Confidently touted as China’s first mind-bending suspense thriller, The Great Hypnotist is a stylish piece of escapism which often plays like a mix of Spellbound (1945), The Sixth Sense (1999) and Inception (2010) with its twist-filled tale of a famous psychiatrist navigating the damaged psyche of his traumatized client. An atmospheric opening sequence establishes the skills of Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) as he appears in the subconscious imagination of a middle-aged lady who is trying to keep her daughter from danger, then brings her back to reality to deconstruct the root cause of her recurrent nightmares. It effectively sets the stage for the main event by marshaling stock elements from Asian horror movies (a gloomy building, a pursuing madwoman, jarring sound effects) to illustrate the psychological sleight-of-hand that Ruining specializes in as a means of bringing catharsis to his guilty-burdened patients, although his next case will prove considerably more challenging. As a favor to his academic mentor Professor Fang (Lv Zhong), Ruining agrees to treat Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok), a patient who has already seen numerous experts who have tried to dispel her belief that she possesses psychic powers that enable her to see ghosts. The film then becomes a two-hander as Ruining puts Xiaoyan under hypnosis to probe the troubled past that has caused her condition.
What follows is elegantly mounted by Taiwanese director Leste Chen, who made the horror film The Heirloom (2005) in his home territory before relocating to mainland China to specialize in such wish-fulfilment romances as Love on Credit (2011) and Say Yes! (2013). Alternating between the session in Ruining’s office and Xiaoyan’s recollections, a mystery gradually unravels with the psychiatrist occasionally sneaking off to look through files or make phone calls to resolve contradictory aspects of his client’s history. Significant incidents from Xiaoyan’s past include her childhood abandonment, being adopted by Hong Kong foster parents, her engagement to fellow orphan Lu Yusong (David Wang) and a late night encounter with a bus driver who she identified as a child murderer due to her psychic abilities. Ruining becomes increasingly flustered by his inability to get a handle on Xiaoyan, but the power balance really shifts when Xiaoyan states that there are ghosts in the room who are telling her personal things about her doctor, such as his fear of water. It’s a dynamic that works due to carefully judged performances: Xu runs the gamut from arrogant to helpless, while Mok starts out as a jittery bundle of neurosis, albeit one shot in luscious soft focus that accentuates her star appeal, then adopts a coolly controlling manner as their game hurtles towards the reveal.
Just as the trickery of its psychiatrist is steadily undermined, The Great Hypnotist loses its grip in the third act as much of its plot turns out to be an elaborate ruse when a hurried explanation is used to explain what has really been going on. After a few dark turns, this resolution offers logical causes for all occurrences in order to satisfy censorship requirements which will elicit more groans than gasps due to the absurd lengths taken to tie everything neatly together. Until that point, it’s fun to watch pieces of the puzzle fall into – and out of – place, especially when Chen utilizes heightened stylistics to accentuate the mood. Production designer Luo Shunfu gives the confines of Ruining’s wood-paneled office an off-kilter feel complete with vintage fixtures, a spiral staircase and triangular floor tiles while Charlie Lam’s striking cinematography switches smoothly between the warmly reassuring tones of the therapy session and muted color schemes of the flashbacks, with the latter imposing on the former as Ruining goes off the deep end. These touches are obviously cribbed from well-chosen foreign models, but nonetheless provide the film with a palette that is markedly different from most of its local competition. Such craftsmanship helps to make The Great Hypnotist a sufficiently diverting psychological thriller, even if it’s ultimately not quite as smart as it looks.