“They’re your family, they won’t hurt you anyway” a little girl is consoled on suggesting that her relatives’ home may be haunted but it’s a statement which seems remarkably naive given the toxic situation at the centre of Shen Dan-Quei’s gothic drama, The Funeral (頭七, tóuqī). There may well be supernatural goings on, but the root of the problem remains familial exile and the outdated social codes which lead to it causing nothing but misery and loneliness for all concerned.
Single mother Chun-hua (Selina Jen Chia-hsüan) hasn’t seen her family in a decade. She works several jobs trying to support herself and her daughter Qin-xuan (Bella Wu) who is seriously ill and on the list for a kidney transplant. When in the opening scene she begins to suspect a ghost has entered the convenience store where she works nights, it’s impossible to tell if she’s actually being haunted or is just tired and anxious. In any case, she’s later let go from that job after a co-worker complains about her falling asleep on shift which is right about when she gets a call from her estranged uncle (Nadow Lin) to let her know her grandfather, whom she had been very close to as a child, has passed away and she should come home for the funeral. Chun-hua is however reluctant because she evidently fell out with her authoritarian father (Chen Yi-Wen) when she left home and returning now is awkward in the extreme.
Having set the scene with Chun-hua haunted in the city, Shen moves the action to the creepy gothic mansion where she grew up which does indeed seem to be a spooky place defined by its hostile atmosphere. Her father wastes no time telling her that she’s not welcome, but Chun-hua holds her ground and insists on being allowed to pay her respects to the only member of the family who seems to have shown her any affection. Later flashbacks suggest a concrete cause of the family’s disintegration, but then Chun-hua’s father seems to have taken against her even in childhood apparently refusing to allow her to celebrate her birthday with her sister seemingly also resentful of her for no clear reason. Though her mother clearly loves her, she cannot defy her husband and is unable to defend her daughter. The only one of the family privately happy to see Chun-hua, even her mother eventually tells her it would be better if she returned to Taipei as soon as possible given the awkwardness of the situation.
Then again, as we later learn, she may have another reason in mind though this attempt to reframe the family’s animosity towards Chun-hua is a little problematic in suggesting they are cruel because they love her and want to her leave the toxic environment of the house to save her from its poisonous legacy. The grandfather may have been the only one to show her love, but it is his failings that have created division within the family causing some to feel rejected, excluded from the circle for no fault of their own. Her father’s rejection of her is in its own way similar, even if we later see him remorseful realising that his authoritarian parenting has cost him his daughter.
There may be a lot of supernatural action with the taoist priest permanently engaged in rituals over the grandfather’s body, but the darkness and resentment is purely human, born of loneliness and rejection in a lack of love and respect between those who are related by blood. Qin-xuan is at a disadvantage in knowing nothing of her extended family or mother’s relationship to them, she also rejected on arriving for the funeral. The place is indeed haunted beyond the scuttling figures that seem to catch their eyes and laden with the heavy atmosphere of the family’s inherent toxicity. But then through this extremely dark event, the relationship between mother and daughter is in its own way strengthened not least in Chuan-hua’s selfless determination to save her daughter from her own familial curse not to mention her medical precarity. Even so, the melancholy conclusion may hint that the toxic familial curse cannot be completely cured and is destined only to repeat itself in a perpetual cycle of hauntings.
The Funeral screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)
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