'Great Hypnotist' Can't Mesmerize With Meandering Thrills

Directed by: Leste Chan; Runtime: 104 minutes
Grade: C

Early on in The Great Hypnotist, there's a casual reference to the supernatural mind-boggler that put M. Night Shyamalan on the map, The Sixth Sense: a prospective client of a hypnotherapist is said to "see dead people", and the association to the film's signature line is quite purposeful. In the context of the scene, it's a mischievous way of stating that the person suffers from delusions involving the deceased; however, that quote rings a bell that can't help but remind someone of a twist that's become ingrained in pop culture, a line that suggests everything isn't as it seems on the surface. Co-writer and director Leste Chen might've included it in good faith, as a way of preparing the audience for the winding developments to come, but it has another effect while watching a therapist and his patient in a visually-inventive one-room film, forcing those "in the know" to consider the truth underneath the story. And after a lengthy explanation at the end, it makes one wish the drama had stuck to its original premise.

The Great Hypnotist centers on the confident but well-revered therapist Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng), whose instructor and mentor meets him one day to discuss referring a difficult case to him. The patient, Ren Xiaoyan (Karen Mok), believes she's seeing ghosts around her home, and none of her many prior psychiatrists have been able to persuade her otherwise. Using his dominant methods of hypnosis, which guide his clients into a deep state of interaction with their mental space and memories, Xu Ruining attempts to find the reasoning behind the woman's troubling delusions. While she's under his spell and with some quick investigative work, he unearths a wealth of secrets about the woman, ranging from her tumultuous foster childhood to her personal relationships as she grew older. He also begins to discover the truth behind her supposed delusions, pitting him against some of his patient's own psychological resistance as she begins to illustrate why she's become such a troublesome case for her prior doctors.

A big part of the eeriness in The Great Hypnotist lies in the ghosts in the patient's living space and the demons locked away in her mental space, presenting a moody, unreliable jumble of mysteries within her psyche. Director Leste Chen incorporates dim lighting spread throughout the contemporary space of Xu Ruining's office as he begins his therapy, cutting away to flashbacks and to a journey through her mentality in order to reach the source of her torment. There's a lot of exposition conveyed while she's wrapped up in her dreamscape, but it prepares the audience with those little recalled touches throughout her life, enhanced by carefully-used digital imagery to achieve a pseudo-Silent Hill demeanor about those enigmatic gaps in her mind. This isn't a film that relies on jump scares or provocative imagery, either, allowing unpretentiously rich photography and subtly alluring music to draw the audience's attention into the many shifting gears of Ren Xiaoyan's mysteries, and into the dynamics of her resistance to the treatment.

Here's the thing about The Great Hypnotist, though: Xu Ruining doesn't seem like much of a hypnotist, or at least an effective one. The film likes to convey that he's incredibly gifted at what he does, emphasized by his ability to delve into and conquer his patient's psychological space and explore both normal and waking hypnosis, but his temperament is one built of so much arrogance and discontent that it's tough to be that anyone would allow themselves to surrender to his methods of entrancement and persuasion. Especially someone with the kind of defense mechanisms that Ren Xiaoyan has up in front of her after engaging many other psychiatrists. So, when Xu Ruining casually ticks his pocket-watch back and forth a few times and immediately throws her into a trance, it's hard to buy into the cinematic illusion being cast by Leste Chen, especially as the doctor grows more frustrated with his lack of progress. Seeing as how their mental engagement is all the one-location film has going for it, aside from the erratic shifts between memories in Ren Xiaoyan's mind, staying engaged with his machinations becomes a chore.

Alas, all this is part of the plan in The Great Hypnotist, a film that suffers heavily from "Shyamalan syndrome" once the truths about the doctor and his patient emerge from their slumber, proving that every little idiosyncrasy had their purposes in trying to enthrall the audience. Something consistently feels off about the way Ren Xiaoyan conducts herself in the session, and whether it was that quote from Sixth Sense early on or the sheer oddity of her mannerisms, it makes one contemplate her real angle in regards to Xu Ruining and, thus, anticipate something else beyond the surface. Thus, the drawn-out, ridiculous reveal of the truth -- a montage of what really happened during their session, detail by minute detail -- ends up being both unsurprising and completely outlandish as it shuffles around the film's intentions. A convoluted connecting of the dots makes one wish that Leste Chen had just stuck to the basic dynamics of a hypnotist, his resilient client, and the supernatural forces stirring between them, instead of the rude awakening provided by this overly ambitious twist.

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