Remember when J-Horror and K-Horror were a thing, and Asian filmmakers could barely churn out titles fast enough for Hollywood to remake them? Well, here is a relatively late example of the form, an elegantly crafted Korean ghost story, Muoi: Legend of a Portrait (2007), which should please fans who cannot get enough of a good thing, even if this particular thing is not quite as good as the films that turned you into fans in the first place. The background landscape is new, but the familiar compositions and pictorial elements remain, enhanced with an interesting color palette, a fine sense of light and shadow, and some entertaining brush strokes; however, the portraiture is more technically proficient than inspired: unable to render its subject in compelling detail, the finished painting is a beautiful pastiche but no masterpiece – interesting enough to peruse in a gallery but not enough to purchase and admire for a lifetime.
The story has Korean novelist Yun-hee (An Jo) desperately trying to come up with material for a new book before a publishing deadline runs out. Fortunately, Seo-yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha), an old friend who moved to Vietnam, has run across a fascinating legend about a haunted portrait; unfortunately, Yun-hee’s previous book used thinly disguised and possibly embarrassing material based on Seo-yeon’s life. Hoping that Seo-yeon never realized the connection, or perhaps never even read the book, Yun-hee heads to Vietnam and begins investing the legend of Muoi (Anh Thu), a woman who died after a horrible betrayal and whose vengeful spirit was contained in a painting . The writer begins having nightmares, fueled by a combination of her research and residual doubt about whether or not Seo-yeon is really unaware of having been exploited in Yun-hee previous book.
In the manner of good Korean horror films, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on subtle brushstrokes to gradually reveal hints and portents, until finally the accumulation of detail resolves into a clear picture of the horror lurking in shadows behind the foreground characters. The problem is that those characters are not worthy subjects: they are too shallow to be intriguing, and the attempt to creature mystique through Chiaroscuro lighting only reveals how obvious their “secrets” are.
Yun-hee’s dreams may indicate she is victim of a guilty conscience, but she actually seems completely remorseless; her concern is only about having her betrayal discovered, not about atoning for it. Seo-yeon, on the other hand, is so preternaturally congenial that viewers immediately suspect she is faking it; the visuals and the narrative identify her so closely with Muoi (both of whom suffered betrayal horrible enough to inspire revenge) that, if you’re wondering whether Seo-yeon’s attempt to help Yun-hee is really a cover for a hidden agenda, all signs point to an emphatic YES!
The problem is exacerbated by a narrative gambit that the screenplay fails to pull off. By structuring the story around the relationship between Yun-hee and Seo-yeon, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait misfires, building to a confrontation so climactic that the story seems concluded – although, in fact, it is this sequence that finally unleashes the vengeful power of Muoi from the portrait. What should have been the climax – the film goes on to paint the screen red with blood in a satisfyingly horrific rampage of revenge – instead feels like an extended epilogue.
This epilogue lasts just long enough to make one realize that it could have been the main body of the film: the script could have begun with the deaths and had Yun-hee tracking down the legend of Muoi’s portrait not simply to earn a paycheck but to put a stop to the murders. With the threat active throughout the proceedings, dread would have evolved naturally, instead of being artificially injected through Yun-hee’s dreams. As it stands now, the film is punctuated with the world’s least suspenseful countdown, with calendar dates periodically flashing on screen to let us know that the traditional date upon which Muoi takes revenge is approaching – even though the story has given us no reason to think Muoi is currently targeting anyone and, in fact, we are clearly told that her spirit is helplessly trapped in the portrait.
Without this kind of ongoing threat, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on a vague sense of anticipation (what – if anything – is Seo-yeon up to?) coupled with Yun-hee’s quest to discover the truth about Muoi. The later is a bit contrived and even clunky. At one point, Yun-hee randomly questions people on the street – a pointless endeavor, considering that she does not speak Vietnamese; however, the screenplay provides a lucky coincidence that rewards her efforts.
Fortunately, the actual revelations of the Muoi’s history is intriguing enough to sustain interest, and it climaxes with a truly heart-rending double betrayal, first in life and then in death: the first drives Muoi to suicide; the second traps her soul in the portrait before she can seek justice against those who wronged her. The film then tops this with a parallel betrayal in the more recent past, which is ghastly enough to prime viewers for the supernatural settling of scores that eventually transpires. You will guess where the film is heading long before it gets there (once you learn that Muoi has a reputation for rendering vengeance on behalf of those willing to pay her price, the big plot revelation is relatively obvious), but you will be glad to follow along anyway.
Like a lesser work in an established artistic movement, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait is more interesting when considered within the context of its predecessors (e.g., as in 1998’s Ring, we have a female writer tracking down the legend of a ghost that strikes with clockwork regularity). Enhanced with lovely location work in Vietnam (apparently a first for this kind of film), Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait attempts to create an interesting variation on established conventions; even though it fails to equal the masterworks it emulates, it does understand and exploit the power of the familiar stylistic devices, rendering a new work that reminds us of why we enjoy the genre. Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait will not win many converts to the movement, but the already initiated may find it worthy of a brief perusal.
This anthology of Asian horror stories (known as Saam Gaang in the East) was retitled THREE EXTREMES II for U.S. home video, which is doubly misleading: THREE precedes 2004’s THREE EXTREMES by two years, and it is far less extreme in terms of violence and perversity, instead offering moderately interesting variations on the traditional tropes of Asian horror films as established in 1998’s RING. Typical of anthologies, the results are uneven, with two decent episodes and one dud. Fans of the formula, who were put off by THREE EXTREMES, will find THREE closer to their hearts, and at the very least, it represents a considerable improvement upon the other relatively well known Asian Anthology, BANGKOK HAUNTED (2001).
