After the flashy Bangkok Dangerous (1999) the Pang brothers try their hand at horror and while not exactly reinventing the wheel as far subject matter is concerned, they still manage a considerable achievement. Hollywood horror is in the doldrums at the moment, with genuinely effective product hard to find. With the proud exception of such films as The Sixth Sense (1999) it consists mostly of increasingly weakening franchise sequels, or such painful parodies as Scary Movie (2000). The stalk ‘n’ slash genre sometimes offers up effective moments, but can hardly do more than provide a stopgap for a genre that requires more than sharp knives and screaming teens to sustain genuine frisson.
Mention of Shyamalan’s classic is apt in that its central premise (“I see dead people”) is prominent in The Eye (aka: Jian gui), where a cornea transplant brings an unenviable talent to heroine Mun (Angelica Lee). Once the central premise of the film is established, there’s little to look forward to but the increasingly scary intrusions of the shadows into Mun’s life, as well as an urgent investigation into the source of the offending eye parts. Fortunately the Pangs’ sense of atmosphere and deft direction ensures most of their film is never less than riveting, and frequently – thank god – terrifying. The idea of an evil grafting is as hoary as the Hands Of Orlac (1924) so the success of this film (it broke records at the home box office) is a cause for celebration, as it transcends the clichés of the central plot device with some style and ease.
Much of the recent wave of Eastern Horror feature the revenge of women unjustly treated, either through their systematic objectification Audition (aka: Odishon, 1999) or death, Ring (aka: Ringu, 1998). The Eye follows in this tradition, and it’s ironic that the film is at its weakest when the central characters visit Thailand, discovering the donor of the offending cornea. Whereas her body has traumatised Mun, Ling the psychic was victimised by society, and it’s the exposition of her personal history, which, while understandable, dissipates some supernatural tension. Having said that, this change of focus is not disastrous, and the Pangs pep up the pace considerably with a black and white flashback sequence, beautifully judged and edited, as well as some claustrophobic interior sequences. There’s more up the sibling directors’ sleeves as well, for the audience is rewarded with a suitably apocalyptic climax, as well as a poetically satisfying final scene for Mun and Lo.
Much of the film is crafted so deliberately and effectively that it puts more prestigious, yet slapdash Hollywood product to shame. Whereas American cinema might culminate a tension filled sequence with gore, The Eye is frequently more subtle, suggesting horror by juxtaposing light and dark, as well as using the dramatic possibilities of depth of field. When Mun peers through her new eyes for the first time, trying to make sense of the world around her – an acute learning process described by her concerned psychotherapist Dr Lo (Edmund Chen), a distinction is made between what she has known and that which she now sees. We see the new things from her point of view: a world of slow recognition both beautiful, as she finally admits, as well as terrifying. There’s a natural empathy between cinema and vision at work. Mun’s new environment is initially as much out of focus as it is in – ideal for suggesting the unearthly. Visitations emerge from a murky field of vision, shadowy wraiths after whom the viewer alternately strains after, and then recoils back from, just as much as she does. This complicity of vision ensures a strong identification with the heroine confronting a world she perhaps ‘was never meant to see’. The most unnerving scenes are thus in this first half of the film, enhanced by an effective soundtrack, frightening staging, as well as Lee’s own convincing performance. The road accident, the calligraphy lesson, the spooks in the restaurant, and Ying Ying’s farewell – these are all notable exercises in building unease. Particularly noteworthy is the lift sequence, where by use of editing, performance and dread, the Pangs arguably create the most memorable scene in the genre since the well gave up its denizen in Ring. It is here that their film works best on its strengths: a sense of eerie foreboding followed by ghastly manifestation; the manipulation of mood by music and editing; the antipathy of ghosts, and the torment of one who sees ‘this world’. It is a tour de force.
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Hollywood has successfully remade Ring, and such as successful item as the Pangs’ film is inevitably following. Tom Cruise has his own version in pre-production. Whatever the final merits of a project that will inevitably be more star driven and glossier, for the time being horror addicts can be recommended the original, which, like Ring, has a unique sensibility that is hard to beat. As a frightener The Eye rarely blinks, and is best watched with the lights on.
DVD extras: anamorphic transfer with Dolby digital sound, filmographies, two documentary shorts, art gallery, trailers, film notes by Justin Bowyer.