Japanese kaidan are suffering from a severe case of cinematic over-exposure. The bright light of the projector bulb has burned away most of the mystery surrounding the various yurei, onryo, zashiki-warashi, and jikininki that have haunted the screen since Sadako emerged from her well in 1998’s RING. If there is a “seen it all before” ennui to recent Asian offerings, the American remakes have taken repetition one step further, creating a series of photo duplicates that have been variously air-brushed, blown-up, brightened, blurred, cropped, sharpened, and stylized in a failed attempt to surpass the superiority of the originals. SHUTTER, the latest photographic enlargement of an Asian horror picture, is clearer and sharper than many of its predecessors, but even the most expert re-touching cannot obscure the fact that we have seen it all before – and seen it again – many times. Read More
Remaking Asian horror films is a thankless job, but Hollywood keeps on trying. Fans of the originals hate the new versions, and general audiences seem to be losing interest: ONE MISSED CALL and THE EYE, both released earlier this year, made only $26.9-million and $31.0-million, respectively. Hoping to reverse this trend is SHUTTER, starring Joshua Jackson (DAWSON’S CREEK) and Rachael Taylor (TRANSFORMERS), which is based on the excellent 2004 Thai film of the same title, about a young couple haunted by a female ghost that manifests itself in the form of “Spirit Photography.” Rachael Taylor acknowledges that the Thai version of SHUTTER is hard to match; however, she hopes the remake is no mere photo duplicate of the original but rather a new interpretation that brings its own unique focus to the subject.
“I appreciate that remaking a film in the horror genre is a sensitive thing because people become very loyal to the original film,” she says. “Of course they’ve been remade to varying degrees of success in the West, so I wanted to know what I was up against. It turned out I was up against a lot, because it’s a very, very good film. But it was one of the reasons I wanted to do the movie, because I think it’s such an interesting film. It’s not just a horror movie about a haunted house; it’s dealing with some interesting issues in a relationship. So I felt there was enough for me to explore as an actor. Also, the perspective of our film, the American version, is very different from the Thai version – in the sense that it’s more of a male perspective in the Thai film. It’s about him running away from his past and trying to forget his past. The American version is more about the female character trying to unpack his past. So it’s quite different.”
Unlike ghosts in many J-Horror films, who target victims almost at random (because they happened to watch the wrong videotape or walk into the wrong house), the one in SHUTTER has a very specific motivation: trying to get a message across to the land of the living, so that a grievous wrong will be brought to light. When Ben (Jackson), a professional photographer working in Tokyo, is reluctant to believe he has captured a ghost on film, it falls to his new bride Jane (Taylor) to solve the mystery. Taylor hopes this plot line elevates SHUTTER above the run-of-the-mill horror remake.
“What I like about the film is that it’s not playing an irrelevant female character that’s blond and young and in a ghost house and having horrible things happen to her. She’s proactive in terms of the story. She’s proactive in trying to figure out what these supernatural images mean. And she’s proactive in trying to get to the bottom of what the secret is. When she finds out it is a very changing thing for her, and based on her own personal morality, that’s not something she can forgive. She’s a normal girl, but she’s starts the movie in a very different place… She’s just happy to be married; she just wants to go on the journey, and she has her eyes blissfully shut, if you ask me. She has to pull herself out of that. I think that’s the mark of a strong female character to me.”
Avoiding the mistake made by many remakes of Asian horror films, SHUTTER does not completely Americanize the subject matter. A Japanese co-production, the new version was shot in Japan with a Japanese producer (RING’s Taka Ichise) and director (INFECTION’s Masayuki Ochiai). This presented problems for the Australian actress: besides the language barrier there was also the question of maintaining her American accent. (“One thing is doing an American accent while you’re in America, but it’s more difficult when you’re shooting in Tokyo.”) However, in a skillful display of cinematic jiu-jitsu, Taylor turned the culture shock to their advantage.
“It was tough shooting in a foreign country with a non-English-speaking director,” she says. “It certainly was a challenge. It was cool because they are the same challenges that the character is facing. You got to use that: she’s going through the fish-out-of-water, lost-in-translation experience of not knowing what everything really means. That was the experience I had personally.”