There is no linking device or thematic connection between the three episodes, each of which was made by a completely different team: one from South Korea, one from Thailand, and one from China.
First up is “Memories,” from South Korean writer-director Kim Ji-woon, who would go on to wow critics with his subsequent TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Janghwa Hongryeon, 2003). “Memories” utilizes similar strategies, mixing the supernatural with the psychological. The story features a husband suffering from visions of his missing wife (who appears to him as the traditional Asian ghost girl, with long black hair obscuring his face); his psychiatrist suggests the visions are sympoms of the husband’s repressed memories about why his wife left him. Meanwhile, the wife awakens on a distant street, apparently suffering from amnesia, and struggles to find her way back home.
The greatest strength of “Memories” is its cool, sharp visuals. K-Horror films (as opposed to their J-Horror counterpart) tend to be more colorful, capturing the modern world in glistening precise images that make the intrusion of the horror all the more uncanny. Kim Ji-woon’s use of this approach pays off here, holding attention even if the story turns out to be relatively simple. Intercutting the two narrative threads maintains an aura of mystery, which is enhanced by some suggestive and possibly ironic hints about what is happening (the episode is set in a new housing development that claims to be a place where dreams come true). Unfortunately, the resolution is neither particularly astounding nor comletely satisfying.
Far more disappointing is THREE’s Thai episode “The Wheel,” a period piece set in a small village where a puppet master dies. Opening narration informs us that these puppets are imbued with the spirit of their creator, who is the only one who may own them; anyone else will fall under the curse. Needless to say, someone lays claims to the puppets, and the curse begins to works its evil magic – not that you will care.
For a short subject, “The Wheel” is amazingly listless; you would think the limited running time would force a certain amount of narrative comprehsion, but no, the story wanders from character to character, never settling on a central protagonist or clarifying why we should worry about what happens to any of them. Adding insult to injury, there is an “It was only a premonition” twist ending, suggesting that a character has seen the future that will result from taking the puppets – and then he goes ahead and ignores the warning. Smart move, moron!
THREE improves considerably with its final episode, “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan (who produced the Pang Brothers’ THE EYE and THE EYE 2). The story follows a single cop named Wai and his son, who move into a nearly deserted apartment building, with only one neighbor. Wai’s son is disturbed by the mysterious appearance of a little girl, along with strange phenomena, such as all the doors of the vacant apartments being inexplicably open. When Wai’s son disappears, the cop questions the neighbor, Yu, stumbling upon an extremely strange situation: Yu has preserved the body of his dead wife, Hai’er, in the hope that daily regimen of Chinese medicine (as opposed to Western medicine) will resurrect her.
Although it’s story is simple, “Going Home” is relatively sophisticated. Yu appears at first to be a lunatic villain, who knocks out Wai and ties him up in order to avoid having his secret revealed. But as time goes by, we begin to see his sympathetic side, as he describes the devotion he has showered on his wife for the last three years (the resurrection process is not a fast one). By the time Wai’s cop friends come looking for him, we no longer want to see Yu come to a bad end.
As engrossing as it is, “Going Home” suffers from some obvious flaws. The mysterious little girl seems shoe-horned into the film in order to justify including this episode in an anthology of ghost stories. She is just a plot device, luring Wai’s son away so that Wai will have a motivation to question his neighbor and stumble upon his secret. Once Wai has been detained by Yu, the missing son is virtually forgotten (except for one or two brief moments of lip service) as the focus shifts to Yu.
[SPOILER ALERT] The surprise ending is also slightly muddled: We are led to believe that Yu’s wife previously resurrected him, using the same Chinese medicine that he is now using on her. Why, then, does his wife does not return fully to life? Are we to believe that a police autopsy killed her upon the point of resurrection? But why would a doctor perform an autopsy whose twitching fingers and flickering eyelids are already displaying signs of life? [END SPOILERS].
The nagging questions raised by the twist ending are not enough to ruin the overall impact of “Going Home,” but they do suggest that the story might have benefitted from a more fully thought-out treatment that did not involve the irrelevant supernatural elements.
At 140 minutes, THREE outstays its welcome, and the episodes do not enhance each other in a way that would tie the three parts into a satisfying whole. Fortuntately, this disjointed nature makes it easy enough to view the episodes one at a time, fast-forwarding through (or skipping entirely) “The Wheel.” Both “Memories” and “Going Home” offer something of interest to fans of Asian horror; although each uses the cliches of the genre, neither one is simply a genre piece. Instead, they display little sparks of original vision that make THREE interesting if not esseential viewing.
THREE (Saam Gaang, a.k.a. “Three Extremes 2,” 2002).
- “Memories” written and directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Cast: Kim Hye-su , Jeong Bo-seok, Choi Jeong-won, Jang Jung-Won, Sung-Keun Jee.
- “The Wheel” directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Written by Nitas Singhamat from a story by Ek Lemchuen and Nonzee Nimibutr. Cast: Suwinit Panjamawat, Kanyavae Chatiawaipreacha, Pornchai Chuvanon, Anusak Intasorn, Pattama Jangjarut.
- “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan. Written by Matt Chowand Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui from a story by Teddy Chan and Chao Bin Su. Cast: Leon Lai, Eric Tsang, Eugenia Yuan, Ting-Fung Li, Tsz-Wing Lau.
