Home Theatre: Otherworldly adventures of a very human girl
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's The Ghost Bride, streaming on Netflix
It's not easy to describe The Ghost Bride in a few words. The new Taiwanese-Malaysian Netflix series is set in 1890s Malacca (now Malaysia) but it's not exactly a period drama. The soundtrack, for one, doesn't fit. It's filled with very modern sounds — hip hop, techno, rock, pop — that are not associated with that part of the world, and definitely not from that time. As the title suggests, it features ghosts, but it's not a horror show. There's a murder mystery at its centre, but it's not an investigative thriller. There is also romance and comedy but it's not a romantic comedy. It's actually a mix of all these and then some.
The Ghost Bride, one of Netflix's first Mandarin-language originals, is akin to our masala cinema in a lot of ways. All it lacks is a few song and dance numbers. It has mother and father sentiment, the nanny/foster mother who watches over the heroine like a hawk, two people who squabble a lot before inevitably falling for one another, a villain with scary-looking henchmen who captures the good guys and tortures them, the works. There is a difference though. It is centred on the titular heroine instead of a hero. And it's this heroine, Pan Li Lan, who makes this show so eminently watchable.
Li Lan is a 20-year-old from a semi-affluent family that has fallen on hard times. Given her age, it's about time for her to be married. But Li Lan isn't interested in marriage. She feels it is just a bunch of limitations and rules. What she would rather do is travel the world. Unfortunately, that's isn't really an option for a girl in those times. So when a proposal to become a ghost bride to the recently deceased Lim Tian Ching comes along, she is not entirely opposed to the idea. As a ghost bride, she would have to mourn Tian Ching for all her life and join him after death, but at least it will give her an independence of sorts. Li Lan is a very relatable character. She is no superhero, or even a hero in the usual sense. But she is plucky, quick-witted, and brave for the sake of others. The actor who plays her, Huang Pei-jia, is effortlessly charming and makes Li Lan even more sympathetic.
In a way, The Ghost Bride is coming-of-age story of Li Lan. It can be described as a sort of young adult (YA) soap opera. Albeit one with a supernatural background. The show delves into the custom of ghost brides, the tradition of burning offerings for the dead which they can then use in the netherworld (a kind of purgatory), heavenly guards (angelic investigators of a kind), and so forth. In fact, about half the series is set in the netherworld. And this half, as you would expect, is filled with some serious action and thriller elements. The second half of the show moves quite briskly.
Netflix has not skimped on the production values either. The Ghost Bride has excellent production design and good quality CGI, which helps immerse us into this world.
But what's really delightful about it, is the way the show marries these mystical elements from Chinese culture with the drama of a young woman coming into her own. It really makes for an entertaining and extremely bingeable show (it also helps that there are only six sub-hour-long episodes in this first season). It's not without its flaws. There is some subpar acting from a few of the supporting cast, for instance. Though this is balanced out by the lovely performances from the lead and her chemistry with some other key characters like the aforementioned nanny (the amah, as she is called) and a certain heavenly guard. The main mystery is resolved rather clumsily, but like I said before, this is not an investigative thriller or a whodunit. It's less about that and more about the character arc of Li Lan. And that, is quite satisfying indeed.
The Ghost Bride ends on a lovely note. It also leaves open the possibility of a second season so we will likely get more adorable adventures of Li Lan in the not-too-distant future. And what a charming prospect that is.