Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Ghost eyes – review

Director: Kuei Chih-Hung

Release date: 1974

Contains spoilers

One of the more interesting convergences of genres is that of the ghost and the vampire and there have been so marvellous examples of Western ghost films that feature vampiric ghosts. However it is in Eastern cinema where the two are often confused with the word ghost being almost a catchall, that sometimes means vampire and at other times what we would more traditionally call a ghost. Sometimes this is because of translation as the word Guǐ means ghost but is also found in the kanji for vampire (which is suck blood ghost). In this case, we have a very early example of a Hong Kong vampire movie in which there does seem to be a purposeful confusion between a corporeal undead entity and a spirit based one.

In this the more familiar figure of the kyonsi is absolutely absent but some familiar tropes remain in the movie. What is also interesting is how this plays with a modern contrivance and places it within the world of the supernatural.

looking for a manicure
A man, Shi Jong-Jie (Si Wai), enters a barbershop looking to have a manicure done. He is led into the shop but notices that there are mirrors on both sides of the shop (except for the first seat) and aims to sit there. The owner notices that he didn’t seem to reflect in one mirror but dismisses the notion and, as we shall see, mirrors play a role later in the film. The beautician told to work with him needs to leave and so she asks Wang Bao-Ling (Chan Si-Gaai) to deal with him. As she works he discovers that she lives alone.

Si Wai as Mr Shi
After the shop shuts Bao-Ling is crossing the road when a car nearly knocks her down. She is shaken, rather than physically hurt, but has lost her glasses. These are retrieved by Mr Shi, but they are broken. In this scene we realise that Bao-Ling is very myopic. He suggests that contact lenses would be better than glasses but she replies that they are too expensive. It just so happens that he is an optometrist and would happily give her a discount and so, as she has a prior engagement, she arranges to go to his shop the next night. He gives her the address.

eye test
The prior arrangement is to meet her friend An-Pin (Lam Wai-Tiu), who is an hour late (having gone to buy a horror novel first) and so she makes him buy her an expensive steak. The next day she goes to Mr Shi’s shop and has her eyes tested and is given some temporary lenses and then a pair of prescription lenses are delivered at the barbershop. That night Bao-Ling is at home when there is a knock at the door, it is Mr Shi. He explains that a co-worker gave him Bao-Ling’s address and shines a torch in her eyes, that light becomes shining light from his eyes and she disrobes for him, we hear sounds of sex. In the morning she awakens, at first with no memory of how she got to her bed, naked and then remembering what she did, but not why she did it.

looking rougher by the day
Things become weirder for her, she starts seeing ghosts (unseen by others) and freaking out. Mr Shi turns up for a manicure and eye mojo’s her again. During the manicure he reacts violently when a man smokes near him and then he takes Bao-Ling to a house for sex. When she awakens the opulent house is a ruin – a tramp says that it is said to be haunted as someone burned to death in there. Her health becomes worse and worse, her skin drawn and sallow. When she returns to the optometrist shop it is a burnt out shell and she discovers that he died in the shop fire three years before.

using eye mojo
Bao-Ling cannot remove the lenses and, when An-Pin takes her to a doctor, she doesn’t appear to be wearing any – and only has mild myopia. Mr Shi tells her the lenses are part of her now. In some respects they were very much like the more traditional leaves, placed near eyes to see the spirit world in other Hong Kong movies, but these allow Mr Shi to control her. Mr Shi actually becomes bored with her and has her bring other girls to him who then vanish.

An-Pin comes to believe
So far, so ghost, despite her unhealthy appearance, which does make it seem like he is sucking the life from her, we see little vampiric activity. However, when An-Pin helps her locate the bodies of the two girls they have been drained of blood and the word vampire is often used. It is suggested that the ghost/vampire sucks blood to lengthen its life. It is also suggested that the vampire is not Mr Shi but uses Mr Shi’s body and can change host into another dead body when necessary. This is the confusing dichotomy of the ghost and vampire; the vampire seems to be both corporeal and spirit, a possessed cadaver and yet the cadaver itself.

showing his true face
The use of mirrors was mentioned and the reason the vampire would not sit between two mirrors was because of the fact that, should the vampire be trapped between two mirrors, its true face will be revealed. An-Pin tries to use a cross, but the vampire is dismissive of it. A Taoist priest doesn’t seem to be able to affect it with his paraphernalia. What does affect the vampire is smoke, be it the cigarette or incense smoke and, one assumes, this is because Mr Shi died in a fire. Now, as the vampire was not Mr Shi one might wonder why that matters, but then the vampire does have access to Mr Shi’s optometrist skills and this is back to the contradictions mentioned above and it does seem that the vampire could be described as a spiritual parasite that seems to take on the attributes of its host body.

trapped by smoke
Contradictions aside, this was an absolutely fascinating use of myth and lore, and I enjoyed the film itself and the unusual premises that underpinned it. Also interesting was the lack of any sentimentality in the film. Chan Si-Gaai’s performance is detached and haunted – as it should be. Definitely one that is genre necessary. 7 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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