Surfing the Internet the other day, I stumbled upon an advertisement posing as an article, which posed the question, “What is the Asian secret to strong lush hair?” I did a screen grab, so that you can see what I am talking about without having to click through the link:
As you can probably guess, my first thought upon seeing this ad was to wonder why it did not look like this:
With no major new horror, fantasy, or science fiction films in nationwide release this weekend, I need something to write about, so this seems as good a time as any to answer a question that plagues many Western viewers. The real secret is why so many J-Horror films feature ghostly women with long, black, usually unkempt hair, like THE GRUDGE’s Kayako (seen in the mock-up ad above).
As is sometimes the case with questions like these, there is no simple answer, because the tradition has been around so long that many modern practicioners of horror probably follow it simply because it is a tradition – without necessarily understanding the underlying implications.
Basically, what the cauldron boils down to is that traditional depictions of female ghosts featured unkempt hair because, long ago, Japanese women kept their hair up while alive; it was let down when the body was prepared for a funeral. Hence, a woman with undone, flowing hair looked like a dead woman.
Okay, that explains the look, but in some cases (such as “The Black Hair,” from 1964’s KWAIDAN), the hair almost has a life of its own, or at least some kind of lethal quality is suggested. I don’t have a specific explanation for that, but a Japanese friend informs me that there is a folk belief in the country that hair has an almost magical quality, as if it represents some kind of spiritual essence of the person. For that reason, combs and brushes, which we regard somewhat casually in the West, have more personal significance in Japan, and if you were to find one lying around in that country, you would avoid touching it, for fear of what might “rub off” on you.
Of course, these traditions and folk beliefs are re-imagined and sometimes altered when committed to celluloid. One good example occurs in the Korean film PHONE (2002), which features a fairly typical Asian ghost gaining possession of a very young girl. When her parents take her to a child psychiatrist, the doctor interprets one of the girl’s drawings, of herself with long, black hair, as a wish-fulfillment representation of her sexually mature self. The suggestion, then, is that long hair represents the power of female sexuality, which gives these ghosts – often helpless victims while alive – incredible power after death.
It is tempting to interpret this as a sign of a male patriarchal society fearful of what will happen if demure women escape from their traditional society roles – it’s a classic example of what Freud called “The Return of the Repressed.” This would also help explain why so many Asian horror films focus on female ghosts. Another reason is that in Asian countries, women are considered to be physically weaker but spiritually stronger than men; a female ghost, being all spirit, would naturally be more powerful than one of the opposite gender.
No doubt some will take issues with some of these answers and explanations, but I will remind readers that these explanations are not meant to be definitive. “The Long, Black Hair of Death” is a great image at least partly because it is the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot, open to many interpretations. For instance, the fact that the hair so often covers the ghost’s face is not only a good suspense device – sort of an organic version of the Phantom of the Opera’s mask – it also raises questions about identity and personality, as if the individuality of the formerly living person has been partly erased in death, leaving only a faceless spirit behind, one with little connection to its own lost humanity.
In short, this is one of those secrets whose power derives at least partly from its secrecy. We can theorize and guess, but we will never really understand that long black hair, any more than Ishmael will ever fully know the White Whale.
UPDATE (7/25/2012): In his book J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, author David Kalat adds another kink to this theory. Referring to the seminal Korean ghost film, WHISPERING CORRIDORS (1998), set in a repressive girl’s high school, Kalat points out that the strict dress code of such institutions forbids free-flowing hair. Thus, a woman who “lets her hair down” is a rebel undermining the authoritarian system. These female ghosts, unable to fight back while alive, return defiantly, finally able to turn the tables on the system that destroyed them.
Turns out in Park Chan-wook’s universe, revenge may be sweet, but blood is just plain tasty. In THIRST, a priest’s benevolent attempt to aid medical researchers turns around to bite him in the… well, let’s say neck, when a blood transfusion transforms him into a profoundly conflicted vampire. Adding to Sang-hyun’s (Song Kang-ho) confusion: his attraction to Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), wife of a childhood friend and a woman so desperate to escape her cramped, dead-end life that an emotional appeal to a newly undead doesn’t seem a particularly unsavory option.
As with Park’s previous work, THIRST mashes up explicit gore, creative fantasy, social satire, and plain ol’ human weakness to come up with a unique, occasionally funny take on a beloved horror standard. We had a chance to speak to Park during his visit to New York:
WHAT’S THE SPIRITUAL NATURE OF A VAMPIRE?
Well, when you’re looking at the special nature of a vampire, I set out actually to take out anything that’s fantastical about a vampire. I didn’t want there to be any kind of mystical elements, so in my film, vampirism is treated almost as a disease, almost as if it is something that can be scientifically explained. The film isn’t interested in trying to [provide that explanation], but if someone in the film’s world was interested in trying to come up with a scientific explanation of the vampire phenomenon, he would be able to.
The way I set this up is that I treated vampirism as a kind of transferable disease — you can get it through infection or through germs. Like a virus can enter your body, in the same way a vampire’s blood enters your body to turn you into a vampire. What I have done is to take the vampire and turn him into the most realistic [kind of creature], take out any kind of mystical or fantastical elements out of it.
AND YET, FOR TAKING THE MYSTICAL ELEMENTS OUT OF IT, YOUR PROTAGONIST IS A SPIRITUAL MAN, A PRIEST.
