And the trend of remaking Asian horror continues--after an abysmal Pulse (Jim Sonzero, 2006) from Kurosawa Kyoshi's great apocalyptic thriller Kairo (2001); a ludicrous One Missed Call (Eric Valette, 2007) from Takashi Miike's supernatural thriller Chakushin ari (2003); and an indifferent The Eye (David Moreau, Xavier Palud, 2008) from the Pang brothers' Gin gwai (2002), we have Masuyuki Oichiai's Shutter (2008), remade from Banjong Pisanthanakum and Parkpoom Wongpoom's 2004 original.
Mind you, not all Asian horror remakes are bad--Takashi Shimizu's 2004 The Grudge pretty much captured both spirit and flavor of his 2003 Ju-on (I didn't have a problem with the remake so much as with the original's story, which seemed more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive horror flick); and while in the strictest sense it wasn't a remake, I thought Hideo Nakata's 2005 The Ring Two was a vast improvement over Gore Verbinski's The Ring (2002) with its slapstick ending (Naomi Watts doing a no-gainer from a vacation cottage's first floor straight into its basement). More, I thought Nakata's film--his American debut--superior to Walter Salles' Dark Water (2005), the official Hollywood remake of Nakata's own Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2002), from which Nakata in a spirit of parsimonious economy drew much of his ideas and imagery (the lesson here apparently being: trust a filmmaker and not some hired hand no matter how talented to execute his own ideas properly).
These two notable exceptions aside, the results have been consistent, even predictable: when a horror picture becomes a hit in Japan, Thailand or even the Philippines (Yam Laranas' 2004 Sigaw (Echo) is being turned into a Hollywood flick), you'll soon find a stitched-together monster of a remake rearing its ugly, slime-dripping head up to walk, tottering, in the original's footsteps. One might imagine a steady stream of ghosts, unearthly creatures, supernatural entities of all kinds wandering nimbly out of one country to conquer the world, the other responding with its own series of stunted, computer-generated abortions gimping gamely after, in a pathetic parody of the former.
Oichiai's remake isn't bad; not great, but unlike say The Ring, or Pulse or One Missed Call or The Eye it's not offensively awful--just markedly unoriginal. We have your standard-issue loving couple, Benjamin and Jane Shaw (Joshua Jackson and Rachael Taylor, respectively) being haunted by a malignant spirit (shades of Ju-on) named Megumi Tanaka (Megumi Okina); we have a mystery that the couple needs to unravel to be left alone in peace (Ringu, Chakushin ari). Instead of a cellphone, or a videotape cassette, our anxieties involving this technological age revolve around the ordinary handheld camera (35 mm, digital, Polaroid, so on and so forth).
We have eerie silences and airless, abandoned rooms; we have ordinary images (Jane's hand caressing her husband's neck; Jane looking out the subway train window; Jane snapping a photograph) suddenly turned creepy (Jane has been outside the apartment all this time shopping; a grinning corpse is glimpsed through the window glass; the photographs yield a ghostly figure). We have at least two quotes from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), where the protagonist approaches a seated figure from behind not once but twice.
Then there's the issue of plausibility--why, for example, are a series of photographs kept hidden instead of destroyed when they're more likely criminal evidence than blackmail material? And why, if the spirit's apparent motivation is revenge, don't the parties involved come together and actually do something (Sure at one point it's only Benjamin Megumi's after, but when things started to happen didn't it occur to them that perhaps they would be affected as well…?)?
More damning than the improbabilities (The genre after all is full of them; I mean--a videotape that kills? A hand coming out the back of one's head? A killer cellphone?) is the wasted opportunity. Oichiai surrounds Jane with moments that develop her sense of paranoia and loneliness, moments when a beautiful model eyes her more intently than is usual, or when she finds a lovely photographer's assistant pushing Benjamin up by his bottom as he bends over a ladder (He's taking overhead pictures of his models--pictures, incidentally, that look like standard-issue spreads from Vogue or Cosmopolitan, hardly the kind of work worth importing all the way from the United States). Nothing results from these moments--it's as if the filmmakers wanted to develop Jane's situation into something more interesting (she does, after all, realize that Megumi is more than just a vengeful spirit) but in the course of filmmaking forgets about the idea.
All that said, Oichiai's not without ability. He knows not to rely too much on fancy hand-held photography, and he keeps his editing largely unfussy and clear. He does come up with the occasionally inventive image (Megumi stalking Benjamin in the dark, for example, the only means of tracking her progress the occasional flashbulb burst); the story itself is not entirely without surprise--there's a twist at the end that reminds one of some of the more outlandish adventures of Sinbad the Sailor (the surprise is pretty much given away, however, when Benjamin steps on a weighing scale and the nurse throws him a glare, wordlessly accusing him of eating too many red bean sweets). Given better, more distinctive material, Oichiai might actually develop into a major filmmaking talent, at least in the horror genre.
Not too bad, but nothing great, either. Much prefer the low-budget fare found in our own independent digital movement, which substitutes imagination, atmosphere, and inventive on-camera effects for big-budgeted, digitally rendered wraiths--I'm thinking in particular of Rico Ilarde's Altar (2007), which manages to not just be consistently creepy but also funny, erotic, even moving.
Endorsing Ilarde and his fellow filmmakers feels like a two-edged sword, however--should one spotlight the Filipino indie filmmaker, shift attention to his talent, allow his work to be pimped up, Hollywoodized, all-around bastardized? Is it the Filipino independent's turn to spend a session or two inside the House of Pain, later stumbling out stitched-together, dripping slime, tottering? The very idea seems, well horrifying.
First published in Businessworld 4/4/08