TV review: HBO Asia's locally produced horror series Grace is predictable, unconvincing

Television still: Grace starring (from left) Lim Kay Tong, Yoson An, Teresa Daley and Russell Wong. -- PHOTO: HBO ASIA
Television still: Grace starring (from left) Lim Kay Tong, Yoson An, Teresa Daley and Russell Wong. -- PHOTO: HBO ASIA

At one point in the locally produced, largely un-scary HBO horror-mystery miniseries, Grace, someone is asked: "Do you believe in ghosts?"

It comes after a bride is found hanged in a haunted, abandoned floor in a hotel in the first episode. Strange things keep happening (doors slam shut, pieces of glass pop up in people's mouths) and get this - the bridegroom is placed upside-down against the wall like 3-D wallpaper.

If this does not tell you that something is spooky-freaky here, then you better rent 1984 sci-fi comedy Ghostbusters.

Yet, people in this show still take their sweet time to understand that notion, as though they have never heard of the Terrifying Asian Horror Story.

If you ask me, after watching three episodes, I do not believe in ghosts as much as a ghost of a series.

This four-part miniseries, helmed by Australian director, Tony Tilse (Serangoon Road, Farscape), could have been good.

The atmosphere is right and the scenes are beautifully shot with touches of caressing slow motion. The sets also look First-World fresh-paint splendid - interiors were built in a studio here so there is a lot of panicky running along snaky hotel corridors to make this look like The Shining meets Fatal Attraction.

Our Alkaff Mansion got two extra floors added digitally to turn it into a classy, swanky place for the snootily well-heeled.

You know, because every cutaway shot seems to feature ornate fountains.

And the photogenic cast, led by American actor Russell Wong (The Joy Luck Club, 1993, and Romeo Must Die, 2000), looks pan-Asian beautiful.

But made presumably as a classy chiller for viewers overseas, Grace plods too slowly, too predictably and is ultimately too lame for folks here used to the most sudden, most nervous in-your-face jumps in their scare fare.

This would work better if episodes were screened consecutively.

Maybe it was meant to be a stage actor's idea of vengeful ghost Ju-On. But the series has that Serangoon Road malaise of being so overly concerned with its craft and attention to detail that it is weighed down by its own stodginess.

It is kind of like unravelling a musty mystery with gilded chopsticks.

The plot revolves around a rich brood - aka the Most Cursed Family In Singapore - with a dark secret concealed principally by the two-timing father of three daughters, Roy Chan (Wong).

Basically, Daddy-O had a hushed-up affair with a hot babe and thereafter, strange and tragic things start happening to his family.

You know this bunch is District 10-loaded when the tai tai mum (Constance Song) dismisses the masses.

"He'll be a disappointment. The poor ones are," she says about the cute hotel porter her youngest daughter, Vivian (Taiwanese actress Teresa Daley), has taken a fancy to.

The middle girl, Mimi (Vivienne Tseng), gets snuffed out on her wedding day (last week's opening episode); the eldest daughter who has a toddler, Lisa (Jean Toh), goes Rosemary's Baby nuts; and their partners get attacked too.

But I am not thinking straight too because I keep being dazzled by the mysterious, sexy lady in red, Ya Yi (Pamelyn Chee), who lurks here and there, Dark Water-style, as the va-va-voom spook seeking to nail the entire family in revenge for a grievous wrong done to her.

Man, if this is what a ghost looks like, haunt me right now please.

The best part of Grace is the second episode. New mother Lisa is thrown off-kilter by a sinister- looking confinement nanny (Nora Samosir), who comes in with a sulky stare and ritual practices which induce tension and, for viewers here, possibly unintended mirth. Why?

Because you find it hard to believe that this bunch of lofty, sophisticated Westernised folks, speaking only a smattering of Mandarin amid eloquent enunciations in English, could possibly even paranormally engage in the Asian rituals of joss-sticks, chanting, superstition, clay dolls and dark spells this show is pushing as some sort of tourist attraction.

The funniest is seeing Lim Kay Tong pop up as a mystery man with a much bluer collar, spouting even classier thespian English than everybody and yet, somehow, he resides in a tiny rundown HDB flat because every self-respecting made-in-Singapore show needs to capture that essential HDB character for token authenticity.

Now, this is not to say that being picture-perfect but story-unconvincing means doom.

Vivian does not look anything at all like her native-type sisters. But her lively teen spirit pitted against the evil spirit perks up and energises the series every time she appears.

If only the rest of the show had followed her cue.

You wish for that sense of liveliness to zip right through this series, which gains top marks for looking very good but loses them for scaring very little.