That’s exactly the starting point of the story, and what makes this film interesting. I’ve taken the mystical elements out of vampirism, but then we have this spiritual man to whom these terrible things happen. So therein lies the question of this person, who is a man of faith, who follows the will of God. But then, that would mean that him becoming a vampire would also be God’s will. What meaning could there be within that will? Why, out of all people, would he be the one to be inflicted with vampirism?
Now I could ask the same question by choosing to deal with a communicable disease more commonly found in real life. But to go about it that way would just be real life. [You can] ask the question, “Why am I the one to get this disease?” but we’ve moved it to a different level. In this film, when we’re asking why is it this particular priest who’s inflicted with [vampirism] — and whose blood is it, anyway? — we’re starting to move on to a different level, starting to ask different questions.
HOW IS THE VAMPIRISM REFLECTED IN THE LOVE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SANG-HYUN AND TAE-JU?
In this film, the priest turns into a vampire, and because he turns into a vampire, he loses the power to control his desires. The way he falls in love with this woman, the trigger is intentionally left obscure. Now, when you watch the film, you realize that once he’s transfused his blood, there’s initially a dormant stage, where the characteristics of a vampire haven’t revealed themselves yet. But is it the dormant stage, before he’s fully a vampire, when the woman enters his life and all the sexual desires he’s repressed for so long can no longer be controlled? Is this the reason he falls in love with her? Or is it the other way around, is it because he’s met this woman and fallen in love, is this the trigger for him turning into a vampire? This is intentionally left obscure in the film.
Also obscure is the woman’s stance towards the man. Out of the intention to kill her husband and take control of the household, she brings in this outside person and uses him to take care of her husband. If you look at it from that perspective, the metaphor for vampire is actually the woman, not the man. But here again, it’s kind of obscure whether she’s only using him to achieve a means, achieve her ends, or is she actually, really in love with him. Both interpretations are possible.
BECAUSE TAE-JU IS ESSENTIALLY A FEMME FATALE, DO YOU VIEW Thirst MORE AS A NOIR FILM THAN A HORROR FILM?
Yes, there is that element in there, especially if you look at the film from Tae-Ju’s perspective. The interesting thing about the noir genre is that it leaves you wondering if the woman only ever meant to use the man or whether she actually was in love with him. If she is an exemplary femme fatale, she would never actually give you the answer.
THE VAMPIRE ALWAYS RINGS TWICE?
ALONE is an Asian import – not from the usual suspects Japan or Korea, but Thailand (technically, the film is partly set in Korea, but it is a Thai production). Although not a masterpiece, it is an intriguing tale told in a suitably spooky manner, offering evidence that, nearly a decade after the J-Horror wave launched with RING, there is still some life in supernatural horror movies from the Orient.
Pim is a married woman living in Korea, who returns to Thailand after her mother has a stroke. Home is definitely not where the heart is, however; Pim is haunted – either psychologically or literally – by the ghost of her deceased conjoined twin, who apparently resents Pim’s happy life alone, after the two of them had sworn to stay together forever.
The typical supernatural scares are executed with all effectiveness you could desire, but ALONE is essentially a study of Pim’s psychological deterioration. The plotting is slow (it takes forever for flashbacks to reveal things we have already guessed, such as that Pim insisted on being surgically separated from her twin in order to get married); fortunately, the script pulls off a great surprise twist near the end that not only casts more light on the proceedings but also helps make sense out of why Pim is so guilt-ridden. If one were to pick a point of comparison, the closest predecessor would be A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (which also played the game of “is the haunting real or imagined), but ALONE is much less cryptic in its storytelling.
If ALONE suffers from any obvious flaw, it is one fairly typical of ghost and/or haunted house movies: the lead character trues to go about her daily life, which is interrupted by the intrusion of the supernatural; consequently, the story has little forward momentum, relying on the ghostly manifestations to liven things up, until the characters are finally forced to take action in the last act. For those patient enough to sit through the protracted set-up, the pay-off is worthwhile.
Unfortunately, ALONE is not currently available in the U.S.
ALONE (Faet, 2007). Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun &
Parkpoom Wongpoom. Screenplay by Aummaraporn Phandintong,
Banjong Pisanthanakun, Sopon Sukdapisit (as Sophon Sakdaphisit),
Parkpoom Wongpoom. Cast:
Marsha Wattanapanich … Pim / Ploy
Vittaya Wasukraipaisan … Vee (as Withaya Wasukraipaisan)
Ratchanoo Bunchootwong … Pim and Ploy’s Mother (as Ruchanu Boonchooduang)
Hatairat Egereff … Pim – age 15
Rutairat Egereff … Ploy – age 15
Namo Tongkumnerd … Vee – age 15 (as Namo Tonggamnerd)
Chutikan Vimuktananda … Pim – age 7
Chayakan Vimuktananda … Ploy – age 7
THIRST – the bloody vampire-drama-tragedy from Korean writer-director Park Chan-wook – has been scheduled for a July 31 release in the U.S., courtesy of Universal Studios’s boutique label, Focus Features. Fans of Park’s earlier work (OLD BOY, SYMPATHEY FOR MR. VENGEANCE, LADY VENGEANCE, THREE EXTREMES) will see much that is familiar, but this time the meticulous cinematic techique and bloody violence are put in the service of a story about a priest who becomes a vampire after receiving a blood transfusion during an experiment medical treatment that goes wrong. The new bloodlust leads to a more familiar form of lust, and the priest launches into an affair with the beautiful young wife of an old friend, leading to a story that feels more like Nagisa Oshima’s masterful kaidan EMPIRE OF PASSION than a traditional vampire tale – although, being a Park Chan-wood film, the emotional turbulence is visualized in a series of brutally violent sequences. The “red band” trailer gives a good idea of the mayhem that ensues…
THIRST – a new “vampire romance” from Korean writer-director Park Chan-wook (LADY VENGEANCE, THREE EXTREMES) – is the first Korean production completed with Hollywood financing (courtesy of Universal Pictures). The film (which is about a priest who is turned into a vampire when an experiment goes wrong) will be screening in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this month. In honor of this event, Hollywood Reporter has posted an interview with Park Chan-wook:
The Hollywood Reporter: What is a vampire movie doing In Competition in Cannes? In fact, is “vampire movie” really the right term?
