Monday, May 31, 2004

DVD Review: The Eye

[WARNING: This discussion contains spoilers. While I do not reveal the movie's final act, nor much of the second act, I do examine a lot of the rest of the movie. It will take away some of your enjoyment, so reconsider reading this if you already think you might see the movie. It's best seen completely cold. If you're not sure, then this review will not ruin the movie's final surprises for you, but it will give away some really great stuff from the first half.]

It's impossible to guess how this movie will end from the way it begins. And it's not because the directors cheat. (Danny and Oxide Pang; wouldn't you love to be named "Oxide Pang?") The script unrolls just slightly ahead of you until the fateful conclusion.

The Eye, made in Hong Kong in 2001 and released to DVD in America earlier this year is a superior horror movie. It is atmospheric and tense, constantly playing with the audience's identification with the main character point of view and her state of confusion. We watch as she sees things we know aren't real, waiting for her to understand. Watching her innocently interact with death and ghosts keeps us on the edge of our seats. The tension is exquisite. It is a ghost movie with an Asian and Buddhist tint that makes it different without being dislocating.

A young woman, Mun, has been blind since she was two. Now grown, she is given a cornea transplant that restores her sight. At first, she experiences the confusion of someone who has not seen. As her doctor notes, she doesn't know she's looking at a stapler until she touches it, until she uses a familiar sense. Everything for her is new.

She slowly begins to realise that what she's seeing is wrong -- frightfully, terribly wrong. People she meets behave in ways even a blind woman knows are bizarre. Then she begins to experience hallucinations of her room morphing into someone else's room. She slowly grows more and more terrified as her world grows stranger. Mun fears she is going mad and wants it all to stop.

The film's script, cinematography and editing are the equal of anything you'll see in Hollywood film-making. The look and feel of this Hong Kong is not like your standard-issue HK gun ballet or chop-socky action film, but a bit grittier and worn looking. The acting, too, is great, especially Angelica Lee as Mun and Lawrence Chou as Dr. Lo. Even the supporting cast is outstanding.

Probably the biggest obstacle to American viewing is that there is no dubbed soundtrack, only a well-done subtitling. Which is a problem. You really can't afford to take your eyes off the screen at all, but the dialogue is a necessary part of the movie. It's a bit wearying, I'll admit, to have to constantly jump from one to the other. I can only strongly hope you'll give this movie a chance, as the rewards are substantial.

Since this is a movie about ghosts, sprituality is an important ingredient. As I noted above, that spirituality is Buddhist; but that won't be an obstacle, as the film's dialogue explains what Westerners will need to know. What we learn is that if death is sudden or the deceased has an unresolved problem in life, their spirit will stay on Earth instead of going to heaven. These are the people that Mun sees, who in their mindless way distract and harrass her.

They are some spectacular ghosts, too. We meet the first one almost right away, in a brief throwaway moment that portends what is to come. As the movie progresses, we encounter more and nastier ghosts. Some we don't even realise are ghosts! Jealous ghosts, confused ghosts, children who don't understand they are dead.... It just gets creepier and more disturbing as we go along. I really want to highlight this aspect, talk about the many manifestations and shocks, but I'm restraining myself to give you the thrill.

The ghost effects are subtly handled -- often just a hint of makeup and some some good acting. Some are heavily done up so as to frighten when they appear. Some you don't even know, until their "guides" or angels show up for them.

This is one of the movie's strongest choices. The angels are never seen clearly. Often they seem little more than black smoke or heat haze. Long, attenuated forms with slicked-back hair in black, long-sleeve unitards that also cover the neck, with heavy white makeup that removes all their features except for their cavernous eyes. They never speak or gesture or seem to react to the living. They are truly unworldly.

The first half of the movie, its first act, is one long exercise in building tension and apprehension. Mun slowly grows more frantic until she snaps and retreats into pretend blindness, isolating herself from the rest of the world as she never did when she was truly blind. After Dr. Lo's intervention leads to catharsis, she seems to accept that she now sees a very different world than others and grows more calm.

