Chinese cinema output these days is all over the place. You have your rich and wealthy historic epics, the over-the-topic slick and poppy comedies and the darker, humanistic dramas. But somewhere hidden in this pile of Chinese films is a glimmering selection of strong, modern and stylish genre films that are just waiting to be discovered by the West. The Chrysalis is one of those films, and it's in dire need of an appreciative audience.
The Chrysalis is a pretty basic mystery, but the execution is nothing less than spectacular. Sure enough, the template of the film doesn't hide too many secrets and if you've seen a couple of mysteries before you can probably read the film pretty well, but the specifics feel fresh and challenging. While watching I was reminded of La Boîte Noire (Richard Berry) a couple of times, though I'm pretty sure not many people have seen that one.
After a short introduction Guan Wenxin wakes up soaking wet, in the middle of the road. Her memory of the past three months is gone. All she remembers is that she was taken captive on valentine's day by Anne, her very best friend who's betraying her for the man she loves. After a short struggle the two of them collapsed on the floor, anything after that is a complete blank. When Wenxin looks for Anne after coming back to her senses, it turns out Anne is still missing.
Guan Wenxin tries to pick up the pieces of her life, but something feels not quite right. Little by little she uncovers what has happened to her during these three months, but the more she remembers the harder it becomes to make sense of it all. On top of that, Wenxin develops a secondary personality, posing as Anne, much to the horror of the people surrounding her.
A mystery like this traditionally relies on strong audiovisual impulses to get its atmosphere across and Chu-ji Qiu has his bases covered. The Chrysalis successfully blends more traditional shots with modern editing and some great visual touch-ups. The film looks beautiful throughout, sporting amazing imagery and superb settings, only the CG could've used a bit more work. Nothing serious, but there one or two fake-looking effects that take away just a bit from the overall effect.
The soundtrack too is pretty crafty. It may be a little too present for some (there are only a few scenes without at least some kind of background music) but it's a great and varied selection of tension-filled tracks that may not dominate the visuals, but at least they support them quite effectively. It's not a very memorable soundtrack, rather a functional one that in combination with the strong visuals sets a perfect mood.
Sandrine Pinna (Do Over, Yang Yang) takes up the role of Guan Wenxhin and does so with great conviction. At first it did feel a little awkward to see the French/Taiwanese actress in the lead role (maybe it felt like they were catering a little too much to the West), but as it turns out she fit the bill perfectly. The rest of the cast is solid but easily overshadowed by Sandrine's performance.
The second part of the film is reserved for twists and revelations and while they are skillfully executed (warning: go in fresh and don't let yourself be spoiled by trailers) they become a bit too explanatory. By the end of the film there is no stone left unturned, with all the mystery gone from the film. To each his own of course, but I prefer it when not everything is explained and some mystery is left to carry on after the film has ended.
The Chrysalis is pure genre cinema. It operates on textbook mechanics and follows an all too familiar path, but the execution is flawless while Chu-ji Qiu demonstrates his skills as a director. The result is a tense, mysterious and stunning looking film that may reveal a few too many of its secrets, but does so in a very slick and stylish way. Chances are slim the film will make it outside the Asian borders, but I'm already looking forward to Qiu's next one.