Park Chan-wook: This is one of the questions that trouble me the most. As soon as one starts to classify a film by genre, whatever it may be, people start to have unnecessary preconceptions. Furthermore, that kind of definition cannot embrace the whole film. For instance, if I said “Thirst” is a “vampire romance,” most people will think of “Interview With the Vampire,” or “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” even though the romanticism found in those films has nothing at all to do with “Thirst.” Also, no one will be able to conceive of the religious issues that are embedded in “Thirst.” But if I really had to come up with an answer, I cannot think of any other than “vampire romance.” If there is a more accurate way of classifying it, please let me know.
THR: I’ve heard that you scare easily. Do you believe in the existence of vampires?
Park: Back in the days when I was poor, I watched a lot of horror films on a very old, small TV. They were on these VHS tapes that had been taped over a number of times and the picture quality was terrible. At the time I thought I was a horror film fan. But then came the age of DVDs, and my TV was replaced with a big new one. Only then did I realize that I scare easily. Ever since, I have not been able to watch horror films. Vampires are a metaphor for all kinds of exploiters. I certainly do believe in the existence of exploiters.
Thanks to Universal’s involvement, THIRST (known as Bakjwi in Korea) will be distributed internationall by the high-end boutique label Focus Features (although no U.S. date has been set). Park, who has been offered the opportunity to helm the reboot of THE EVIL DEAD, states that the Hollywood involvement in THIRST has not motivated him to work in America, but he might make the jump if the script is right:
Park: […] The issue of whether I make a Hollywood film or not, is only related to the question of whether I can find a good enough script. Unless I have in my hand a script that is suitable for an English-language film (regardless of whether I or someone else wrote it), I won’t be working on a Hollywood film. But if a script like that came my way right now, I would be prepared to go straight from Cannes to L.A. without stopping home in Seoul.
Despite some effective scare scenes WITCH BOARD: BUNSHISABA is a disappointing horror film from South Korean writer-director Byeong-ki Ahn, whose PHONE is one of the best of the Asian ghost movies to follow in the wake of RING. All the familiar elements are back in place (the dark-haired ghost girl, the girls-school setting, etc), and Ahn manipulates them as well as ever, but his scenario is a jumbled mess that doesn’t come close to holding together as a coherent movie. By the time the ending wraps up, even the most patient fan of Asian horror films may become fed up with the haphazard plotting.
WITCH BOARD: BUNSHISABA begins with some victimized school girls putting a curse on their tormentors, who begin bursting into flames, but this plot thread is soon resolved as the perpetrators are identified. Is the movie already over, after only a half-hour? No, Byeong-ki Ahn keeps the story going by telling us that the curse was carried about by a vengeful ghost girl. Apparently, she was obliging enough to follow orders and kill the bullies, but she also has her own agenda – and a good thing, too, otherwise it would be hard to stretch the film to feature length. As usual, there is a back story about the ghost, and some of the adult characters are hiding an evil secret about her demise. As if that were not enough the ghost girl (surprise, surprise) wants to be reborn in the flesh – just like Kayako in JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2.
WITCH BOARD: BUNSHINSABA is so derivative that it feels like the work of a hack, shamelessly ripping off other movies. Of course, Byeong-ki Ahn has never been noted for his originality, and his previous screenplays feel as if he cherry-picked favorite elements from other horror films. At least in PHONE, he managed to synthesize these fragments into a coherent murder-mystery-drama in which the horror scenes acted as visceral punctuation marks.
Sadly, WITCH BOARD: BUNSHISABA is a throwback to Byeong-ki Ahn’s earlier effort NIGHTMARE, which (though entertaining) felt like two different movies spliced together (a psycho-thriller a la Brian DePalma or Dario Argento combined an Asian ghost story). At least the splicing pretended to serve a function there (the audience is supposed to guess whether the gruesome murders are committed by a ghost or by a lunatic). WITCH BOARD: BUNSHINSABA is even worse: it feels like three or four different movies spliced together, with no rhyme or reason at all to justify the combination. You get the feeling that every idea Ahn had while working the on script found its way onto the screen, whether it fit in or not.
Ahn still has a decent grasp of the mechanics of fear, but with an incoherent story that goes nowhere, the scare scenes wear themselves out through endless repetition, creating a film that feels almost interminable. Fortunately, there are a few nice touches to remind us that the man does have some talent, but it is on better display in PHONE.
Before WITCH BOARD: BUNSHINSABA, Byeong-ki Ahn seemed poised to become a major force in the horror genre – the Korean equivalent of Takashi Shimizu. As a debut film, NIGHTMARE was flawed but entertaining, displaying exciting potential – potential that was more full realized in his follow-up, PHONE. Unfortunately, instead of hitting his stride, he stumbled badly with WITCH BOARD, but reaction to APT (Apateu, 2006) indicates he bounced back. Next up for him is the obligatory, unnecessary American remake of PHONE, though the extent of his involvement (if any) is unclear at this point.
