Runtime: 118 mins
Director: Tsin Chi
Writer: Zhang Yuanfu
Stars: Hsu Feng, Dai Peishan
By Stephen Palmer
After her sister is mysteriously killed in a boating accident, Bei Sui-mi (Jin Mei) returns from Singapore and secretly embeds herself into her late sibling’s privileged family, posing as a governess for her niece. Not content with solving the mystery of her sister’s death, Sui-mi manages to repair the broken relationship between her niece and brother-in-law, deftly avoids the attentions of one suitor, and marries the other. She also manages to avoid some attempts on her own life whilst other members of the local community perish by an unseen hand.
“The Bride Who Has Returned from Hell” (地獄新娘) is a film that is hard to classify. Based on the Gothic romance novel “Mistress of Mellyn” by British novelist Eleanor Hibbert (under the pen name Victoria Holt), the film by director Hsin Chi transplants the story from an ancestral pile in Cornwall to a rich Taiwanese household.
“The Bride Who Has Returned from Hell” is a glorious example of 1960s Taiwanese cinema. Shot in gorgeous (and lovingly restored) black and white, the film manages to cram in more genres than you can shake a stick at.
When the novel was originally released in 1960, many thought that Holt was actually the pen name of Daphne du Maurier, with the Cornish setting and storyline being so similar to “Rebecca.” I am pretty certain that Hsin Chi was fully aware of Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning adaptation of that story when making this feature, albeit with a fraction of the budget at his disposal.
But it would be churlish of me to say this is a straight copy of superior works. In fact, “The Bride Who Has Returned from Hell” is a glorious example of 1960s Taiwanese cinema. Shot in gorgeous black and white (and lovingly restored by the Taiwan Film Institute), the film manages to cram in more genres than you can shake a stick at.
At the core is a family melodrama, the story of a young woman falling in love with a damaged man, who in turn is rescued from self-abusive behavior through affection and forced to face some cold, hard truths. This is surrounded by the Gothic mystery, topped off with some moments of tension and surprisingly effective horror, with ghostly visitations and a shockingly gruesome corpse. It is also littered with comic scenes, mostly involving the lower-class servants, although I suspect many of the jokes will leave a Western audience cold, as they rely on the homophonic nature of the Taiwanese language (a common problem for all sinophonic comedies).
The film transcends being a standard potboiler intended for a local audience by demonstrating a number of interesting experimental shots far more reminiscent of mid-1960s European cinema than anything produced by the commercial Taiwanese cinema of the day.
The film isn’t without flaws. Even taking into account this was a different time and place, a couple of the male characters are a bit too forceful with their attempts to seduce our lead (in fact, they seem worse when you consider just how conservative Asian cultures tend to be). One of the two young girls, Lan (played by the daughter of the producer), is quite possibly one of the most annoyingly whiny children ever committed to celluloid, which is a shame as her character is absolutely crucial to the plot. More concerning, however, is the fact that a previously unseen character and location are introduced in the final act, which are crucial to the mystery element of the plot, making the structure of the story rather uneven.
However, these annoyances aside, it is hard not to really love this film. It packs so much into its near two-hour running time, with a set of entertaining performances. And when the final scene involves a newlywed couple taking a drive and breaking the fourth wall by enthusiastically waving at the audience, you can forgive this cheesiness because the whole enterprise has just been so charming.