WARNING! SPOILER ALERT
Although I have not revealed the ending, it is impossible to discuss the magical and paranormal themes in The Heirloom without also discussing plot points. If you are bothered by spoilers, you may wish to watch the movie first. Alternatively and especially if you’re unfamiliar with Hsiao Guei (the practice of raising baby ghosts), you may understand, appreciate, and enjoy The Heirloom more, if you first read the entry for Golden Boy in my Encyclopedia of Spirits. Although Golden Boy is from Thailand, not Taiwan, he derives from a similar tradition, which is explained more explicitly in the encyclopedia than in the film.
Can a family’s long-standing, multi-generational blood contract with a spirit ever be severed?
That’s the crucial dilemma at the heart of The Heirloom (also known as Zhaibian), a 2005 ghost movie from Taiwan and director Leste Chen’s film debut. The Heirloom was written by Dorian Li and stars Terri Kwan and Jason Chang. Filmed in Mandarin, the DVD offers subtitles in English and Spanish.
Because it’s distributed by Tartan Asia Extreme, The Heirloom is often assumed to be a horror movie, much to the disappointment of viewers seeking gore. Although there are some disturbing scenes—this is clearly not a feel-good children’s movie; it opens with what appears to be mass suicide by hanging—The Heirloom is not a slasher film. Instead it is a leisurely paced, thoughtful exploration of an ancient and obscure (at least in the West) Chinese magical tradition: Hsiao Guei (also sometimes spelled Hsiao Kuei), the practice of raising and controlling child ghosts—and the subsequent consequences.
Although it’s called The Heirloom, the movie’s name could just as appropriately be “The House” or “The Mansion.” The plot begins when a young architect, James Yang, the last of his once-prominent family, inherits an old house, just outside Taipei. James has lived abroad most of his life and is only now returning to his native Taiwan. In the meantime, the house, which was constructed during the Japanese occupation era, has stood empty for twenty years, waiting for him. Extremely large and potentially very luxurious with interesting and unique architectural motifs that appeal to James, the house also contains an unusual shrine room.
The realtor who shows James his inheritance strongly suggests that he sell it immediately—it is too large, too lonely, and too old, not modern enough— but James is charmed by the house. He insists on moving in immediately, assuring the realtor that he will not live in it alone. James quickly works to intensify his previously long-distance relationship with Yo, a dancer. Although initially resistant, she, too, falls under the house’s spell. Having moved into the house together, James and Yo invite their closest friends to take a look.
The Heirloom features a small cast. In addition to James and Yo, the primary characters include their two friends, Chang and Yi-Chen; Detective Wu, the police officer who investigates the ensuing mysteries; as well as a long-lost relative who holds the key—the only survivor of the mass suicide shown in The Heirloom‘s first frames.
Yo takes Yi-Chen on a private tour of the house. Yi-Chen, a journalist, stops to take photos of the unique shrine room, its walls lined with family portraits—more than she has ever witnessed in any other ancestral shrine room. The tone is ominous and, indeed, supernatural phenomena instantly begin. Was this photography an act of sacrilege? An awakening? Or was it merely coincidental? Would everything that subsequently occurs have happened anyway?
The ensuing supernatural phenomena include mysterious bloody footprints, visionary experiences, and eventually some very strange and inexplicable deaths. Most unusually and unnervingly, visitors to the house, having departed, mysteriously discover themselves back within the walls at the stroke of midnight with no recollection of how they returned. All clues point to a haunted house, but why is it haunted?
Yi-Chen decides to investigate. Searching through old newspaper archives, she discovers an article with the headline: “Mass suicide in millionaire’s house. One survivor.”
Other reports also surface. For instance, a thief, who stole from the house, hung himself three days later. For those three days, he had been too terrified to sleep, lest he wake up back within the house. Yi-Chen shares her findings with Yo, who decides to investigate further, delving into the history of the Yang family. She consults an oracle. The fortune she receives via divination by finch is ominous:
Gain fortune through evil,
Fall into endless hell
Yo discovers that the Yang family made their fortune by practicing Hsiao Guei, an ancient tradition involving the preservation of fetuses and deceased infants. (Hsiao Guei names both the ghost and the process of its creation.) Kept within urns, these dead babies are ritually transformed into powerful ghosts who obey commands. Why would such a little ghost be desirable? The appeal of baby ghosts is that they didn’t live long enough to know right from wrong. They will do anything their master requests. Fed upon their master’s blood, the Hsiao Guei can be directed to bring wealth, good fortune, and eliminate enemies. For generations, Yo learns, the Yangs bought dead babies from the black market, forcing family members to feed the babies with their own blood, thus ritualistically creating ghost-slaves with profound blood ties to the Yang clan. But who is really enslaved?
The Yangs continued this practice for generations, achieving great material success. Eventually, however, there was an involuntary price to pay. A strikingly high percentage of Yang babies were born with mental disabilities or developed terminal illnesses during childhood. What is the point of raising child ghosts to serve a family, if the family does not survive?
To preserve the few healthy offspring in each generation, as well as the family fortune, the Yangs developed a new ritual system. Disabled, weak, or unhealthy relatives were kept as prisoners, locked up within the house and forced to feed the ghost their blood. Simultaneously, the healthy Yangs lived luxuriously and inherited the family’s wealth, status, and power. In other words, some family members were sacrificed for the benefit of others.
This practice continued, until one imprisoned family member finally had her revenge, in the process empowering the ghost, with the end result that fifteen members of the Yang family hung themselves at precisely the same moment, all hanging at precisely the same height. One person was spared, before the architect of revenge destroyed herself, too. No one was left to feed the ghost, who lay dormant in the attic.
The Heirloom explores what happens when a member of the Yang family finally returns to the house. Metaphysically-minded viewers: look for brief glimpses of the shrine room, the Hsiao Guei urn, and the oracle visited by Yo. (The oracle features traditional East Asian avian divination, although this is not explicit: if you’re not familiar with the practice, you may not comprehend why there are birds in the scene.) The Heirloom treats us to a lengthier look at the outside shrine (not within the house) visited by Yo and James, as they seek to allay the baby ghost.
A related Thai tradition involves the Golden Boy, also known as Ghost Boy, or Guman Thong. Golden Boy, how he is created, his attributes, powers, and demands are detailed in my Encyclopedia of Spirits.