The Korean title “Bunshinsaba” is more or less the equivalent of “abacadabra” – a magic word meant to invoke spirits. English-subtitled prints seen at festival screenings in the U.S. rendered the title as “Ouija Board” although there is no Ouija Board on screen.
WITCH BOARD: BUNSHINSABA (Bunshinsaba, 2004). Written and directed by Byeong-ki Ahn. Cast: Kim Gyu-ri, Lee Se-Eun, Lee Yoo-ri, Choi Jeong-yoon.
By the diminishing standards of American remakes of Asian ghost stories – a phenomenon that descended to the dismal depths of the infernal gulf with last year’s not so terrifying trio of ONE MISSED CALL, THE EYE, and SHUTTER – THE UNINVITED must be reckoned a kind of success, though not an exalted one. This redo of the South Korean art house hit A TALE OF TWO SISTERS takes the basic story of its ambitious source and nimbly dumbs it down into a multiplex thriller targeted an undiscriminating teens looking for nothing more than a few good scares. As far as haunted house movies go, it is no match for the original, nor for the 1944 black-and-white classic from which it lifts its title without explanation (exactly who is “uninvited” anyway?). But it stands on its own as a decent popcorn movie, proving that the old worn-out chills of the J-horror genre can still elicit a few screams of fear from an appreciative audience.
Clocking in at 87 minutes, THE UNINVITED is too short to be boring. This is quite a contrast to TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which deliberately avoided the pace of a thriller, opting for a leisurely editing style that attempted to lull viewers into a hypnotic trance (if not put them to sleep). The original’s cryptic narrative – essentially a domestic drama dressed up in ghost story clothing – has been ironed out into a straight-forward mystery-thriller. What was ambiguous or even vague has been clarified – wrapped up into a neat bow that answers the obvious questions instead of forcing the audience to come to its own conclusions.
This may sound like turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear, but you have to give THE UNINVITED credit. Previous Asian remakes like SHUTTER sometimes tied themselves into knots trying to make sense of the supernatural – which tends to operate on an irrational level in Asian films, the lack of logic acting as an extra assault about the sensibilities, creating films that not only shocked but also disturbed, for after all what is more frightening than a world that makes no sense? THE UNINVITED, somehow, avoids this tripwire, fashioning a new pattern that is less complex than TALE OF TWO SISTER but without too many obvious gaps.
Of course, this simplicity comes at a price. The lack of ambiguity makes the film easier to understand but also renders it at an almost comic book level. Instead of carefully calculating the performance of Elizabeth Banks as the new step-mom whom Anna (Emily Browning) suspects of murder, the film serves up a wicked step-mother whose menacing glances border on camp. Instead of exploiting the ambiguity that has haunted ghost stories at least since Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (filmed as THE INNOCENTS in 1960), THE UNINVITED doesn’t ask us to decide whether the ghosts are real or only the remnants of Anna’s stay in a mental hospital: it tries to deliberately fool the audience (with the occasional cheat) before hitting them with a big surprise at the end.
Unfortunately, this SIXTH SENSE-type revelation is visible a mile away now that the obscuring twists in the narrative have been straightened out. But just in case you didn’t see it coming, THE UNINVITED supplies a final montage, a la SIXTH SENSE, that reprises several scenes, in slightly altered form, to clarify what really happened. (One of these raises more questions than it answered, showing us only the pay-off, not the set-up, and leaving us to ponder how a victim got into such a precarious predicament.)
On the plus side, the scare-to-exposition ratio has been upped in honor of attention-deficit viewers, and the spectral apparitions have been enhanced with a reasonably restrained use of prosthetics, computer-generated imagery, and a spattering of blood (though not nearly enough to please the gore-hounds). Browning is good as Anna, but Arielle Kebbel doesn’t have the spark of rebellion that we are supposed to see in Anna’s older sister. The ever reliable David Strathairn lends credible support as their widowed father, but you suspect he signed on hoping for something closer to TALE OF TWO SISTERS, with a bit more dramatic red meat instead of red blood.
Ultimately, THE UNINVITED is satisfying on a superficial level: it delivers its scares wrapped up in a simple story that makes sense as long as you don’t pick apart the details. But its simple approach dooms it to skimming the surface of horror; there are no disturbing depths, no unresolved ripples that continue to lap swirl inside your mind and lap against after you leave the theatre – no cold and clammy phantom fingers tracing up your spine. In a way, the film’s suprise ending works too well, exorcising the supernatural and locking up the evil in a way that – though not a typical happy ending – turns on the lights and leaves nothing left to fear.
SPOILER: Warning – Reading this will ruin the surprise
The film features at least one notable cheat in order to keep its big revelation a surprise. If you pay close attention, you will realize before long that Anna’s older sister is not really there: only Anna speaks to her; and although Alex lurks in scenes with the rest of the cast, and even talks at them, they never respond to her. The cheat occurs when David Strathairn exits a scene and noticably shrugs his shoulder to avoid bumping into Kebbel as he brushes past. If Alex is only a figment of Anna’s imagination, Strathairn’s character should have moved through the empty space without having to avoid a collision.
THE UNINVITED (2009). Directed by Charles Guard & Thomas Guard. Screenplay by Craig Rosenberg and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard, based on the motion picture A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Changhwa Hongryon) written and directed by Ji-woon Kim. Cast: Emily Browning, Arielle Kebbel, David Strathairn, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Massar, Kevin McNulty, Jesse Moss, Dean Paul Gibson.
