It all started with "Ghost" back in 1990, when Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore
showed us that a ghost story could do things other than horrify. "The Sixth
Sense" came out nine years later and turned this kind of genre-fiddling into
a franchise of sorts. Along came "The Devil's Backbone," "The Others" and
the instantly forgettable remake of "Ringu." "The Sixth Sense" got the
scares right (though the contrived ending wasn't nearly as novel as many
people seem to think, having been used by James Herbert years before in his
book "The Survivor" and probably elsewhere). And "The Devil's Backbone"
remembered to deliver an exciting story along with its ghostly chills. But
the latest link on this chain of stylish ghost films, from the Pang brothers
of Thailand, is the most effective of the lot in many ways.
"The Eye" (IMDb listing) begins--not counting a psyche-out sequence during which the
projector bulb appears to be melting the film--with a voiceover from Mun,
the protagonist. We see her walking blind through the streets of Hong Kong
while she informs us in voiceover that some people claim the world is ugly
and beautiful at the same time. She doesn't agree or disagree, but simply
states that she's about to see the world with fresh eyes. Mun is about to
undergo a cornea transplant that will slowly restore her vision, and it
would seem from her comment that she's eager to witness the ugly right along
with the beautiful. She will change her mind before the film is through.
The procedure doesn't just restore her vision, it enhances it, allowing
her to see mysterious figures at the fringes of her sight range. At first,
while Mun's view of the world is still bleary, these suddenly appearing
figures are essentially startling, but not much more. As her vision clears,
however, her encounters with the spirit world escalate in intensity. It's a
deeply unsettling progression, and cinematographer Decha Srimanta has great
fun making us wonder if a figure in the background of a shot is another
ghost or merely a living character who has yet to come into focus.
"The Eye" succeeds where so many recent horror films have failed. Although
it operates with the clear goal of scaring us witless, it doesn't ignore
dramatic concerns. We get to know Mun pretty well, actually. The movie is
as much about a young woman--blind since age two--who recovers her sight as
it is about that same woman being tormented by revenants. It's the kind of
narrative balance more strongly associated with classic horror films like
"Rosemary's Baby" than modern fright fare. Just as it's impossible to
separate the generic fears of something going wrong with a pregnancy from
the satanic horrors that accost Rosemary Woodhouse from all sides, it's
difficult to divorce the apprehension that must accompany the regaining of
one's vision from Mun's terrifying discovery that she now sees dead people.
Prosaic fears want to surface even in the most supernatural horror films.
Smart directors allow that to happen.
The storyline in "The Eye" is mostly conveyed through clever cinematography and
editing. Different filming techniques are used for different types
of flashbacks, and although the photography is incredibly busy in places, it
seldom loses direction. A couple of metaphysical issues aren't tied up
quite as neatly as they could have been, but the film's determination to
emphasize the visual gives us reason to hope that the Pang brothers will
only get better at their craft. If this isn't their masterpiece, we're in
for one hell of a treat down the road.
But maybe the highest praise earned by "The Eye" is that it doesn't forget
about that opening voiceover. The world of "The Eye" truly is ugly and
beautiful at the same time, and once Mun has learned to accept that, she is
also ready to accept her return to blindness in the end. Though sighted
only for a brief time, Mun has seen more than the rest of us see in a
lifetime, or would want to. Thankfully, "The Eye" doesn't take the easy way
out by trying to enforce a belief in the benevolent power of the
supernatural. There's no quasi-religious message of false hope, just a
bunch of ghosts: some pathetic, most terrifying. Whatever Mun learns about
humanity in this film, she learns in spite of that truth. For instance,
when Mun helps to release the spirit of the suicide whose corneas she now
wears--and whose reflection she sees in the mirror instead of her own--the
expected reward for her kindness turns out to be more of a curse. A curse
that leads the film to a startling climax of some metaphoric relevance to
the instability of our world.
Filmfodder Grade: B+