Evil Eyes

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

All effective
horror movies play on a primal fear. The new horror movie The Eye
plays on at least three: fear of ghosts, fear of losing one’s sanity and
fear of being menaced by something you can’t quite see. Written and directed
by Danny and Oxide Pang—identical twins from Hong Kong, working in Thailand,
and last seen doing a smashing Wong Kar-Wai impression in Bangkok Dangerous—it’s
a chilling tale of a blind violin player named Mun (Sin-Je Lee) who receives
a pair of transplanted corneas. And sees things she can’t explain: figures
that loiter at the edges of her vision or deep in the background, and that do
not move in logical ways. Unlike Roman Polanski, who kept Rosemary’s
audiences unsure of the heroine’s sanity throughout the picture,
the Pang brothers pull the trigger on Mun’s predicament fairly early on.
It’s obvious from the slow, meandering, ritualized movements of these mysterious
figures that they are probably spirits, and that they’re roaming the earth
because they have no choice.

I hope this
description doesn’t suggest that The Eye is simply an Easternized
remake of The Sixth Sense. The Eye doesn’t have Sense’s
unexpected melodramatic heft—where Shyamalan wants to scare us and uplift
us at the same time, the Pangs just want to scare us. But they’re eerily
good at it. Technically, The Eye might be the most precise, appropriate,
fresh match of style and content to hit the horror genre since Sense,
or maybe since Lars von Trier’s epic ghost miniseries The Kingdom,
which played New York back in 1995.

You know
you’re in the hands of aggressively clever directors from the opening sequence,
which shows the blind Mun going about her daily routine, riding public transportation,
walking down the street, futzing around in her high-rise apartment, preparing
for bed and so on. The Pangs and their amazing cinematographer, Decha Srimantra,
shoot the whole sequence hand-held, apparently with a zoom lens, from a distance.
In each composition, the framing seems slightly off (on purpose) and the plane
of focus is shallow. The only part of the frame that’s crisp is the part
of the frame that contains an object significant to our blind heroine—a
cane, for instance, or the pillow on her bed. Everything else, from foreground
to background, is fuzzed out, irrelevant. This is a brilliant stylistic choice,
because it gives moviegoers a rough idea of how blind or near-blind people use
their other senses to experience life, fixating on what’s crucial at that
instant while factoring out everything else.

The Pangs’
technical mastery continues throughout the film, shifting to adapt to Mun’s
changing visual circumstances. For the first few days after she gets her new
corneas, she can’t see details, only generalized shapes and colors. The
Pangs match Mun’s POV shots with closeups of Mun straining to see (or understand)
what’s happening in her field of vision. These reaction shots are often
framed so tightly that Mun is isolated in the frame—visually cut off from
the same environment she inhabits. She is a stranger in her own world, and within
her own body.

The apparitions
have lots of personality. They are, by turns, bored, distracted, myopic and
furiously angry. They’ll appear at the end of a hallway, then gradually
shuffle (or float) toward Mun. Sometimes she’ll think she hears them coming
from one direction, eventually decides she’s just imagining things, then
turns to the left or the right, in closeup, and sees a ghost six inches from
her face, slightly out of focus.

The soundtrack
is a merciless marvel, following long stretches of ghastly, Kubrickian silence—dead
air whooshing through the ear canals—with a burst of shrieking violins.
Like De Palma, the Pangs are so technically fluent that they can joke about
their own mastery while they’re scaring the bejesus out of you. A scene
with Mun trapped in an elevator with a ghost goes on for a terrifying eternity,
like a nightmare that refuses to end; then there’s a cut to a lighted number
on the elevator panel revealing that those doors aren’t going to open anytime

Lee’s performance stresses honesty and understatement. Recalling Audrey
Hepburn in Wait Until Dark, it acknowledges the heroine’s persecuted
state without sentimentalizing it. Most impressively, Lee doesn’t merely
react to things seen and heard, or half-seen and half-heard. She also uses body
language to convey a range of other sensory events that cannot be represented
in movies—a sudden change in temperature, a strange new smell, the sudden
rise of gooseflesh. I’d really rather not say anything more about the plot
for fear of spoiling it. I’ll just say that Mun does what she can to understand
her own predicament, and that her quest leads her into treatment with a kindly
young psychiatrist (Lawrence Chou) and to a journey to learn the identity of
her cornea donor. The film’s final act isn’t as unrelentingly frightening
as the first two-thirds, but the last 10 minutes are an apocalyptic knockout.
Viewers who love a good fright will want to see this movie; filmmakers will
want to see it more than once.

The Eye
Directed by Danny & Oxide Pang


and counting: The New Festival, the New York Lesbian & Gay Film Festival,
celebrates a decade and a half with a lineup of screenings and events that runs
June 5-15 at the New School, NYU and BAM Rose Cinemas. Among the more intriguing
items on the schedule are Zero Degrees of Separation, a documentary work-in-progress
by Ellen Flanders about an Israeli and Palestinian gay couple in Jerusalem (June
8, 3:45 p.m.); Lock Up Your Sons and Daughters!, a 75-minute reel of
gay-hating and gay-baiting scenes from educational films (June 8, 5:45 p.m.)
and Madame Sata, a dramatic feature about the queen of a bohemian Rio
de Janeiro neighborhood in the 1930s (June 13, 8 p.m.). For a complete schedule,
visit www.newfestival.org.