THE EYE (based on the 2002 film by the Pang Brothers) is the lastest in a series of remakes inspired by horror films from Japan, Korea, and China. American audiences first became aware of this trend in 2002, when THE RING (a remake of Japan’s 1998 gem RING) was released to blockbuster success – nearly $130-million at the U.S. box office alone. This led to THE GRUDGE two years later (based on JU-ON: THE GRUDGE), which was almost as big a success as THE RING, earning in excess of $110-million on American screens. Of course, this kind of success inspires repetition, and it seems as if American cinema has been drowning in remakes of Asian horror films ever since (a fact spoofed in the tagline for HATCHET, which proclaimed, “It’s not a sequel, it’s not a remake, and it’s not based on a Japanese one”).
As one might expect from a trend based entirely on mercenary motives, the critical reaction has been mostly negative. After all, few of these films cry out to be remade; most of the originals are superior; and the main stumbling block to U.S. distribution is the language barrier (American audiences do not like to read subtitles, and dubbing often sounds silly). American filmmakers look to Asia less for inspiration than for ready-made templates that can be used to punch out duplicates; besides language and loctation, the major “improvements” usually consist of pumping up the pacing with a few more jump-scares and enhancing the special effects with computer-generated imagery.
What is perhaps a little more surprising in the face of the on-going trend is that, since THE GRUDGE, none of these films has become a blockbuster. In 2005, THE RING 2 topped out at $76-million; a year later, THE GRUDGE 2 fared even worse, falling shy of the $40-million mark. At this point, an Asian-inspired horror film that could crack $30-million would be an anamoly, yet Hollywood keeps churning them out ( apparently the rational is that the film can still be profitable because they can be made cheaply).
This is a sad statement about the lack of originality in the American horror genre. One can hardly blame filmmakers for chasing after the big bucks, but when it becomes an accounting game (“After tallying in DVD sales and ancillary markets, we’re out of the red”), one has to wonder how the mercenary motivation can be strong enough to justify the continuing artistic hackery.
With this preamble in mind, below the fold we offer a rundown of remakes and spin-offs inspired by great Asian horror films. We had originally considered calling this a “Best of” list, until the absurdity of using “best” in this context reduced us to gales of derisive laughter. Read on, if you dare…
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RING (a.k.a. “Ringu,” 1998).
Our first entry is a bit of a joke: the film that started it all is a remake! Koji Suzuki’s novel had previously been adapted as a 1995 Japanese television mini-series that hewed closer to the source material. The feature film version made several significant changes: the lead character became a single woman with a child (as in Suzuki’s short story “Dark Water”); the virus metaphor (with references to small pox and DNA providing a hint of a scientific explanation for the cursed video) was downplayed in favor of the supernatural; and in a nod to David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, the memorable conclusion featured the ghostly Sadako emerging from the television set. The rest is horror history.
RING 2 (a.k.a. “Ringu 2,” 1999).
This sequel to RING is in a sense a remake, although we may be stretching the definition a bit. The first sequel, RASEN (a.k.a. “Spiral,” 1998, based on Suzuki’s novel), was shot simultaneously with RING, but it turned out to be a box office flop. One year later, the producers went back and made a new sequel. Although RING 2 is officially not a remake of RASEN, it does hit many of the same story points: Takano Mai (Nakatanii Miki) is searching to unravel the mystery of math professor Ryuji Takayama’s death in the first film; the parents of Reiko Asakawa (the reporter from the first film) choose to burn the videotape and die rather than spread Sadako’s curse; and Asakawa dies in a car accident. RING 2 is a bit of a rehash (“let’s take what worked before and do it again”), but it captures a little bit of the mood from its predecessor, and fans may find it diverting.
THE RING VIRUS (2000).
Before the Americans got ahold of RING, South Korea delivered this remake (which takes its title from a phrase used in Spiral, Susuki’s sci-fi sequel to his original novel). This film contains several elements from the novel that were abandoned in the Japanese film; in his book The Ring Companion, Denis Meikle goes so far as to insist that RING VIRUS is too different to be considered a genuine remake. Nevertheless, this film retains the essential changes wrought by RING: the protagonist is a woman reporter with a child, and the film ends with the evil ghost (here called Eun-Su) crawling out of a television set. RING VIRUS has little to offer that was not done better in RING, but it does feature a few ideas/images that were borrowed in the later American remake, so the Korean film has had an impact on the trend that followed.
THE RING (2002).
Here is where the remake trend really took off at the box office. When producers Laurie MacDonald and Walter F. Parkes saw RING, instead of simply purchasing the distribution rights, the opted to remake it for American audiences. Their version borrows not only from its namesake but also from RING 2 and THE RING VIRUS (and possibly even DARK WATER). It is pretty much a soulless, mechanical affair, “distinguished” by the addition of a few gratuitous shocks (a suicide by electrocution in the bath tub and the goring of a horse by a ship’s propeller) and by some crazy foreshadowing (long before Samara [this film’s version of Sadako, played by Daveigh Chase], a fly magically emerges from a TV screen showing the cursed videotape, but our crack reporter does not sense a front page story at this miracle). The film is not exactly bad, but it is lacking in inspiration and atmosphere, creating some dull passages (unlike the original, which was tense even when nothing was happening). In any case, it was a huge hit, with a worldwide gross of nearly $250-million.
