This is one of the best Asian ghost movies to emerge in the wake of 1998’s RING, the Japanese hit that launched the J-Horror wave. A co-production between Singapore and Hong Kong, THE EYE looks somewhat superficially similar to RING in terms of plot (it is also about a young woman searching for a solution to a haunting) and style (the ghostly manifestations convey an effective sense of the uncanny), but closer examination reveals that the two films are quite different. Camera angles, editing, and special effects are more flamboyant, offering a few more large-scale thrills, but the story-telling is less assured, stringing together some great set pieces without building up the looming sense of dread that made RING such an effective scare show even though very little overt horror was on display. Fortunately, the dramatic shortcomings are balanced not only by the scare tactics but also by a subtle emotional poignancy that elicits almost as many tears as screams. To resort to a cliche, this is one of those films that works because you care about the characters.
The story follows Mun (Angelica Lee, a.k.a. Lee Sin-Je), a blind violinist In Hong Kong who undergoes a corneal transplant to regain her sight. While adjusting to her new vision, she has trouble accounting for some of the things she sees; her doctors dismiss this as a transitional period while her brain learns to process input from her eyes, but we son realize that Mun is seeing ghosts. And not only ghosts – she also sees strange, black shrouded figures who arrive to transport the souls of the newly dead, including (in one heart-breaking scene) a young girl suffering from brain cancer. Mun’s visions eventually include glimpses of another residence superimposed on her own room, and when she fails to recognize a photograph of herself, she realizes that the reflection she sees in a mirror is not herself but the dead cornea donor, Ling (Chutcha Rujinanon). Mun tracks down Ling’s mother in Thailand and learns that the local residents considered Ling a witch because she could see the future. After her attempts to warn villagers of a lethal fire went unheeded, Ling committed suicide, for which her mother has never forgiven her. Mun affects a reconciliation between mother and daughter, so that Ling’s restless spirit may move on. Returning home, Mun encounters a traffic jam. Frightened by the appearance of hundreds of dark shrouded figures, Mun hurries to warn the drivers of an impending explosion. But will her warnings be taken any more seriously than Ling’s…?
The great coup of THE EYE resides in the in wonderfully eerie premise: a woman sees dead people, but she does not know what she is seeing, because vision is new to her. This puts a slightly different spin on the usual skepticism expressed by the doctors around Mun, who attribute her visions not to mental illness but to her unfamiliarity with being able to see.
The screenplay does a fine job of setting up the story and introducing us to the main character, who then holds our attention for the rest of the film (thanks in large part to a sympathetic performance from Angelica Lee). The first-person approach (keeping Mun at center stage and revealing the action through her eyes, if you will) helps hold the set pieces together. More than that, it creates a powerful audience identifation bound, so that the emotional impact of events on Mun is strongly felt, whether they be the appearnces of ghosts or the death of another patient in the hospital.
Directing brothers Danny and Oxide Pang (who also edited the film) do a wonderful job of presenting the supernatural in a credible manner. (An encounter with a dead man in an elevator – his feet floating inches above the floor – ranks as one of the absolutely most terrifying scenes ever captured on film.) They use lots of stylistic flash, but it is usually orchestrated to achieve emotional effects, either scary or sentimental. Occasionally, the montage editing (e.g., Mun’s glimpses of Ling’s past life) goes on too long, but film seldom if ever seems to be hitting you over the head; it simply makes each point with maximum effectiveness, and then moves on.
The plot follows somewhat conventional form (there is a trouble ghost who needs to be put to rest), but our identification with Mun carries us along, eager to see what will happen to her. Unfortunately, the climax focuses more on spectacle than dramatic resolution. The conflagration is rendered in horrifying detail (offering explosive thrills of a kind not seen in most ghost stories), but its plot function is slightly contrived: with Mun’s actions clearing echoing Ling’s, we are supposed to feel that the story is somehow coming full circle, but the point, if any, remains unclear. This may be simply a case of the filmmakers imposing an arbitrary circular structure because they could not come up with a dramatically satisfying resolution.
The back-where-we-started denouement may be thematically cryptic, and the pacing may sometimes be too slow (because the film feels comfortable building carefully to its effects), but there is no denying the film’s overall effectiveness THE EYE offers an intriguing look into the world of supernatural horror, one filled with shadowy figures glimpsed at the edge of sight and with more clearly visible souls of the dead intruding upon every day spaces, leaving no room for comfort. In the end, there seems to be little or no deliberate menace from the departed, but THE EYE shows that the mere perception of the presence is enough to unnerve, to disquiet, to delight with fright.
The DVD release of THE EYE presents the film in a wiedescreen transfer with Dolby sound. The soundtrack is in Cantonese and Thai with English subtitles. (NOTE: when Mun goes to Thailand, American viewers may be confused to hear her and her doctor-boyfriend suddenly speaking English; the idea is that, not speaking Thai, they use English as a common language to communicate with the locals.)
Bonus features include a trailer, cast and crew information (in text form), and a featurette about the making of the film. To some extent, the featurette is a standard promotional piece, with the producer, actors, and direcotrs providing interviews intercut with footage from the film.
Fortunately, there are some interesting behind-the-scenes details. Producer Lawrence Cheng talks about his efforts to organize co-productions between various Asian countries (THE EYE features cast and crew from Malaysia, China, Singapore, and Thailand.) The Pang Brothers reveal that their inspiration came from reading a story about a girl who committed suicide after receiving a cornea transplant, and the mention that the explosive finale during the traffic jam was based on a real incident. Perhaps most amusingly, there are brief soundbites from people who allegedly experienced the sort supernatural encounters scene in the film, implying that these, too, are based on real incidents.
THE EYE (“Gin Gwai,” 2002). Directed by Oxide Pang & Danny Pang. Written by Jojo Hui and Danny Pang & Oxide Pang. Cast: Lee Sin-Je, Lawerence Chou, Chutcha Rujinanaon, Yut Lai So, Candy Lo, Yin Ping Ko, Pierre Png, Edmund Chen, Wai-Ho Yung, Wilson Yip.
FILM AND DVD REVIEW: The Eye 2 – The Eye 10 – The Eye (remake)