Whereas "The Sixth Sense" introduced the term 'see dead people' into the vernacular and "Scary Movie" turned it into a big joke, the 2002 Hong Kong horror flick "The Eye (Jian gui)" gives the saying back its bite. Directed by the Thailand-based Pang brothers ("Bangkok Dangerous"), this ghost story revolves around a blind woman who regains her sight, albeit with the unexpected side effect of 'seeing dead people'. And though the second half does not hold up as well as the first, "The Eye" is still one of the more imaginative and pulse-pounding horror films to come along in recent years.
The main character is Mun (Taiwanese singer-actress Angelica Lee, seen recently in Sylvia Chang's "Princess D"), a young woman who has been blind since the age of two. She undergoes a corneal transplant and is pleased to discover that she can see once again. However, because she has essentially lived her entire life in the dark, her eyes need time to properly focus on distant objects, while her brain must essentially re-learn how to interpret the new flood of visual signals that it receives.
But within a few hours of having the bandages removed, it is clear that something is wrong. Mun begins to see odd shadows in her blurry field of vision that turn out to be the spirits of the recently departed. Of course, nobody believes what she is experiencing is real, including her eye doctor (Edmund Chen) and psychotherapist (Lawrence Chou). Too traumatized by the horrors she has seen and in fear for her life, Mun gradually retreats back into the comfort of darkness...
The build-up in first half is the film's trump card. The directors take advantage of Mun's post-operative near-sightedness to create a genuinely creepy and claustrophobic atmosphere. With the frequent use of shots that convey her point of view, blurry shadows and shapes are seen lurking in the background. And because, as her psychotherapist puts it, she needs to develop her 'visual vocabulary' after having spent almost her entire life in the dark, some of these visual aberrations may merely be the result of her brain's inability to properly interpret everyday events-- thus Mun (and the audience) cannot trust what her eyes are telling her. And as her vision slowly comes into focus, the ghostly apparitions become even more intense and invasive (the elevator scene in particular), and it seems that in a city of seven million people, there is almost a restless spirit lurking around every corner.
Unfortunately, the Pangs have difficulty in maintaining such momentum as the film moves into the latter half and the reason behind Mun's paranormal visions is revealed. It is rather disappointing to see how conventional the film becomes as Mun takes a trip to Thailand to track down the identity of her donor and comes up with a somewhat contrived resolution to her troubles. Thankfully, the directors have one more trick up their sleeve and make up for this sluggish second half with an unforgettable 'big bang' finale-- true, it may start off as being very similar to the 'road accident' scene in "The Sixth Sense", but the Pangs take it in a completely different direction.
As Mun, Angelica Lee delivers a sympathetic and affecting turn as a woman whose initial elation over regaining her sight quickly turns to fear and dread. One of the reasons why "The Eye" works so well as a horror film is because her strong and convincing performance holds the story together and makes it easy for the viewer to suspend all disbelief. On the other hand, the supporting roles come up short, with perfunctory performances that are quickly forgotten. Among these is a brief appearance by Candy Lo ("Time and Tide"), playing Mun's sister, whose raison d'être seems to be little more than a bit of stunt casting.
For those attending the Toronto International Film Festival this year, "The Eye" will be featured as part of the Midnight Madness screenings. However, if you can't make the trip, there's always the recently released Hong Kong-import VCD and multi-region DVD. But regardless of how you see it, "The Eye" is one 'scary movie' that lives up to its promise, especially in the enjoyable yet spine-chilling first half and in the slam-bang big finish. With such a terrific piece of filmmaking under their belts, I'm sure we'll be hearing a whole lot more from the Pang brothers in the very near future.
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