The intersection between Fiction and Reality has provided an excellent starting point for artistic exploration, at least since Jorge Luis Borges, and here the Pang Brothers use it to reorient a career that has drifted off track since THE EYE (2002). That memorable ghost story was one of the few Asian horror films (along with the JU-ON series) that could keep pace with RING, the film that opened up a whole new territory back in 1998. Since then, the Pang Brothers have given us two disappointing sequels and an equally disappointing American debut, THE MESSENGERS. Now, with their most recent trip to the realm of supernatural horror, they attempt to prove – with some success – that they have not completely lost their way. RE-CYCLE begins in familiar territory but seeks to discover previously unexplored pathways sheltering unfamiliar frights. If, in the end, the trip rambles aimlessly through some dull patches, you have to admire the Pang’s effort to boldly go somewhere new. Continue reading “Re-cycle (2007) – Asian Horror Through the Looking Glass”
The English-language directing debut of the Pang Brothers (the two who gave us the excellent Asian thiller THE EYE in 2002) is a distinctint disappointment if not a devastating disaster. Their patented visual style of cinematic scares is on view, but it seems a bit tired and obligatory by this point; it has all the pizzazz of a second-rate imitator trying to copy their earlier better work. On top of that, the screenplay is a cookie-cutter piece of work that mistakes a slow pace with a suspenseful build-up, featuring characters who are mostly oblivious to the horror around them, going about their messy lives while we wait in eager anticipation for the ghosts to interrupt the domestic drama. The occasional scare or stylistic flourish enlivens the dull storyline, but the contrivances are too great too overcome, especially toward the end.
McDermott and Miller play standard issue movie parents: they’re not outright mean, but they don’t trust their daughter, leading to lots of heartache for the family when her claim to have seen ghosts turns out to be true. The adult actors do their best to look convincing while playing the drama, but their efforts are pretty much a waste in a horror film that never involves us in the characters and their everyday lives.
Kirsten Stewart is likable enough as teen daughter Jess, but she hasn’t got the charisma to make us care about a character so thinly written. She’s just the standard-issue misunderstood girl who made one big mistake in her past and now her parents won’t let her forgot it.
Unfortunately, besides asking her father to take the family back to the city and away from the haunted farm house where they now reside, she does little to unravel the mystery of the haunting, so the film winds up feeling plotless – a series of domestic scenes periodically interrupted by the intrusions of the supernatural.
The Pang Brothers give us three ghosts, brought to life with some nice prosthetics and that Asian-style creepy walk (achieved by undercranking the camera). Sadly, the movie is so uninvolving that the scares barely register; there are only one or two genuinely startling moments in the whole film.
The ghostly intrusions are hardly helped by a script that seems confused about their nature and purpose: the spirits cause all sorts of trouble for our family, but in the end they turn out to be less malevolent than restless – seeking revenge against one person in particular, for an unrighted wrong. This involves a rather foolish plot twist that raises more questions than it answers – it’s one of those movie things you’re just supposed to accept, like it or not.
There are also a bunch of black birds identified as crows in the dialogue (although the credits mention a raven trainer), who sit around like omens of doom, swooping in for the occasional attack. Their early appearances are suitably enigmatic, but they don’t seem that dangerous in their encounter with McDermott, making his seem like a wimp for being so afraid. Later, when they attack the hired hand on the farm, the scene recalls Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS rather too obviously.
There are flashes of good imagery in THE MESSENGERS, but the images work better in the trailer, unencumbered by the dreary plot. In typical Hollywood fashion, the horror is simply a catalyst for getting the dysfunctional family reunited in the face of the common enemy, creating a predictably upbeat finale that lacks any spark of conviction. The result is an almost absolutely juiceless movie that, despite receiving a nationwide release, is not half as good as the little-seen THE GRAVEDANCERS (given an limited release the previous year).
William B. Davis, known to X-FILES fans for his role as the Cigarette Smoking Man, does a nice turn in a bit part as a red herring real estate agent who pops unexpectedly once or twice, fooling us into thinking he’s up to something more sinister than selling property.
Home Video Debut: June 2007
Formats: Stanrdard DVD (ASIN: B000OVLBGM) and Blu-Ray Disc(ASIN: B000OVLBJ4) Widescreen, color. Optional Subtitles: English, French
Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1)
THE MESSENGERS (2007). Directed by Danny & Oxide Pang. Screenplay by Mark Wheaton, from a story by Todd Farmer. Cast: Kristen Stewart, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller, John Corbett, Evan & Theordore Turner, William B. Davis, Brent Briscoe, Dustin Milligan.
FILM & DVD REVIEW: The Eye (2002)
Despite the numeral 10 in the title, this is only the second sequel to THE EYE; the title actually refers to ten methods for viewing the dead, one of which was seen in each previous film, leaving eight for this movie to explore. This interesting concept helps retroactively turn the first two EYES into more of a matched pair (THE EYE 2 actually had little in common with its predecessor), and it also provides a vivid jumping-off for more sight-seeing among the dead. Unfortunately, the promising premise soon grows weary and bloodshot with strain, and the film develops an even more obvious case of myopia than afflicted THE EYE 2. Directors Danny and Oxide Pang display occasional flashes of the brilliant vision that made the original EYE a sight not to be missed, but more often than not they seem blind to the serious emotional qualities that made the film something more than a silly spook show.
