Sponsor

First Look Review - THE FATAL CONTRACT

the fatal contract review
A serial killer is bumping off artists and their muses.







Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Tan Bing

Starring: Bai Ling, Tao Hong, Zhao Yan Guo Zhang, Xuan Miao

the fatal contract poster

It was grumpy old Edgar Allan Poe who observed that "the death… of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world," a macabre credo which the so-called imp of the perverse held dear throughout the entirety of his multi-disciplined career as a writer: an eerie canon replete with the ghosts of dead lovers, the memory of deceased females, beauty preserved forever in morte and which "would not, for the world, awake." You can see where he’s coming from, eh lads? Women are a proper nightmare. Much easier to remove them to the province of ‘muse’, to sequester the reality of women within the black bars of poetry, the evocative silence of paintings, the rigid contortions of pornography, etc. Rather than, you know, deal with them on an emotional and intellectual equivalency. Poe’s principle (nb, I’m not really having a go at Poe: his writing was clearly powered by first an abiding fear of intimacy and then a complex appreciation of longing, rather than base misogyny) is central to Tan Bing’s gothic inflected The Fatal Contract, which is built upon the premise of art, death and severely beautiful women.

the fatal contract review

Poe supplemented his infamous credo with the qualifier that, "equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover," and thus, in The Fatal Contract, Tu La (Zhao Yanguozhang) is the bereaved owner of a small, chintzy cocktail bar. Bei Wei (Bai Ling), a former model and mistress/muse to a sleazy painter, regularly frequents the thick shadows, and neon reds and greens, of the bar’s noirish ambiance, attracted to the proprietor’s air of stoic mystery. Along with being a barman, Tu La is also a painter, who, in mourning for his long-lost lover, creeps into the local crematorium in the middle of the night to secretly paint the (improbably attractive) deceased before they are incinerated the next day; Théodore Géricault eat your (slightly putrefying) heart out. Spooky art collector Lv Li (Tao Hong) commissions Tu La to paint a picture of the striking Bei Wei, yet the artisan mixologist demurs. While all of this is going on, throughout the city there are a series of grisly murders of artists and their muses, crimes which Officer Li (Xuan Miao) is investigating, fingering the mercurial Bei Wei as her main suspect. Yikes!

the fatal contract review

On paper this tableau vivant of blood and bohemia sounds amazing, but in realisation it is something of a tapestry of tedium. For all its moving, and bizarre, enactment of Tu La’s loneliness, and Bei Wei’s sensual improbity (I have a soft spot for Ling as she’s a survivor and also seems like a bit of a card: one wonders what Poe would have made of this intimidating woman), there are plot holes which gape like tears in a canvas, and the film’s unconvincing narrative brush strokes and clumsy blotwork is too haphazard to create affect. What begins as gothic melodrama, blends into noir, then erotic thriller without doing any genre justice (Plus, with Lv Li’s keystone cops, The Fatal Contract bears witness to the worst procedural police work since Officer Dibble attempted to clean up the back alleys of Manhattan).

the fatal contract review

Ling’s utterly riveting beauty just about holds it all together, however, and there are moments of virtuoso promise: chiefly a triptych flashback to the original murder, which displays (slight spoiler) Bei Wei first as victim, then as violent, before finally as a victor. But, towards the end of the film, in a weary will-this-do summation of the plot’s blend of art, amour and alcohol, Li epitomises the art world, both painters and pundits, as possessed of "a weird aesthetic and taste." Well, guilty, but we also appreciate form and discipline, too. And ultimately, watching The Fatal Contract, with its shaggy dog storytelling, is a bit like supervising a very small child who is playing with paints: they start off trying to depict, say, the sun, but they nause up the beams by painting them too thick, so you encourage them to instead make the sun into a flower, which then becomes a tree, which eventually just becomes a sprawling mess of colour and shape which you are duty bound to stick to the fridge anyway.




discussion by