Secondhand Scares


When the fount of Hollywood inspiration runs dry it has a tendency to raid Asia’s ideas reservoir. There’s nothing new about this smash and grab foreign policy: American westerns were reinvigorated by the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa; and Hollywood actioners were issued a swift kick in the unmentionables by the influx of fresh-faced Hong Kong cop thrillers. And with teen slasher formulas and franchises squeezed bone dry, so too has Hollywood’s horror industry turned to the East with an eye to boosting its scare factor.

Japan spearheaded the movement, following the success of Ringu, the thriller about a killer video tape, remade by Dreamworks as The Ring to the box-office tune of over $128 million. Following up, Takashi Shizmu, minimalist scare stylist of the Ju-On franchise – hyperbolically marketed as “The scariest Asian horror ever,” (it wasn’t) – was hired to oversee Hollywood’s remake,The Grudge, starring Vampire-slaying teen queen Sarah Michelle Gellar. And Oxide and Danny Pang, Hong Kong’s Bangkok-based filmmaking brothers, chipped in with The Eye, which garnered a worldwide release and did particularly well in Europe, before the remake rights were snapped up by Tom Cruise’s production company.

The popularity of Asian horror may be down to differing cultural perceptions of the supernatural. The Asian idea of spirituality is far more deeply ingrained in everyday life, as Stephen Susco, who adapted Ju-On for The Grudge’s screenplay, acknowledged: “In America, horror films tend to have this idea that whatever it is can be defeated in the third act. They don't really share the same concept in Asian horror.”

The premise of The Eye 2, also presided over by the Pangs, offers a prime example: this movie’s conception of the supernatural is embedded in the overall, grand scheme of life. Whereas the first installment saw a woman besieged by visions of apparitions after having a cornea transplant, the follow-up muses on themes of pregnancy and reincarnation. Unfortunately, the film’s recycled “I see dead people” style offers few scares, and certainly nothing new for Occidental fright fans seeking a fresh or exotic twist on the genre.

Paradoxically, while the fear factor remains disappointingly low, this is the Pangs’ most polished and mature film to date. Since 1999’s attention-grabbing debut Bangkok Dangerous, the brothers’ promise never really subsequently transcended the style-over-substance proviso. The Eye 2 marks an overdue step forward: they’ve cast off the sub-Tarantino stylings, reigning in their jarring repertoire of camera and editing tricks in favour of more straightforward, linear storytelling; and releasing audiences from their decaying cinematic world of trashy settings and shabby interiors.

Opening in Bangkok, Joey Cheng (Shu Qi) is in a fragile emotional state following her third consecutive relationship break-up; her latest fleeing paramour being Sam (“Tik” Jesdaporn Pholdee), who studiously avoids her calls. Joey’s attempts to comfort her lonely heart with retail therapy fail and, in a classic cry for help, she stages a half-hearted suicide bid. Her overdose seemingly triggers a series of visions of shadowy phantoms; a phenomenon that intensifies in Hong Kong when Joey discovers she’s pregnant. But who is the mysterious wraithlike woman dogging her at every turn? And can Sam cast any light on the shadowy twilight world descending upon her?

The pan-Asian cast assembles eye candy from neighboring territories: Taiwanese Shu Qi dominates screen time, appearing in almost every scene. Meanwhile Thailand’s current poster boy, “Tik” Jesdaporn Pholdee (an irritating, soft-drink advertising version of whom, at time of writing, bellows at passers-by from Bangkok’s skytrain stations); and Eugenia Yuen, daughter of Hong Kong’s kung-fu queen Zheng Pei Pei, are reduced to minor supporting turns.

The central casting of Shu Qi works well for the film. One of Asia’s most versatile and prolific, not to mention captivatingly beautiful leading lights, her only foray into Hollywood film so far has been the terrible The Transporter, where, unable to speak English, Shu learned her lines phonetically. Here, her fragile presence compounds Joey’s vulnerability and Shu Qi has a pouting, flighty presence well suited to her character’s irrationality. She also boasts sufficient acting chops to convey Joey’s emotionally wrought state, constantly flitting between confusion, terror and tears.

But we’re never invited to care for Joey – a writing oversight that seriously undermines the movie. Without engendering sympathy for her plight, the movie is curiously devoid of tension, also lacking the suspenseful plotting needed to make you cower behind your popcorn.

Coming five years in the wake of The Sixth Sense and its many imitators, Joey’s visions of dead people are too conventional to be particularly frightening and, anyway, they seem less interested in harming her than in soliciting some kind of posthumous therapy. A couple of memorable set-pieces – including a drowned corpse traversing a woman giving birth in an elevator; and a shocking long-shot of Joey throwing herself from a building – compensate some for the lack of chills. But, all in all, The Eye 2 is more likely to send you off for a quick 40 winks. This is for ardent Shu Qi fans only.

-- Published by MovieSeer.com, 2004

 

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