Friday, March 16, 2012

A Night of Fright is No Delight

『ゲームセンターCX #31 「海腹川背」どうでしょう?課長リターンズ』

"Another one from Hakata? Does this company have a Hakata quotum? We have three Hakata cards here!"
"Game Center CX #31 - How about 'Umihara Kawase'? The Section Chief Returns"

Another historical mystery? Do I have a historical mystery quotum? We've had three historical mysteries in a row now!

I wrote rather extensively about Judge Dee last week, so I'll just refer to that post for the basics and characteristics of that series. Anyway, this week I finally had a chance to look at Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a 1974 telefilm based on van Gulik's 1961 novel The Haunted Monastery. I haven't read that book, so I have no idea whether it is faithful to the original story or not, but most people on the internet, to refer to an anonymous entity, seem to agree that it is mostly faithful. Anyway, the story starts off very Scooby Doo-like. Judge Dee, his three wives and Tao Gan (and other servants) are forced to spend a night at a Taoist monastery because the axle of the Mystery Machine their coach broke down during a dreadful storm. That night also happens to be the anniversary night of the monastery and the judge, despite having caught a cold, naturally has to join the monks in their celebrations because of his rank. But there is more than meets the eye to his monastery, or else it would make for a rather boring story. A window that disappears before the very eyes of the judge, the murky past of the monastery that involves the death of no less than three girls that once stayed here and even the previous abbot and more. Dee has a busy, busy night trying to solve all the mysteries that lurk in this dark place.

And just like that most of Scooby Doo's episodes are fun, this is a truly entertaining telefilm. Which is partly because of the great production values. The titular haunted monastery really seems haunted, as the sets are wonderfully gloomy and eerie. There is a distinct atmosphere of pressure and fear throughout the story, as the judge wanders through the lonely hallways of the monestary and you never know what might be hiding around the corner. Indeed, just like a Scooby Doo episode.

One thing I really liked about this production were the use of still frames that turn into illustrations (I suppose they functioned as eye-catchers for the commercial breaks). It was reminiscent of the late anime director Dezaki Osamu's 'postcard memories' technique, where he would also use still frames that turned into actual illustrations (instead of motionless animation) at dramatic moments. In fact, the overall production values for this telefilm are quite high, and while some of the artistic decisions were a bit doubtful (I was not a fan of the color-schemes of the clothing, for example), this is a really well-made movie.

The sets form a great background to the judge's investigations and while the story is more about the judge's spooky adventures in the building than about bringing a classical orthodox story, there are actually quite some interesting things to be seen here. Most impressive was the deduction the judge shows concerning a picture of a cat by the late abbot and the overall story really comes together nicely near the end, where the judge has one of those moments when everything comes together and the case is solved.

While Khigh Dhiegh physically does not resemble the Judge Dee of the illustrations by van Gulik, I was not really bothered by that. In fact, the whole production conveyed the atmosphere from the series very good (even though I have not read this specific story) and I suspect that some of the dialogue are lifted (almost?) completely from the book. I also think that the reason this telefilm works so well is because the story is located in one specific place without too many references to the outside world. It works perfectly as a stand-alone telefilm, with not too much series-luggage and not too many (temporal specific) cultural references. The down-side is that the setting sometimes leans towards very non-specific, stereotypical depictions of 'Ancient China', but it works in the context of this particular story. It's a shame they didn't continue with a whole series based in this telefilm.

Anyway, I had fun watching this movie and it is certainly recommended to fans of the Judge Dee series.


  1. Hi - just wondering how you actually "saw" this film - I've been looking for it...

  2. Hi,

    I can't really remember where I found it precisely, but it is certainly floating around somewhere on the web, because that's where I found it :) It's probably on one of the major torrent sites...

  3. Hello again! I FOUND IT! An excellent movie: too bad they didn't make more! (I wonder why they didn't?) Let me knwo please if you have any more details!

  4. Ho-Ling: Thanks for the information. I particularly liked your remark about how The Haunted Monastery starts out a bit like a Scooby Doo story... you're right!

    Being a fan of van Gulik's books, I'd love to see this movie. In the absence of an official DVD release, does anyone know where it can be found?

  5. It'd be *somewhere* on the internet, I'm afraid. It's really a shame it never got a proper home video release.