The experience included communicating with director Ochiai through a translator.
“He speaks a little [English] but not in terms of being able to build an intimate [rapport],” she says. “We had an incredible translator. Having said that, translation is certainly useful, but I really felt that I was isolated in terms of performance. I had to make my own choices and was sort of left stranded on my own. Which is not to say that Masayuki Ochiai is not good at what he does; he’s absolutely good at what he does. He understands how to create a creepy scenario very expertly. But it was kind of good to be left to my own instincts as an actor and not just be a warm prop, told where to stand and how to look and what to say. It was cool to have to lock into my own instinct. The character is obviously going through a particular kind of internal turmoil of doubt and questioning her relationship and dealing with the issues of betrayal of trust and secrets and revenge and lies. It was challenging, really challenging. The only job of an actor – which is both a good thing and a bad thing, because you can never really control the outcome of the film – all you can do is take care of yourself; you can just nurture your character. No one knows your character like you do. If you protect that, then you’re doing what you’re being paid to do.”
Taylor credits leading man Joshua Jackson with helping fill the void created by the language problem. The actors play American newlyweds in the remake: whereas the Thai couple were simply living together while the girl went to school, Ben and Jane head to Japan for their honeymoon, followed by a high-paying photo assignment for Ben in Tokyo. Things go wrong when Ben’s pictures are marred by inexplicable glitches.
“I think one of the most important things for me, in terms of telling the story, was to make sure the relationship was plausible in terms of they were blissfully newlywed; they loved each other, and it was an intimate, loving and trusting relationship,” Taylor explains. “Josh was the perfect person to create that with, because he’s an incredibly open and spirited man, and he’s a great actor. More than being a great actor, he’s a cerebral actor, and I really like that. He likes to get into things, and he likes things to make sense; he likes to fuss with the story and all of that stuff, to make it better. He’s really invested in his work, and so I am. So he was a really great comrade to have, and he was so necessary. It was just Josh and I out there. It was a Japanese crew and a Japanese director, so we had to just hang on to each other and take care of each other.”
In particular, Jackson guided Taylor through the scene she considered the most difficult – a car crash that results from running over a mysterious woman on an isolated road. This is the flash-point from which the haunting proceeds, but Taylor was uncertain how to handle the scene, having never been in an actual accident.
“Fortunately Josh was with me, and he was really supportive on that. He was like, ‘When you’re in a car accident, you use every bit of strength that you can to protect yourself from that steering wheel.’ Which you don’t actually know if you haven’t been in a car accident. That’s usually a director’s job, and Masayuki Ochiai said what he could, but the language barrier made it difficult. There are just things that you do in a car accident that are very particular to that experience, so Josh was really helpful guiding me through that.”
The culture shock of filming in Japan was not the only experience that Taylor turned to her advantage. There was also the matter of filmming in places that lent the appropriate atmosphere.
“We shot in some pretty spooky locations: three o’clock in the morning on an old abandoned road; in an old abandoned hospital that was still semi-functioning, where I ended up getting lost while it was raining outside; in this old abandoned Japanese house. People say, ‘Are you really scared when you’re scared?’ It’s kind of your job to be. Actors have different techniques, but I personally like to use my imagination. I’m like ‘What if you were really my husband and you really betrayed me like this?’ That’s what helps me as an actor. It’s different for everyone. I just believe in using my imagination, and I believe in empathy as well. Human beings go through all sorts of horrific things and wonderful things on a day-to-day basis; if you can just imagine what it might be like to be someone like that, then that’s half the job done.”
Another difference from the original version of SHUTTER is that the remake goes to greater lengths to explain the phenomenon of spirit photography to a presumably skeptical American audience. Taylor remains agnostic on the subject.
