Back in 2005 Chinese genre films were a rare breed indeed. China did (co)produce some martial arts stuff from time to time, but that's about how far they were prepared to go with their genre cinema offerings. The situation slowly changed after 2000 and Zhixi (Suffocation) was one of the first films to reach a broader international audience. And even though Zhang's effort is struggling to survive the test of time, there's still plenty to like here.
Even though Zhixi is available on DVD with English subtitles, some versions out there suffer from notable transfer problems. I own the Taiwanese version (it spells Soffocation on the cover) which features some obvious issues with sharpness, image stability and even VHS-like artifacts (quite remarkable for a film shot on DV I think). It's a shame for a film that relies heavily on its imagery to get the atmosphere across, though it's not so bad that it completely ruins the experience.
Even though Zhixi borrows royally from the horror genre, it's not an actual horror film. Instead Zhang's first (and only) could be cataloged as a mystery/horror cross-over that aims to confuse rather than scare or surprise. The horror scenes function as a shortcut to introduce extra tension, making for a tighter and more suffocating whole. Zhang balances these two stretches quite elegantly and it results in a film that professionally sidesteps any looming split personality pitfalls.
The film follows Xiao, a photographer who's cheating on his girlfriend Meizi. When Meizi finds out about it they end up in a fight and Meizi disappears, never to be seen again. Xiao contacts his friends to help him look for Meizi, but soon after people begin to suspect Xiao himself is involved in the disappearance of Meizi. When Xiao's neighbor becomes suspicious, Xiao confides in her and tells her the entire story. Still, not everything is what it appears to be and Xiao is slowly losing his mind.
Visually Zhixi is a very interesting project. The film bathes in beautiful and consistent green/yellow hues, benefits from sharp and strong editing and interesting camera positions. The less than stellar DVD quality and sometimes poor DV quality detract from the overall look though. Back in the day it wasn't too bad, but the base quality changed a lot since then and watching it now, it does feel a little outdated already.
The soundtrack suffers the same problem. The electronic-based themes sound nice enough (the discotheque scene in particular stands out by featuring some actual stone-cold techno music - a rarity in feature length films) but somehow they haven't aged that well. The soundtrack is still an interesting mix of film music, classical pieces and electronic-based inserts, but it sounded a lot cooler when I first watched Zhixi.
Acting on the other hand remains strong. You Ge is instantly recognizable and puts in a great performance. He has a very characteristic face and uses it to his advantage, carrying the film with ease. The secondary cast is good too, even when they don't have all that much screen time to prove themselves. Hailu Qin makes a pretty good impression though, especially considering the limited time she is actually on screen.
Zhang plays a lot with the chronology of the story, making for a somewhat confusing setup. The story gets a little clearer as the film progresses, but right when it all starts to make sense Xiao begins to lose his mind, casting another veil of mystery over the film. While the climax may not be the most original, it does work and even though it may not be the stellar ending you may have hoped for, it's far from a disappointment either. More important is the suffocating atmosphere that takes a firm grip on the audience, strengthened by the close-up photography, consistent color palette and strong performance of Ge.
Getting a good release of Zhixi may not be that easy (the film isn't brand new and I don't think too many DVDs were released back then) but it's definitely worth pursuing. I must admit that it made a bigger impact the first two times I watched it though. While still a very accomplished audiovisual experience, the film seems quite prone to aging, which could affect the longevity of Zhang's film. Then again, it will always stand as one of the first worthy Chinese genre films I watched, dragging me deeper into the country's filmography.