Monday, 10 April 2006

Black Night 黑夜 (2006)

Run quickly, it’s coming after your purse! You’ll wish this film never existed.

It must have sounded like a sure-win idea. Making a film is an increasingly expensive enterprise as consumers demand higher production standards, while pirates make bootlegs of your movies scarcely a week after it hits the screens, and distributors release the VCD or DVD a month after that. What you need is a cheaper way to make a film, so how about finding 3 directors from different countries to make 3 separate short films and join them together after they’re done shooting? The costs of production will be spread out among the investors, while you can get fans from 3 countries to watch. And then, you can market it to film markets in the West as an “Asian Horror Anthology”, and their critics will go soft in the knees over the exotic and cultural importance of your film.

It’s a fool-proof plan. It’s also not far removed from the very smart plan in The Producers. I watched Three in 2002 and realised that you can’t count on each member in a 3-legged film to produce work is as good as the other two. In fact, like most similar anthologies, you can count on the film to contain one dud, one indifferent effort, and one rough gem. Since short films are used by directors to pitch for a full-length feature, you might see the longer version of the best short as a bonus on the DVD.

Three was an average anthology with hits and misses. Its sequel, Three Extremes, was a real gem since all the directors cut no corners, gave their best efforts and made each segment unforgettable by going beyond the typical horror fare. And since we already have an average Three, a brilliant Three Extremes, perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that Black Night is the dud. Black Night is not related, funded, or produced by the same people who made Three and Three Extremes. But clearly the temptation to use a winning formula proved to be too much...

Next Door

The fact was simple: he wanted to take care of Annie Wilkes himself. He had been that man, and he supposed he ought to be ashamed, but that man had had two big advantages over this one: that man had had two feet. The snow storm to which Paul had awakened the day after his expedition to the bathroom had gone on for two days — there had been at least eighteen inches of new fall, and heavy drifting. Aye, she were a great lady, and it is a terrible thing the way His Lordship's went on about it — “Aye, she was fine,” Geoffrey said gently, and found to his dismay that his own tears were now close, like a cloudburst which threatens on a late summer's afternoon.

Indeed, the paragraph above doesn’t make any sense at all. It is in English and consists of grammatically-correct phrases that even make sense when taken singly. You’ve probably seen something like this before, perhaps in a spam email that you promptly sent to the trash with your delete button. Patrick Leung’s Next Door segment is like that. It is recognisably a horror short. The scares kind of make sense when taken singly. Yet they make no coherent story as Leung’s approach is to just take out every scare tactic and horror movie convention and string them together without sense or sensibility.

How did it work on the audience? By the nth time he brought out another stock ghost sequence near the end, the folks in the cinema had gotten so tired of the everything and the kitchen sink approach that they burst into laughter at the sheer horror of watching a horror film written by a director who apparently doesn’t know how to make a short film, and understands very little about horror.

Leung has none of the originality of Peter Chan in Three and none of the pointed social commentary of Fruit Chan in Three Extremes. He doesn’t even have Christopher Doyle, who did the cinematography for both directors and ensured their short segments looked nothing like a typical bad Hong Kong ghost movie from the 1980s. Leung should be very, very afraid.

Black Hole

Takahiko Akiyama was the man who did the art direction in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. He also wrote and did the special effects in last year’s underappreciated Hinokio. If you didn’t walk out of the cinema in the middle of Next Door, Akiyama shows how to make a decent short horror film. It’s so engrossing that you won’t even notice he did it on a low budget. Actually, you’d notice how cheap and cheaply made Next Door looks.

Akiyama’s short combines creative use of camera angles and judicious CGI effects to tell a psychological thriller and horror story about a woman who remembers nothing about her childhood, despite having people close to her die mysteriously. Of all 3 directors, Akiyama is the only one who understands that true horror lies in not unveiling the real monster – every thing becomes more scary if it’s mediated through hazy childhood memories, hallucinations, and mutilated corpses. The material is sufficiently coherent and plausible enough to warrant a longer script, and I look forward to watching a feature-length version of Black Hole from Akiyama soon.

The Lost Memory

Thanit Jitnukul never ceases to make trashy and interesting movies. From a director whose oeuvre includes Andaman Girl, a mistaken identity gangster gay porn comedy, and Bang Rajan, a B-grade no-budget version of Suryothai, I expect many great things. You wouldn’t have known that THE Thanit Jitnukul could make an average, boring, conventional horror picture – he must’ve been sleepwalking through this segment somehow. Think of how it could’ve turned out if Thanit stamped the segment with his extreme B-grade sensibilities. Instead, the audience gets yet another boy in full-body paint, puddles of water flowing down the stairs, and a mother-child story, combined with the same amnesia plot device as Kim Ji-woon’s segment in Three.

The Round-up

When the Scary Movie series makes fun of Ju-on, Dark Water and Ring, it’s a sure sign to move on to new gimmicks and ways of telling horror stories. Even Takashi Shimizu reinvents the genre with every subsequent entry in his J-Horror Theatre project. It is clear that Three Extremes represents the peak of the Asian Horror Anthology franchise, with Fruit Chan’s social commentary, Park Chan-wook’s morality play, and Takashi Miike’s extreme, disturbing and bizarre perversions.

Dark Night merely looks like a movie put together by disowned drop-outs from a film school run by Shimizu.

First published at incinemas on 13 April 2006

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