“I was not skeptical about spirit photography, especially because I had very little understanding of what it was before I shot the movie. But in terms of the world of the supernatural, I wasn’t categorically a non-believer, but I wasn’t categorically a believer, either. I saw somewhere in the middle of not being sure. Then I started doing research on spirit photography, and it’s fascinating. It is a true phenomenon, and there are pictures that have these inexplicable images on them. We can’t explain them as a light mark or a water mark or a technical problem or whatever; they’re just these funny images. Do I believe it now? I think I have the same personal thing on it that the film does, which is that if a supernatural, if a spiritual message needs to make itself heard, then it will find a way to do that. I think that’s a fair call to make. Like if something is so emotionally potent that it needs to find a way to surface, then I think absolutely it’s possible. I’m not checking my pictures at this moment to see if there’s a spirit in it, but touch wood anyway.”
No matter how much the new version struggles to be see in its own light, the original is always there, providing an easy comparison. Did awareness of the Thai film ever come back to figuratively haunt Taylor during filming?
“A little bit,” she admits. “You want it to be respectful. It’s a tricky thing to remake someone else’s piece of art, and you’ve got to be sensitive and you’ve got to be respectful, and I hope that we were. I didn’t direct the film, so I can’t be responsible for the whole thing, but you want to be decent about it and not completely butcher it. I don’t think we did.”
Of course, some fans will inevitably feel different, no matter how good the intentions of the remake. Taylor has already caught a glimpse of the fan reaction to SHUTTER.
“You only make the mistake once or twice of going online and Googling yourself,” she laughs. “Then you never have to do it again. I think the responses to this movie are either really, really positive and they adore it and they’re like ‘it’s a kick-ass female horror movie and we love it,’ or they’re like ‘the original was better” because they have that allegiance to the original film. I think that’s a really great response, if people are in any way split or divided. Mostly what I’ve seen, people have been positive about it. But I think any response is a good response, and these are passionate people, the horror-movie fan-boys. I think that they get involved with film in that way is really cool. I’m never personally offended by it. There’s this one website called ‘The Bastardly’ or something, and it’s so mean, but like I said, I won’t look at it again.”
With TRANSFORMERS and SHUTTER on her resume, Taylor could be poised to become a genre specialist, but she has also recently completed the non-genre BOTTLE SHOCK, with Alan Rickman and Bill Pullman. Does she enjoy the challenge offered by science-fiction and horror films?
“I do actually,” she responds enthusiastically. “It’s not to say that’s all I want to make for the rest of my career, but I like the spectrum of emotions that you get to play with when you do a movie like this. You’re dealing with rich and potent emotions. Each day you go to work, you’re dealing with the threat of death and the world of the supernatural, betrayal and secrets and mistrust in a relationship. So you’re playing stakes that are very, very high. And I think that’s great for a young actor, to be thrown into that world, where you’ve got such an array of colors. From the start of the movie, where it’s blissful, happy newlyweds, to the end of the movie where it’s like complete distress.
“I’m a young actor and I’m learning, and every job is a pleasure,” Taylor concludes. “Honestly, it’s such a pleasure going to work as an actor; it’s such a wonderful craft. It’s a total blessing, and everyone wants to help you.”
RELATED ARTICLE: How does SHUTTER rate according to other remakes of Asian horror films? Check out: Remaking Asian Horror: A Brief History.
SHUTTER, the new film starring Joshua Jackson (DAWSON’S CREEK) and Rachael Taylor (TRANSFORMERS) is based on an Asian horror film, as is all too often the case these days. However, there is a difference from the usual remake: the new version is an American-Japanese co-production, based not on a Japanese film but on an excellent effort from Thailand. The screenwriter is American; the director is Japanese, and so is producer Taka Ichise, who gave us the original Japanese versions of RING and JU-ON, as well as their American remakes THE RING and THE GRUDGE. Like THE GRUDGE, the new version of SHUTTER places American characters in Tokyo, where they encounter a Japanese ghost girl who will not go quietly into the afterlife. Read More
Strange things – ugly, scary, awful – lie hidden in the dark, unseen but not forgotten, waiting for their chance to manifest, crawling back into consciousness like Freud’s “Return of the Repressed” – refusing to lie quietly in the shadows, no matter how hard some characters try to keep the lights out. Invisible to the naked eye, they nonetheless manifest themselves via modern technology – in this case the camera lens, resulting in eerie “Spirit Photographs” that depict both the living and the dead. Are these images caused by guilty secrets or ghosts? In SHUTTER, the two are tied inextricably together, creating a chilling portrait of supernatural retribution from beyond the grave – one that will give even jaded J-horror fans a few pleasant goosebumps. After numerous films like RING (Japan, 1998), THE EYE (China, 2002), and a TALE OF TWO SISTERS (South Korea, 2003), you may think that the Asian ectoplasmic onslaught has dissipated like an exorcized spirit, but over the last few years Thailand has stepped in to fill the preternatural void, offering a handful of fine fright films that revitalize the familiar undead elements (including the spooky ghost girl with long black hair). One of the best of these, SHUTTER may not feel entirely new, but it is far more than a mindless zombie going through the familiar motions.