THE GRUDGE (2004).
Uniquely, this remake of JU-ONE: THE GRUDGE was directed by the same man who helmed the original, Takashi Shimizu; not only that, it is set in Tokyo instead of being relocated to America, and Takako Fuji returns as the malevolent ghost Kayako. The American production company, Ghost House, was created by Sam Raimi (director of SPIDER-MAN) specifically to remake foreign horror films for the American market. Raimi wisely realized that, in the horror genre, execution can be more important than story; hence the hiring of Shimizu. The screenplay by Stephen Susco incorporates elements from all four Japanese JU-ON movies and forefronts the leading lady (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), turning her into a more traditional protagonist and diminishing the fragmented narrative structure of the original. Despite the changes, this is easily the best of the American remakes, the only one that stands on its own. It’s a bit like hearing a recording artist redo one of his own hits: Working with Hollywood resources, Shimizu not only recreates his patented scares; he sometimes exceeds them. For example, check out the wonderful elevator scene, in which cat-ghost boy Toshio is seen on every floor: unlike the original, which relied on editing to fake the illusion, the American remake achieves the effect in a single, continuous take. The result was another box office hit, with worldwide reveneues of over $188-million.
THE RING TWO (2005).
This time, the American producers followed the example of Sam Raimi and hired the director of the Japanese original to helm their film. Although not officially a remake of RING 2, this American sequel to the 2002 hit takes a similar tack, destroying the cursed videotape right off the bat, instead of following up on the implications of THE RING’s ending (which suggested that copies of the tape would spread like a virus). Having nipped the curse in the bud, the screenplay by Ehren Kruger has to come up with a new story, which it does, but only feebly. Now, Samara seems to want a mother figure to replace the one she lost while alive, and she turns her attention on harassing the son of reporter Rachel Keller (Naomi Watts). With this storyline, and plenty of water imagery, THE RING TWO feels like more of a remake of DARK WATER. Hideo Nagata, director of RING, got a chance to helm this sequel, but he brings little of the atmosphere and intensity he achieved in his Japanese horror films; the film just coasts along, searching for scares like a tourist on a lonely road, desperate for a roadside attraction to break the tedium. The film showed a steep decline at the box office from THE RING, but it was still a big hit worldwide, earning nearly $162-million.
DARK WATER (2005).
This is not a particularly bad film, but it succumbs to the all-too-common “it’s not really a horror film” syndrome. Following the plot of the 2001 Japanese film, this remake stars Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly as a woman going through a painful divorce, who moves into a rundown building with her daughter. The dingy, deteriorating setting becomes an externalization of her declining mental state, and to top it all off, the place is haunted by a little ghost girl looking for a surrogate mother. The film was a box office disappointment, perhaps predictably; after all, its basic had been stolen by THE RING TWO, so audiences were left feeling as if they had seen it all before. Consequently, this is the first evidence that remaking a J-Horror film is not the equivalent of minting gold. Worldwide box office returns fell shy of $50-million.
THE GRUDGE 2 (2006).
After the success of THE GRUDGE, this sequel turned out to be a massive disappointment. Like THE RING TWO, this is not an official remake of its Japanese namesake, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE 2; instead, we get an original story that finds screenwriter Stephen Susco (like Ehren Kruger before him) fumbling about when he does not have a pre-written story to copy. Judgin from the behind-the-scenes features on the DVD, there were major disagreements between the American production company and the Japanese filmmakers over what direction to take; the result is a compromised effort that plays out like a weak duplication of its predecessor. Director Takashi Shimizu utilizes his patented scare techniques, but they are undermined by a convoluted structure that delays the pay-offs past the point of audience patience. The film is also hampered by a rather obvious studio injunction to get the story headed toward America, presumably so that subsequent sequels can abandon the Tokyo connection altogether. One gets the feeling that the strategy was to set the franchise up to make less expensive sequels, possibly for the DVD market (a suspicion enhanced by the “Tales from the Grudge” Internet webisodes released before the film, which looked like resume builders for a potential future director). The box office result was a big drop from THE GRUDGE, with worldwide total not quite reaching $69-million.
This remake of the enigmatic KAIRO (2001) sat on a shelf for a long time while the Hollywood filmmakers re-tooled it. They might as well have not bothered: when it finally came out, it barely earned $20-million in the U.S., with overseas totals boosting the worldwide total to a meagre $29.8-million.
ONE MISSED CALL (2008).
Arriving earlier this year, this remake proved once and for all that Hollywood just does not get it. The 2004 Japanese original (directed by Takasha Miike) was a virtual parody of the cliches that had proliferated in the six years since RING. Ingoring the satirical intent of the original, the American remake treats the material with a straight face, as if it had never been seen before, and the result is decidedly dull, even though the running time is nearly a half-hour shorter. Not only that, director Eric Valette botches the two big set pieces: the death of one victim in a television recording studio, and the resurrection of a corpse in a hospital. As of this writing, the film’s U.S. gross stands at $26.2-million, with overseas revenues yet to kick in. Final tallies should be somewhere in the neighborhood of DARK WATER.
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When a horror sub-genre is so depleted that it cannot deliver even basic scares, it is time to call it quits. Unfortunately, Hollywood refuses to learn its lesson. Not only is THE EYE opening today; A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (remade from the well regarded Korean film) is scheduled for later this year. Oh well, at least the continuing trend of Asian remakes is no worse than TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE HILLS HAVE EYES, THE HITCHER, and FRIDAY THE 13TH.