“…Fantasy and Horror are twin cities, divided by a river of black water. Horror is a rather more dangerous place, or it should be: you can walk around Fantasy alone.”— Neil Gaiman,1995
The horror genre of cinema has always been difficult to define. What exactly constitutes a horror film? Is it just any film that scares the audience? Or is there a deeper psychological reason as to why these films can truly be considered horrific by the viewer? Whatever the reason, all horror films have one thing in common: they play upon any number of common fears and anxieties of everyday existence. In recent years, the focus has been on mortal death and the existence of an afterlife.
During the opening scene and credits of the Pang Brothers’ 2002 film The Eye (original title Gian gwai, or Seeing Ghosts), it becomes clear that this is not your average horror film. Instead of opening with some monumental scare designed to completely unnerve the audience and put them in a state of imbalance for the rest of the film, The Eye opens with a series of uneventful shots in a city slowly leading to the image of a young woman walking down the street wearing sunglasses and carrying an umbrella, with the following voice over narration: “Some people say this world is ugly, yet it is beautiful at the same time. I don’t know if they are right, but I am about to see the world with fresh eyes.” Then, we are shown a blank, gray curtain that slowly begins to move under the influence of unidentified hands. The credits appear, first in braille, then in actual text, disorienting the audience and providing further insight into the plight of the young woman. The Pang Brothers have duel focuses in this film: to scare the audience and force them to reevaluate the way they see the world. And while it may seem tacky to accomplish this through the restoration of the protagonist’s (Mun, played by Chinese pop sensation Angelica Lee in an award winning and truly breathtaking performance) eyesight, the brothers with additional screen writer Jojo Hui craft a masterful story of pain, trust, truth, beauty, and horror that greatly exceeds the expectations and conventions of the horror genre while paying tribute, in its own way, to some of the greatest films of all time from all over the world.
The plot is familiar for genre fans: Mun, who lost her eyesight at the age of two, receives a cornea transplant operation at the beginning of the film, restoring her sight. However, while trying to learn to really see life for basically the first time, she soon discovers that her new eyes come with a price: she can see the spirits of both the dead and those who will soon die. Not only that, she starts to see strange images of a place she has never been too, events she does not even know occurred or will occur eventually. With the help of her young visual therapist Dr. Wah (Lawrence Chou), Mun must discover the reason behind her visions, accept her new gift, and uncover the origin of her donated corneas before she is driven to madness by the overwhelming terror she now faces on a daily basis.
Admittedly, this film owes much to many prior successful horror films, including The Sixth Sense, Rosemary’s Baby, Ring (Ringu), Suspiria, The Exorcist, and countless others. The Pang Brothers borrow heavily from other genre favorites to craft their own unique synthesis of fright and drama that fails to disappoint any open-minded film connoisseur.
At this point, it seems fair to believe most people are familiar with the infamous quotation from the 1999 film The Sixth Sense, “I see dead people.” And while the film is not told from the viewpoint of Cole Porter, the young boy who sees the dead, the central focus of the film is the struggle Cole faces because of his ability to see, and eventually help, the restless spirits of those who died horrible deaths.
Many critics have correctly made the assumption that The Eye owes much of its premise to the M. Night Shyamalan shocker The Sixth Sense, and they are entirely right. As Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Chronicle wrote in her review of the film, “Seeing dead people? A jarring journey from darkness into light? Granted, it’s been done. But there are sweet, difficult pleasures here just the same.” While the basic premise is identical to many films before, the way the Pang Brothers craft the film is truly exquisite. They trade in dark back alleys and dimly lit mansions for clean hospital corridors and the gorgeous urban and rural backdrops of Hong Kong and Thailand. Some of the films most terrifying moments occur in bright lighting (natural or artificial) – a rarity in most horror films. The Pang Brothers take the fear out of the forest and into the metropolis, forcing the audience to relate to the content of the film on a more personal level.
Throughout the entirety of the film, we are forced to see what Mun sees, feel what she feels, hear what she hears, and truly understand the horror she faces on a daily basis. After receiving the transplant, the camera loses focus, making everything look blurry; it refuses to stay still. As Mun’s vision improves, so does the camera work. But it becomes apparent early on to the viewer exactly what Mun is seeing that no one else can. With the arrival of a tall, thin, black-wearing apparition who escorts a dying woman through the unopened door, we immediately know that Mun is seeing the dead. She has to learn to understand first the unknown and then the afterlife to truly be at piece with her newfound gift of (for lack of better term) a sixth sense.