The minimal story has a group from Hong Kong on vacation in Thailand, where a friend reveals “The Ten Encounters.” Having heard of the first two (brief flashbacks imply they are familiar with the vents of EYE and EYE 2), the friends decided to try the other eight, in hope of seeing a ghost. During one encounter (a sort of hide and seek by night in the woods, with a cat used to reveal the ghost), one of the group disappears, apparently sucked into the spirit world. Two of his friends bail out on him, returning to Hong Kong, while another stays behind to search for him, and winds up disappearing herself. Eventually, the two friends in Hong Kong, haunted by ghosts and guilt, return to Thailand and use the Tenth Encounter (sleeping in funeral clothes) to enter the Land of the Dead and search for their missing comrades.
For the first act, the concept works as a means to string together a series of frightening set pieces; you actually believe the film is going to consist of eight sequences, one for each of the untried “Encounters.” Although the method lacks the dramatic aspirations of the first two pictures, it does lend itself to a bigger eyeful of spooky encounters. In particular, an exterior sequence at a crossroads, tapping chopsticks on bowls to summon hungry spirits, is a highlight, with dozens of the dead swarming around the frightened humans (who must continue tapping or risk becoming visible to the ghosts).
Once the plot kicks in, the film stumbles and falls as if struck blind. The cowardly departure of two friends is treated as a joke, but it’s a bad one. Later, one of the lead characters is briefly possessed, and his jerky contortions are misinterpreted by a break-dancer as a challenge, leading to a lengthy music-video interlude, set to rap music. The sequence is actually one of the most memorable in the film (the visual slapstick is laugh-out-loud funny), but it destroys any vestige of credibility, ensuring that no suspense can survive for the third act excursion into the other world. In any case, the quest in the land of the dead is played for even cruder laughs, including a mind-bogglingly stupid flatulence joke: The swarms of the dead are held at bay by the warm breath of the living; when the living run out of breath, they resort to expelling gas, which is rendered as a computer-generated smoke ring!
Whatever their relative merits, THE EYE and THE EYE 2 aspired to a certain maturity in the story-telling, in each case focusing on a young adult woman undergoing an emotional crisis brought on by unwanted encounters with the dead. THE EYE 10, conversely, is juvenile in concept and execution, focusing on a group of stupid kids who invite trouble upon themselves. Perhaps this was intended to distinguish the sequel from its predecessors, but the attempt backfires: THE EYE 10 ends up resembling dozens of other bad teen horror flicks, filled with non-entity victims. And the incongruous humor seems like a deliberately brutal jab at the viewer’s cornea, warning the audience not to look for the serious quality that distinguished the first film.
All in all, this is one EYE that should have stayed wide shut.
THE TEN ENCOUNTERS
As listed in the film, here are the “Ten Encounters” for viewing the dead:
- Seeing through the eyes of the dead (as in THE EYE)
- Attempting suicide while pregnant (as in THE EYE 2)
- Playing with a Spirit Glass (which spells out answers like a Ouija Board)
- Tapping chopsticks on a bowl at an intersection to summon hungry spirits
- Playing hide and seek at midnight (a ghost will “hide” one of the players, but a black cat will reveal the ghost)
- Rubbing one’s eyes with soil from a grave
- Opening an umbrella indoors
- Gazing into a mirror at midnight while brushing one’s hair
- Bending over to look upside down through one’s own legs
- Being laid out in clothing as if for one’s own funeral.
The DVD for THE EYE 10 features a good widescreen transfer with 5.1 surround sound, in the original language (Cantonese, Thai, etc), with English subtitles. Bonus features include a trailer and a making-of featurette. The featurette explains the reasoning behind the title (trying to do something other than the expected “Eye 3”). It also features the Pang brothers discussing their inspiration for the “Ten Encounters”: as in the featurettes for THE EYE and THE EYE 2, they claim to have based their ideas on real events, including a game of hide and seek in which a boy went missing for days but had only felt the experience of being gone for a few minutes (presumably because time is slower in the spirit world).
THE EYE 10 (“Gin Gwai 10,” a.k.a. “The Eye: Infinity,” 2005). Directed by Danny Pang and Oxide pang. Written by Mar Wu, from a story by Oxide pang and Danny Pang. Cast: Bo-lin Chen, Yu Gu, Bongkoj Khongmalai, Isabella Leong, Ray MacDonald, Kate Yeung.
This follow-up to THE EYE provides another glimpse into the land of the dead. Fans may enjoy the “second sight,” but this EYE lacks the compelling vision of its predecessor. Less a sequel than a variation on the theme, the story has nothing to do with the original except for the basic concept of a young woman who sees dead people. The attempt to create something new, instead of rehasing the original, is laudable, but the effort is undermined by weak plotting and a somewhat unsympathetic protagonist, who never engages our interest as well as Mun (Angelica Lee) did in the previous film. The directing duo of the Pang Brothers offer compensation in the form of some more memorably spooky supernatural manifestations, and as before they try to balance the horror with sentimental moments that tug the heartstrings. In this case however, they over-reach themselves, eventually descending into overwrought melodrama. Continue reading “The Eye 2 (2004) – Film & DVD Review”
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)