Unreliable Visions: Danny and Oxide Pang's "The Eye"
by Steve Erickson
Luis Buñuel knew what he was doing when he began his lifetime of cinematic troublemaking by slicing up an eyeball. As an image of horror, there's little more visceral and cinematic than the threat of damage to an eye. "The Eye," directed by Danny and Oxide Pang, plays upon these fears in a subtler way. What if our eyes become unreliable windows on the world, or what if they really belong to someone else?
As a two-year-old, Wong Kar Mun (Lee Sin-Je) became blind. Eighteen years later, she received a corneal transplant from a dead Thai woman. The operation restores her vision, but this gift comes with a price. She sees dead people, as well as the Grim Reaper (or someone akin to him) offering ominous portents. Looking into a mirror, she sees another woman's face. (She realizes this after a man shows her a photograph of herself, which she doesn't recognize.) On the trail of the woman whose eyes she now possesses, she travels from Hong Kong to Thailand.
"The Eye" is relatively slow-paced, devoting plenty of time to Mun's slow attempts at recovering her vision. There's no on-screen violence and relatively little gore. (It largely comes at the end, although there's also a scene in which a man missing the left side of his face menaces Mun.) Much of the first half plays out in a liminal state where Mun's not sure exactly what sight is. More familiar with touch, she has difficulty recognizing her psychiatrist's stapler.
Since the massive commercial success of Hideo Nakata's "Ring," Asian horror films have been going through a renaissance. However, "The Eye" seems more influenced by "The Sixth Sense" -- and maybe even by Mark Pellington's "The Mothman Prophecies" -- than homegrown fare. In fact, the film's entire ethos is reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan. Just as "The Sixth Sense" and "Signs" merged an austere, arty visual style with tried and true story tropes, the Pang brothers have combined Hollywood storytelling techniques with a set of Asian cultural and religious references.
In the film's world, ghosts of suicides get stuck on Earth in a loop, endlessly repeating their final motions in lieu of a ticket to the afterlife. They're in need of a kind of psychoanalysis: in order for them to move on, their core problems must get solved.
For a film that attracted Tom Cruise's attention (his production company is planning an American remake), "The Eye" is surprisingly restrained, even genteel. This approach works best in the hospital setting, where Mun's visions retain a dreamlike quality. It's less successful at creating suspense, since Mun never seems to be in physical danger. Suggesting that she loses some confidence as she regains her sight, it never establishes much about her life as a blind person, except that she played violin in an orchestra of blind musicians. When she leaves the hospital, the film's slow pacing feels dull, rather than lyrical.
The Pang brothers' first film, "Bangkok Dangerous," was often compared to John Woo. Despite switching styles considerably, they seem most comfortable cranking up dissonant music to let us know when we should be scared and staging a big explosion for the climax. Shots of a CGI car ignition switch firing a spark plug and a rat racing to avoid fire (taken from the POV of a sewer) seem to have come from an entirely different -- and far more bombastic -- film than the one "The Eye" began as. Although based on a real incident, the ending copies specific camera set-ups from "The Sixth Sense."
The most inspired moments of "The Eye" come at the beginning. Right after the title appears on-screen, the film stock apparently begins burning, followed by white flickers (a la the ending of Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible.") A woman's face appears, then the words "sit tight." A joke, it still suggests a truly challenging film to come: one that might really explore the implications of seeing the world through someone else's unreliable eyes. Instead, "The Eye" remains content to opt for secondhand visions over the genuinely original and uncanny.