The story follows Tun (Ananda Everingham) and Jane (Natthaweeranuch), a young couple who run over a woman on the way home from a wedding party. Jane, who was behind the wheel, wants to go back and help, but Tun insists they drive away. While Jane is haunted by guilt, Tun goes about his business as a photographer, but he soon notices strange anomalies on the images he snaps: inexplicable streaks of light and shadow that sometimes seem to resemble the accident victim. Jane stumbles upon the alleged phenomenon of “Spirit Photography” and learns that ghost often manifest in images of loved ones whom they do not wish to leave. The ghost begins manifesting not only in photographs but also in dreams, eventually appearing to Tun while he is awake. Jane thinks she and Tun are being haunted by the woman they ran over, but Tun seems reluctant to admit the possibility or explore the mystery. Following clues in Tun’s photographs, she eventually learns why: the woman appearing in the photographs is Natre (Achita Sikamana), an old girlfriend who disappeared mysteriously after Tun treated her badly. What really happened, and why are all of Tun’s freinds from the wedding party suddenly committing suicide?
One of the eerie, effective elements of many Japanese ghost stories is the sense of randomness (most obviously manifested in the JU-ON films and their American remake THE GRUDGE, wherein you only had to step into the wrong house to be marked for death). SHUTTER works on a completely different level, with a ghost pursuing specific people in retaliation for a heinous act. This creates a servicable mystery plot that propels the film along at a decent pace. It also ties the characters to the supernatural events in ways that are relatable to the audience: most of us have not been literally haunted by a ghost, but more than a few of us have been haunted by guilty secrets in our past. This allows for some solid dramatic developments, and all the pieces – for good or ill – fall into place in a way that is entirely satisfying. There is just the right amount of complicity justify the haunting, mixed with enough regret to maintain sympathy for the character, and the film’s final shot is equal parts pathos and terror: for once, justice -as horrible as it is – is meeted out in a manner completely appropriate to the crime.
The scare tactics easily exceed anything seen in recent American attempts to cash in on the Asian horror invasion (including remakes of ONE MISSED CALL and THE EYE). The storyline is punctuated with numerous little spooky vignettes (an innocent medical technician who seems to call Tun a “lying bastard” in the dead girl’s voice; a ghostly face on a photograph that suddenly turns to look at Tun; the final-reel explanation for the pain in Tun’s neck, which has been forshadow by a nature documentary on the Preyming Mantis), and there are some imaginative and original set pieces. In one, the screen goes mostly black when the lights turn out, illuminated only intermittently by the flash of Tun’s photographic equipment, relying on the film viewer’s persistence of vision to pick out the uncanny details, such as the ghost who appears only for a frame or two and then disappears again. Slighly more conventional, but at least as startling, is the wonderful moment when Tun tries to escape the ghost by taking the a fire escape, and she pursues him down the ladder – crawling face down (perhaps an homage to Stoker’s Dracula, in which the vampire clambers down his castle wall in that fashion).
Looking a bit more like a resuscitated corpse than a disembodied spirit, Sikamana’s Natre may not surpass Sadako and Kayako as the Queen of Vengeful Ghosts, but she does deserve to be added to the family album right beside them. Everingham and Thongmee register as believable people, and their characters are blessedly free of the undue skepticism that slows down films of this type (including the upcoming American remake).