Instead of going entirely for visual scares (never fear, genre fans, there are plenty), the Pang Brothers choose to force the audience into a disarming understanding of Mun’s own situation in the film. As a blind woman, Mun had to rely on her other senses to survive in the world. Indeed, even after receiving her cornea transplant, she is hypersensitive to the subtle nuances of everyday sound that most people would not notice unless they forced themselves to pay attention. While Mun is lying down in a hospital bed recovering from surgery, the audience is hit with the excessively loud sound of an air vent rattling against the presumably soft moans of a dying woman (still played at a much higher volume). Indeed, when the moaning returns in a few minutes, the sound is quieter, because Mun is able to use her eyes to begin to comprehend the situation. By experiencing the film from the prospective of Mun shown through flawless visual and sound editing, the audience is forced to see beyond the standards of the horror genre and understand the reality of the character’s situation.
The Pang Brothers force us to not just watch, but understand Mun’s own situation, as she goes on a journey from visual ignorance to total knowledge of her unique situation in life. As she experiences the harshness of the actual reality she has to live with, she tries on many occasions to simply dismiss or ignore the things that scare her. But by running away from the things that scare her – the spirits of the dead that she alone can see, she is only separating herself from true purpose in life, forcing her to deal with the difficulties of her everyday existence on her own.
Many people in the world try to maintain an optimistic attitude or escape into their own fantasies of television, literature, or even film. Writer Roland Barthes in his essay “On Leaving the Movie Theatre” discusses exactly that: the hypnotic power of film to take us to an entirely different world. He writes how his favorite thing is to leave the movie theater, “back out on the more or less empty, more or less brightly lit sidewalk…and heading uncertainly for some café or other, he walks in silence…a little dazed, wrapped up in himself.” This is a dangerous attitude to take in life. By failing to acknowledge what is actually going on in life, we run the risk of not being able to actually function and participate in everyday life.
One thing that separates the greatest horror films of all time from the mundane, repetitive B-Movie schlock shoved at the American cinema audience on a regular basis is the strength of the leading performance in the film. The Academy Award winning film Rosemary’s Baby from Roman Polanski is considered a classic, not in spite of, but because of the leading performance by Mia Farrow as the titular character Rosemary. After moving into a new apartment, Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse finally find success in what they truly want: Guy starts to receive great roles as an actor and Rosemary becomes pregnant with her first child. This film is the story of Rosemary, told through the perspective or Rosemary, focusing on the struggles of Rosemary as she tries to find out what is truly happening to her baby. The performance of Mia Farrow as Rosemary Woodhouse is described by author Mark Clark as “richly shaded yet refreshingly unaffected…[bringing] rich nuances to Polanski’s script…
So, too, does Angelica Lee bring this sort of quiet intensity to her performance as Mun in The Eye. She is forced, just like Farrow, to “hit almost every note on the emotional scale” (Clark 199). Anger, fear, joy, sorrow, desperation, confusion – Miss Lee portrays each with such a striking realism that one soon believes that Mun truly exists and is facing these struggles. In a scene remarkably similar to Rosemary’s Baby, Mun runs to her visual therapist Dr. Wah to describe how she has the ability to see the dead, forcing her to live in pure terror. Indeed, Angelica Lee performs this scene flawlessly, letting the audience feel her anxiety, desperation, confusion, and overwhelming fear of being able to see (not just the dead, but) everything in the world. By connecting to the audience so strongly through Miss Lee’s perfectly nuanced performance, the Pang Brothers have crafted a film that forces the audience to pay attention to the problems caused by hiding from everyday existence in this world.
The main coping mechanism Mun had earlier in the film, sound, is forcibly removed from her as an escape into her own realm of fantasy. After attending a rehearsal of the all-blind orchestra, Mun is told she will not be allowed to perform with the group because she can now see. This is just one of the many incidents of Mun having to learn the harsh truth of reality. When she tries to hide from the main point of her visual existence (to help the spirit of the young cornea donor who committed suicide), she does nothing but cause herself additional problems. She is able to easily describe her own situation in her desperate meeting with Dr. Wah, “My grandma always told me I was not an ordinary child, that there would be obstacles I would face, but I would grow up to be an extraordinary person…An extraordinary person can see what others can’t and feel what others won’t feel…I want to be ordinary.”
After another terrifying encounter with the dead, Mun decides to revert to her own comfort zone: blindness and orchestral music. She locks herself away in her room, refusing to open her eyes, as the screen slowly turns dark around her; all she will do is play her violin in preparation for the orchestra concert that she dreams of participating in. When forced to go to the orchestra rehearsal by Dr. Wah, the Pang Brothers craft the most heart-wrenching scene in the entire film The Eye that truly shows what the film is about and why such a derivative work is truly its own form of a masterpiece.
As Mun begins to play, we discover that Mun is not nearly as talented as she hears herself to be (indeed, earlier her orchestra director calls her Miss Tone Deaf), but soon she dives directly into her own fantasy to try to escape from reality. She is surrounded entirely in darkness, refusing to accept the light of her own purpose in life. At the same time, a man is attempting to do what Mun has been blessed with the gift to do – free the spirit of a young boy who committed suicide. The dichotomy between the man embracing his destiny and trying to help a tortured soul and Mun attempting to escape from her own reality through a world of darkness clearly paints a picture of the purpose of the film. The film is not designed with the primary goal of scaring the audience. It is designed to make the audience think about what defines our realities. Is it what we see? What we feel? What we hear? Or does it go deeper than that? Are we all merely trying to escape through our own vices and fantasy from the responsibilities of our own personal destiny in life? And what happens when we actually accept what we are supposed to do in our lives? After finishing the song, an emotionally exhausted Mun can no longer hide from her destiny, collapsing on the floor as the screen returns to full color only to fade to black.
Indeed, Mun has accepted what she is supposed to do by this point in the film. Earlier in the film, her denial over the new facts of life she learned caused her nothing but trouble; by the time she embraces her destiny, no new knowledge can hurt her. She can no longer hide from her own unique difficulties in life, forcing her to participate in the “ordinary” world that she finally realizes she is part of, no matter what difficulties she faces. Mun decides to channel the spirit of the young woman (the posthumous cornea donor) who committed suicide in that girl’s own bedroom, “You wanted me here. Show me what you want me to see.” Mun uses this knowledge to free the spirit of a woman who tried to do nothing but help people in their everyday existence with her own unique gifts. However, all is not well. On her trip home, Mun sees an ever-growing field of the harbingers she saw throughout the film going through a traffic jam. A tanker has turned over and is leaking gas into the street. Mun tries to warn everyone of the dangers of the impending explosion but they ignore her; the eruption destroys all of those in denial of the actual reality of the situation they face. Even after Mun does everything right in the situation, she still suffers for her righteous action: slivers of shrapnel enter her eyes in a heartbreaking close up of unmitigated pain in the life of Mun, returning her to a state of blindness.
Many horror films, when given the opportunity, will leave the audience with a final haunting image that represents the entire situation of the film. They traditionally show one final devastating or psychologically terrifying image to fully remind their audience that the film they just watched was a horror film. Most directors would have happily ended their film with the massive explosion, lingering on the blood and tears escaping from Mun’s eyes. But the Pang Brothers did not create your average horror film.
In the final scene of The Eye, Mun walks down the street much like in the first scene, but with subtle differences. She no longer wears glasses to hide her eyes, she uses her actually walking stick as opposed to an umbrella, and she seems to be a stronger and happier person for being able to embrace her own situation in life.
Barthes, Roland. “On Leaving the Movie Theater.” The Advanced College Essay: Education and the Professions. 4th ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.
Clark, Mark. Smirk, Sneer and Scream : Great Acting in Horror Cinema. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004.
Gaiman, Neil. Introduction: “Concerning Dreams and Nightmares.” The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death. By H. P. Lovecraft. New York: Del Rey, 1995. vii-ix.
Hantke, Steffen. “Spectral Vampires: Nosferatu in the Light of New Technology.” Horror Film: Creating and Marketing Fear. ed. Steffen Hantke. 1st ed. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Publishing, 2004.
Hutchings, Peter. The Horror Film. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.
Kennedy, Lisa. “The Eye.” Rotten Tomatoes: Reviews from the Nation’s Top Critics. .
Pang Brothers, dir. The Eye (Jian Gui). Perf. Angelica Lee and Lawrence Chou. Applause Pictures, 2002.
Polanski, Roman, dir. Rosemary’s Baby. Perf. Mia Farrow, John Cassavettes, Ruth Gordon, and Sidney Blackmen. Paramount Pictures, 1968.
Shyamalan, M. Knight, dir. The Sixth Sense. Perf. Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment. Hollywood Pictures, 1999.