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‘The Fatal Contract’ Completely Misuses its Intriguing Gothic Premise

To paint someone is to render them inert, to fix a living person into an immovable one. In a way, it can seen as form of murder, as you take someone full of life and represent them perfectly still. This seems to be the premise of The Fatal Contract, which features a barman who can only paint women when they are dead, and a woman who only buys art when both the artist and the model are also deceased. It’s classic gothic territory, evoking “The Oval Portrait” and The Portrait of Dorian Grey in the way it uses portraiture as a metaphor for death. Yet sadly, The Fatal Contract is a far more interesting film on paper than in execution, managing to bungle its premise every step of the way. The result is a tepid mix of the gothic romance and the police thriller that manages to be neither very romantic nor particularly thrilling.

It kicks off with a painter (Zhao Haunyu) found dead in a bathtub by a reclusive barman named Tu La (Zhao Yangouzhang). The police suspect suicide, but we find out that the man’s electrocution came at the hands of his former mistress and model, Bei Wei (Bei Ling). Broken by the incident, she becomes a regular at Tu La’s bar, where she drinks a special drink made with Lycoris Blossom (a flower often used in Chinese funerals). He’s an odd fellow —lv li sensitive and quiet, but also quite fond of hanging around crematoriums and painting dead women. Naturally, Bei Wei falls for him. The two of them are then drawn together into a dangerous trap when art collector Lv Li (Tao Hong) commissions him to paint her, perhaps leading them both to their deaths.

The plot synopsis makes the film sound better than it really is. Coming at a time when male creators are finally being called out for the way they use art as a shield to treat women terribly, it would have been fascinating to see a metafictional Chinese take on such a pressing topic. But The Fatal Contract is no La Belle Noiseuse, Rivette’s masterpiece in which the role between the painter and model is constantly subverted. Instead, it uses its premise to kickstart a thriller that easily contains some of the worst depictions of basic police work I have ever seen.

The Fatal Contract

Xuan Miao does her best as the police officer assigned to the case, perhaps giving her character the most weight out of anyone in the film, but there’s not much she can do when the basic work a policewoman should be expected to do is completely misunderstood. For example, dead people are wheeled immediately to the crematorium instead of being given a proper autopsy. It’s as if director Tan Bing assumes that with no evidence of foul play, the body is automatically cremated. This is simply untrue; all bodies are inspected after death in standard police protocol, regardless of what happened.

Perhaps it is done differently in China, but I really doubt that there are no coroners available to give a basic look over after someone’s death. Its seems like Tan Bing not only doesn’t understand police work, but has never even seen a detective movie. This sense of bafflement is further stressed when our lead detective finds blood at the scene of the crime, handles it with her bare hands, and doesn’t even bother sending it off for DNA testing. While films are expected to have some suspension of disbelief when it comes to portraying the police, this lazy writing destroys any suspense we may have because there is no way a cop this incompetent could ever catch the killer.

This laziness is typical of The Fatal Contract as a whole, which for all its $20 million budget, cannot tell a straightforward story to save its life. Making use of both flashbacks and flash-forwards, the narrative through-line can be somewhat difficult to follow. At first it seems like an ambitious approach, showing us what the characters are going through first and why they are acting in such a way second — perhaps inviting repeat viewings — but the devices are deployed in such a haphazard way as to be almost incomprehensible, at times appearing in the middle of unrelated, more prosaic scenes.

The Fatal Contract is the kind of film to end on a nonsensical tone, before revealing yet another incomprehensible twist, before adding extra information via post-credit text to tie up the remaining loose ends. There’s a sense that the plot is catching up with itself, giving one the feeling that the movie is being written as it’s being shot. In that sense, it’s strangely fascinating, but as a gothic thriller it will fail to satisfy even the most die-hard fans of the genre.

Written By

As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

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