SHUTTER does tend to stop-down a bit as it enters its the last few reels. Like RING, it plays with the idea of laying a ghost to rest, only to have the horror continue unabated. Jane and Tun’s attempt to settle the karmic scorecard is not without interest, but it lacks the ticking time bomb plot device of RING. Also, there are a few moment that ring false or don’t ring at all (perhaps due to something being lost in translation).
WARNING: MINOR SPOILER
When Tun is informed that the friend he saw dive off a building is only the latest one to commit suicide, you wonder how the news never got back to him before. There is a moment with a young child, dressed like a monk, staring at Tun, the significance of which is not quite clear (even with a flashback specifically intended to clarify it). And the plot hinges on some photographs that Tun took, for reasons that don’t quite make sense: the audience guesses they were for blackmail, but it seems more likely they could have been used as evidence against the perpetrators, rather than coercion against the victim. Perhaps shame is such a strong force in Thai culture that it can explain why the victim would not want the photographs shown, but if the victim is ashamed of what happened, would the photos even be necessary?
Despite some familiar sights and a very few blurry story elements, SHUTTER is well-composed snapshot of the land of the dead, exposing the supernatural in every shadow. Much of it you may have seen before, but as a college profession lectures in the film, the camera does not simply record reality; the lens interprets that reality, creating something unique, depending on the point of view. SHUTTER focuses clearly and cleverly on its ghost story, creating a creepy portrait of characters trapped in a darkroom with the dead. It may not disturb your sleep with nightmares afterwards, but while you are watching, it does deliver the shivers.
Regarding the young “monk” who can apparently see a ghost, it appears that he is actually a “Nain” (or “pre-monk”). The idea is that children have pure minds and can see things clearly that adults do not; a child how is a Nain would be especially able to see something spiritual, like a ghost.
The Tartan Asian Extreme DVD launches with an unstoppable montage of clips from the companies various releases. It’s not bad, but it is annoying to be forced to sit through it every time you pop the disc in the player.
Options include the original Thai track in DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, plus subtitles in English and Spanish. The English subtitles are easily readable and mostly free of the embarrassing typos and mistranslations that mare many of these Asian imports.
The film is divided into fifteen chapter stops – not quite enough to easily zero in on your favorite scene, but better than nothing. The transfer is good but slightly dark. Since this is a horror film that takes place mostly in shadows, the slightly murky image seems like part of the atmosphere, but it is easy to imagine a transfer that would prevent dark-clothed cast members from blending into the backgrounds.
Special features include an original trailer, an interview with the director and the cast, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and a collection of trailers from other Tartan Asia Extreme releases (A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, THE RED SHOES, THE MAID, THE GHOST, THE HAIRLOOM).
The “Interview” is actually a brief promotional piece, in which the two directors, Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, talk about the research they did into Spirit Photography, allegedly obtaining books of real photographs from a university professor, plus additional shots from their friends. There are also snippets of Ananda Everingham and Natthaweeranuch Thongmee describing their characters. Overall, this is a piece that might whet the appetite of those who are looking forward to the film, but it offers little insight to anyone who has already seen it.
The “Behind-the-Scenes” feature consists of four segments, intercutting the directors’s comments with footage showing how scenes were shot:
- Car Crash. We see the stunt woman take the hit from the automobile and learn that the car knocked over a sign that fell on the camera
- Suicide. The directors reveal the secret behind one of the film’s bravura moments: in a single take, we see someone jump off a balcony; then the camera looks over the edge, revealing the body below. The actor who leaps was suspended on a wire, caught by grips on the balcony below, and pulled out of sight. His dead “body” was a double, set up beforehand.
- Ladder. This shows the camera rig used to keep the lens in close on Ananda Everingham while he tries to escape Netra by climbing down the fire escape. We also get a glimpse of the safety wires attached to the actor (which were removed in post-production)
- Real Picture from Location. The title says it all: the directors show a digital picture taken on location, which allegedly catches the shadowy ghost of a man who died on the road.
SHUTTER (2004). Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom. Written by Banjong Pisanthanakun, Parkpoom Wongpoom, Sopon Sukdapisit. Cast: Ananda Everingham, Natthaweeranuch Thongmee, Achita Sikamana, Unnop Chanpaibool.
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