Chen’s part, but it will get rather ominous during his session with Ren Xiaoyan. His mentor Prof. Fang referred the case to him as a last resort. Apparently, all her previous shrinks were pretty freaked out by her claims of psychic powers, but Fang knows a materialist like Xu will not fall for such supernatural silliness.

Ren is not particularly grateful Xu squeezed her into his schedule and he is not exactly thrilled to have her there. Immediately, he realizes something is amiss with her file. Despite his suspicions, he duly proceeds to hypnotize her. He even starts to make progress, leading her to face some long buried truths. However, her repressed memories will start to fight back, or so it seems.

Everyone seems to hate Great Hypnotist’s ending, but if you take it as an homage to Simon Oakland’s explanatory epilogue in Hitchcock’s Psycho, it is arguably kind of cool. Unfortunately, the big pivotal revelation is harder to miss than Freud’s cigar, but the little stepping stone twists are all neatly turned. Chen seems to be enjoying the traditions and trappings of old school on-the-couch psychological thrillers, which genre fans can appreciate.

For instance, Dr. Xu’s office looks like it could have designed (by art director Luo Shunfu) for a classic giallo, (which is great for viewers but he would have to hypnotize his patients to prevent them from running away). Literally pouring it on, Chen always makes sure there is rain at the most atmospheric and [in]opportune times, while cinematographer Charlie Lam gives it all a satisfactorily eerie glow.

Regardless, the real surprise of Great Hypnotist is the successful pairing of Xu “Mr. Lost” Zheng with Karen Mok. Watching them thrust and parry is great fun. Frankly, we never knew Xu Zheng could chew so much genre scenery. (Maybe he can stretch out a little, playing more characters who are not also named Xu). Mok looks like a fragile reed, but she still projects a commanding presence. She also performs the best on-screen rendition of Weber & Rice’s “You Must Love Me,” most definitely including Madonna’s version (the context of which would be pointlessly complicated to explain). Lü Zhong is also terrific delivering all Prof. Fang’s psycho-babble.

Great Hypnotist is the sort of film that allows mood and style to trump everything else. Still, Mok and Xu manage to scratch out some emotional payoff during the eleventh hour. Frankly, the one hundred forty-four-minute film feels shorter than it is, strangely enough given long tacked-on denouement, but that certainly beats the converse. Recommended for fans of head-shrinking thrillers, The Great Hypnotist is now on regular DVD and digital platforms from Well Go USA.