Light on Horror but Filled With an Engaging Mystery, THE GHOST BRIDE 彼岸之嫁 Delights as Clean Family-Friendly Fun
A woman living in 1890s Colonial-era Malacca receives a proposal to become the ghost bride of a wealthy family’s recently-deceased son.
Director: Quek Shio-chuan, Ho Yu-hang
Cast: Huang Pei-jia, Wu Kang-jen, Ludi Lin, Kuang Tian, Janet Hsieh, Angeline Tan, Jordan Voon
Country: Malaysia, Taiwan
Language: Mandarin, Malay
Runtime: About 50 minutes each episode
I thought The Ghost Bride was a horror series. I mean, there are definitely horror elements present – the atmosphere gets suitably tense in parts with excellent prop and costume design all around – but the chunk of the series is an easy-to-digest romance soap that is perfect for the family. The Ghost Bride, the first original Netflix series in Mandarin from Malaysia, may have a lead constantly making baffling decisions and a lukewarm, run-of-the-mill romance at its core but I somehow still found myself binging its six episodes in an afternoon.
The Ghost Bride sets its stage in 1890s Malacca, with young woman Li Lan (Huang Pei-jia) attending a swanky party thrown by the wealthy Lim family. There, Madam Lim (Angeline Tan), the matriarch of the family, proposes a marriage between her son Tian Ching (Kuang Tian) and Li Lan. There are a few issues that lead Li Lan to oppose this union – perhaps the most notable being that Tian Ching is dead.
With its roller-coaster ride through a variety of genres, there is something here for everyone. The Ghost Bride steeps its story in Chinese supernatural folklore but front-loads its horror sequences to its first few episodes. While blue hues and eerie music surround the characters whenever something spooky is around the corner, the actual terrors are light and amount to brief jump-scares.
Early on, Li Lan makes a pact with the sinister Tian Ching, giving her ten days to find out who killed him in exchange for saving her (quite literally) half-dead father. Failure to do so and Li Lan will be an orphan forever trapped in the underworld as his ghost bride. This series’ mystery elements constantly ramp up, never revealing its hand right until the very end. This is something that never failed to keep me reaching for the next episode button.
Rounding out its set of genres, the main focus of The Ghost Bride is the love triangle between Li Lan, her childhood sweetheart Tian Bai (Ludi Lin), and an immortal from the heavens Er Lang (Wu Kang-jen). This is unfortunately where the series falters for me mostly because I couldn’t get invested in the relationships.
The romance amounts to two guys fawning for some reason over someone that teenage girls can attach to – Li Lan is seen as a rebellious, spunky, not-a-lady that doesn’t want to be married (but kind of does). Beyond being limited by my age, I also couldn’t attach to the protagonist with Li Lan’s habit of making questionable decisions that border on being emotionally manipulative. The series is a fantasy – in ways that don’t just involve ghosts and the underworld.
That is not to say that the performances in The Ghost Bride are weak. Huang is appropriately bubbly and head-strong, never content with being any less than someone in control of her life. She does a great job selling the supernatural horrors that follow her as well, balancing between her innate bravery and reactive terror in her expressions.
The two romantic interests are each interesting enough on their own and complete their niches of the love triangle. Lin plays the suave Tian Bai with composure but doses it with dorky charm from time to time in his conversations with Li Lan. Wu delights in his performance as the trickster Er Lang, showcasing strong chemistry with Huang while filling the series with levity.
Showing up mostly in the second half, Kuang’s portrayal of Tian Ching elevates the series to pure campy fun. He plays the devilish undead like a cartoon villain, whirling around in his long coats with his eyes just about to bulge off his face. As a whole, the series does a great job in humanising its main cast of characters, giving them ample room to grow and complete their arcs.
Special mention should also go to the intricate attention paid to set and prop design. 19th century Malacca bubbles with life as a multicultural hub with people of different ethnicities mingling and filling its streets. Under roofs, rooms are lovingly detailed with artefacts of the period. All of it is captured with excellent use of natural lighting, highlighting the organic beauty of the props and costumes while making the supernatural segments pop in comparison.
The series takes historical liberties for a modern audience to varying effects. It’s a fusion that isn’t jarring for the most parts except when it comes to the series’ soundtrack. Most egregious of such is its fishy pairing of a 19th century gambling den with rattling snares and pounding 808s, completely sapping the tension of the scene.
The Ghost Bride is calibrated for a family-friendly crowd, leading to themes and genres that are dampened in effectiveness. Still, there is a lot to be invested in with Li Lin’s journey into the supernatural from the omnipresent mystery to the gorgeous set design surrounding her.
Catch the first season of The Ghost Bride on Netflix now.
In the meantime, get a sneak peek of the series below: