Thursday, November 03, 2016

SDAFF ’16: The Unbidden

They say a friend will help you move, but a real friend will help you move a body. In that case, Lauren Lee has three real friends. Twenty years after her husband’s “mysterious disappearance,” the four women hold a séance to exorcise his spirit, but the ceremony will expose a lot of messy secrets in Quentin Lee’s The Unbidden (trailer here), which screens as part of this year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival.

The four friends should well complement each other when it comes to spirit rousting. Lee is a successful mystery novelist, Rachel is a medium (or whatever), Kat is a doctor (plastic surgeon, but it still counts), and Anna was a tiger-mother before the term was stereotyped in the media. Jake was a bad husband, but not always. Initially, it looked like he and Lee would be happy together, until his bottled-up demons reasserted themselves. He really forced Lee to supply the killing he was asking for, but the circumstances were awkward. That is where Lee’s friends came in.

Of course, Jake’s spirit has been restless ever since. As the fateful date approaches (fittingly Halloween), the hauntings have dramatically increased in their invasiveness, taking a pronounced toll on Lee’s mental state. Unfortunately, the ritual will be interrupted by a mysterious stranger, who has a personal stake in their drama.

Get ready for a barrage of revelations and recriminations. Unbidden is one of the least gory horror films you will see all year, but the fab four still draw plenty of blood. Being such close friends, they know exactly where to slip the knives in. In many ways, Unbidden represents the road too often not taken when it comes to horror films. This is a character-driven, dialogue-rich film featuring an overwhelmingly female cast, covering the full moral-ethical spectrum.

There are also some reasonably clever twists down the stretch, but for many the 1980s nostalgia will be the real attraction. Notably, Unbidden stars fan-favorite Tamlyn Tomita (Karate Kid II) as Lee and co-stars Julia Nickson (freedom fighter Co Bao in Rambo: First Blood Part II, one of three women to exchange dialogue with Stallone throughout the entire franchise) as the boozy and cynical Dr. Kat.

Tomita is terrific as the literally haunted and guilt-ridden Lee. It is also pretty remarkable how well her performance meshes with that of Michelle Krusiec as the flashback Lee. Nickson and Elizabeth Sung both have great fun chewing the scenery as the contemporary Kat and Anna, while Akemi Look vamps it up something fierce as flashback Kat. As Jake (flashbacks only for him), former champion kickboxer Jason Yee vividly conveys a sense of sexualized danger and slow-burning angst.

Indeed, Unbidden is a great ensemble piece. Quentin Lee’s handle on horror movie mechanics is just okay, but he gets some wonderfully acid-tongued exchanges from the first class cast. Recommended for supernatural horror fans with a mature sensibility, The Unbidden screens tomorrow (11/4), during the 2016 SDAFF.