Directors: Danny Pang Phat and Oxide Pang Chun
Screenplay: Jojo Hui, Danny Pang Phat and Oxide Pang Chun
Cast: Angelica Lee as Wong Kar Mun; Lawrence Chou as Dr. Wah; Chutcha Rujinanon as Chiu Wai-ling; So Yat-lai as Yingying; Candy Lo as Yee
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #113
It's night and day for me that within a region where spirituality and folklore is still prevalent even in urban areas, the horror films that come from East Asia have a lot more conviction to them. If one has grown up within a culture where the supernatural still has meaning rather than a divide between belief and agnostic/atheist modernism, then horror films which deal with the afterlife and the dead will have a greater emotional meaning even if one still intends to make a popcorn chiller.
The Eye, whilst it begins with the kind pre-film shock teaser you'd expect from an American exploitation horror film, does have a sense of melancholy, and in spite of its flaws has lingered for me like the ghosts the haunt the dank, grey blue and darkly lit environments within the film because of this factor. It's also its own ghost as well to supernatural horror from Hong Kong and Chinese language cinema already, as whilst horror films are still being made there's this bitter taste for me if I ever watch them knowing that there's a ruling that the supernatural cannot be shown in Mainland Chinese cinema unless proven to be false or classic Chinese mythology, something which will immediate spoil these films if I ever watch them and the plot twists are obvious.
It more so as there's a cultural communication old Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films had with folklore with horror stories. Even if by slapstick, martial arts and/or nasty Category III sleaze, those films with their ghosts and hopping vampires are so much more vibrant now with their seventies and eighties coloured gels and sets, openly embracing the unknown and mysterious whilst depicting old folk customs. The Eye is in vast contrast a post-Ringu (1998) film with an eye (no pun intended) on lingering, slow burn dread with melodrama, but it feels like a gaze back to the old films by way of the Pang Brothers, twins who are their own entire franchise having flirted with other genres (Bangkok Dangerous (1999)) but made their bread and butter horror cinema in the early 2000s in particular, enough to be hired for Western films in the same genre.
The Eye, long before a forgotten 2008 remake with Jessica Alba, has actress Angelica Lee as Mun, a woman blind since the age of two who is given eye transplant surgery. Immediately The Eye wins me over as it decides to linger on this process rather than immediately lead to scares. It feels the Pang Brothers were as interested in the notion of what the experience for someone blind since infancy gaining eyesight would be like, lingering upon it for a longer period in the first quarter. Emphasising Mun as someone to be sympathetic for by lingering on her life in the midst of this life changing event, it even touches on something openly haunting in the centre of a matter-of-life, throwaway scene of her watching footage of herself as a young blind child with her mother. The Pang Brothers are obsessed with showing what it would be like to go through the adaptation of a new sensitory organ, both in terms of the post-surgery therapy which introduces her psychologist and potential love interest Dr. Wah (Lawrence Chou), and the profound psychological effects on a woman who never had sight barring for first minutes of her life. Appropriate for a film where its revealed said eye transplants allow her to see the dead, the new organs of sight, a concept she never had for her adult life, having a literal effect on her environments in ways others who have had sight since birth cannot share.
The only issues I have with The Eye on reflection is that it sadly strays into average melodrama when it gets bored. Melodrama is not inherently a negative for horror - the best of the most delirious ero-guro and horror from Japan practically has melodrama for blood pumping in its veins - but it's not well written at times here and the Pang Brothers use emotional shorthand rather than let melodrama live up to its potential as being vibrant and willingly hysterical. Where I've softened to The Eye is that, in vast contrast to the car crash called The Eye II (2004), their first film is one of the few films to not only avoid obvious mistakes horror cinema makes but, in regards to the genre being a communication about folklore and one's beliefs in death, it makes a good discussion between scares even if it occasionally rambles and stutters on its words.
One of its best decisions, that remarkably few films actually consider, is that the protagonist does not try to convince anyone that she can see ghosts barring the one person it makes sense to disclose that concern to, her psychiatrist. We are saved the laborious clichés of her trying to convince others and them believing her to be mad are ignored, within a reality where because of the belief in spiritualism you have a fascinating divide between Dr. Wah and his father taking a rational view on the issue, but a strangely eerie scene also happening of a random woman in a cafe (never seen again) asking Mun about seeing a pair of ghosts who haunt the place as if she also can see them. Religious belief and modern science float in a conflicted air rather than pitted at odds with each other, only becoming muddied to a less interesting extent when the narrative reaches its conclusion in Thailand where it cheats in the drama a little. However with its sights of doctors and spiritualists being equally of social importance within the world, it's fascinating how it slips like Mun between both worlds without contradiction.
When Mun does start to unravelled it's from the logical notion that she's finally unable to cope from the sights she experiences, a metaphor as much for struggling with her new sensitory organs as it is the inability to cope with literally seeing death. At first, she sees a faded figure stood within the middle of a crowded road, when driven back home from hospital by her older sister, but never utters even a squeak in reaction. Its only when the ghosts start to notice her and cling to her desperately that she locks herself in her bedroom, curtains closed, as one might do if suffering from a psychological breakdown as her family becomes fearful for her. The fact this is entirely forgotten in the sequel for screaming and jump scares is actually embarrassing in comparison when viewed together. The dead are also not malevolent, merely figures who drift like the abandoned amongst the living where they died, they negative influence on Mun from an inability to cope with them finally interacting with her, haunting corridors to the elevator in the film's most well known scene.
There could be an argument, as it makes up most of the lore of what Mun sees, that the view on suicide is a conservative one that might offend some, but it could also be viewed as a metaphor how if there is an afterlife those who commit suicide could still be stuck in a permanent loop unable to escape their despair, the school boy who is trying to find his school pass amongst those stuck in an unending cycle unless helped, the crux of the main narrative, stuck without being able to leave and move forwards into the beyond. The plot as it develops even evokes one of the causes of Ringu's back-story, a person able to see beyond normal sight - premonitions in RIngu, a figure here who can see the black shadows who take away the recently departed - but is not only ostracised by their community but is seen as the cause of death by those who fear such a concept irrationally. While the finale does suffer from soppiness that contradicts the sober tone The Eye builds upon, it does with a gristly, downbeat ending involving a large scale disaster emphasis a theme of acceptance in the unknown and death itself, not savoury material for a Western horror film for a large scale audience but here apparently accepted and not dampening the film's success globally in the slightest.