The movie's second act is almost a different film. Moving from her metropolitan urban world, Mun and Dr. Lo take off for Thailand's tropical jungle to find out the identity of the woman who donated her corneas. A more confident Mun asserts herself, takes charge and drives the story. Here the movie changes tone with the changed setting, resembling the first two Evil Dead movies or the earliest "slasher in the camp in the woods" films. The collapse into madness and despair of the first part is traded in for a more standard problem-solving, ghost hunting narrative.

There is a brief flashback sequence that utilises black-and-white, choppy editing, echoey sound, and hand-held camera quite well to shoehorn in some information and atmosphere without feeling like an infodump. Clues left in the beginning, more information learned in Thailand, and through Mun's actions, all lead to a seemingly satisfying resolution -- or so we think!

The film's final act slips up on you and simply cannot be foreseen, but once we get there it's a stunning and inevitable epiphany! The moment we learn what's about to happen is like a cold, lead lump in the gut. As we learn the scope of the horror to come, the dread of the first act comes rushing back full bore. The return of the angels is chilling. The climax is perfect and complete. Suddenly, everything makes sense.

The movie's real end is a type I particularly love: a circular ending that leaves our heroine right where she started, but wiser and sadder.

The Eye's central theme can be seen in several ways. On the purely Buddhist spiritual level, the unfinished business of a spirit must be resolved. Mun is just the vehicle and once done, is left behind. On a different level, her new eyes have given her new sight: she now sees the world completely, without blinders, but that knowledge is more than she can handle. Mun cannot handle enlightenment. She cannot bear up under the pressure. There is also the superhero angle: with great power comes great responsibility. Having discharged her responsibility poorly, though not entirely through her own fault, she has that power taken away. And there's the more mundane level: chance gave her both a gift and a curse, but chance also took it away from her.

I've stayed away from describing too much of the movie's ghost encounters because many are truly memorable, but I have to mention a couple of things. First is the now legendary elevator sequence. It will have you squirming in your seat! That's all I can say. Well, and it will also make you think the next time you get on one. Also, watch the edges of the frame, the background, and the crowds for the appearance of ghosts, especially in train windows! That's all I'll say.

One final note. The soundtrack to this movie is wonderful. The opening/closing theme is a throbbing, pulsing track rooted in industrial, but expressed orchestrally. Synth strings recall the Bernard Hermann score to Psycho's famous scenes. It perfectly serves the movie. The sound design also reinforces the many shocks and dislocations of the narrative. Spare and effective.

The DVD only comes with one worthwhile extra: a making-of featurette that discloses the surprising level of special effects in the film's latter act. Don't watch it until after the movie, as it spoils pretty much everything.

I cannot recommend this movie highly enough. For non-fans of foreign films, the subtitles will be off-putting and distracting more than many foreign movies. You simply have to keep your eyes on the screen. But if stylish horror unlike anything you've seen in American films intrigues you, then you have to see one of the best films to come out of Asia in years. Some of the movie's images will stay with you for quite some time to come.

Unfortunately, Tom Cruise bought the rights to remake this movie for American audiences. He will ruin it, especially if he casts himself as Dr. Lo. Look at the dumbed down Americanised The Ring versus the more subtle Japanese original, Ringu. There are other great Asian horror movies being redone right now. Ju-On's original director is filming a nearly shot-for-shot American cast version, but with his usual Japanese crew working in Japan. The director of Dark Water, now starring Jennifer Connoly, is literally refilming his movie in America with American actors. It's good to see such interest, but sad to know that American studios don't trust American audiences to work with good subtitles or high-quality dubbing.

If you are interested in learning more about Japanese and Korean horror, go to Snowblood Apple, an English fan site. They have detailed synopses and reviews of a couple of dozen movies, including everything mentioned above. They also have a lot of screencaps, so you can get a clear sense of the movies. And there are tons and tons of links to explore.

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