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The Eye

  the eye
Ghosts are suckers for poorly-lit hallways.

© 2003, Palm Pictures
All Rights Reserved

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+

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