The eyes have it
The Eye (Cantonese title: Jian gui) is a stylish thriller from Hong Kong, with its direction and script credited to the Pang Brothers. The film’s English credits mention them only as a team though the Internet Movie Database lists their names separately as Danny and Oxide. The Eye shows that the siblings have a strong feeling for atmosphere—especially when it comes to establishing an atmosphere of dread and inchoate menace. Their polish and assurance make the movie engrossing and compulsively watchable, even as we recognize the odds and ends of other films from which the brothers have constructed their script.
Lee Sin-je plays Mun, a young woman who has been blind since the age of 2. Mun has just undergone cornea-transplant surgery, and her doctor (Edmund Chen) is cautiously optimistic about her chances for a full recovery of her sight.
Oddly enough, these early stages—before the plot even gets under way—are when The Eye is at its best. The initial premise is reminiscent of the 1999 Val Kilmer-Mira Sorvino movie At First Sight, in which Kilmer played a blind masseur trying to adjust to regaining his sight. But At First Sight was a shallow travesty that glossed over the subtleties of the true story (by Oliver Sacks) on which it was based. As Sacks pointed out, regained eyesight is a mixed blessing; it forces the patient not only to learn to see—perspective, focus, colors and depth perception are all new and unfamiliar concepts—but to make the enormous psychological adjustment of receiving sensory input from a whole new and unfamiliar direction.
It is while Mun is trying to rebuild what her doctor calls her “visual vocabulary” that the strange things begin to happen. Mun herself is particularly vulnerable at this point; what she sees is entirely new, out of focus and unformed. Lee Sin-je is awfully good at showing the newness of it all to her—she actually manages to look as though Mun’s own eyes are unfamiliar to her. (The Malaysian-born Lee started out as a singer, making her name in Thailand and Hong Kong before branching out into acting. She shows here that she’s an actress of remarkable subtlety.)
It soon becomes clear to Mun that the visual stimulation she’s receiving goes beyond what’s physically present in front of her. The first night after the bandages come off, she sees—again, dim and unclear—a man in dark clothing who has come to visit the old lady who shares her hospital room. He helps the old lady out of her bed, and their hazy forms disappear into the hallway. The next morning, Mun notices that the orderlies and nurses are removing the bedclothes; the old lady has died during the night. But what about the visitor Mun saw? None of them understands what she’s talking about; the hospital doesn’t allow visitors at night.
After Mun is discharged from the hospital, she sees a little boy in the hallway of her apartment building who asks if she has seen his report card. Later we see a medium talking to the boy’s parents about the child’s suicide: “We need to understand the reason for his shame. Perhaps he really did lose his report card.” (OK, folks, repeat after me: “I see dead people.”)
At the same time, Mun begins seeing a psychotherapist, the nephew of her physician (Lawrence Chou), to help with her psychological adjustment. As Mun’s visions—both natural and supernatural—multiply, the therapist begins to suspect that she may be seeing images inherited with her eyes from the deceased organ donor.
At this point, The Eye settles into territory somewhere between cliche and predictability. The resolution of Mun’s torment becomes pretty much what we expected all along, but the Pang brothers bring it all home with a flourish of special effects and a final ironic touch that takes Mun’s life full circle to a strange sort of contentment.
The Eye is not terribly original, but it is assured and engrossing, with some deliciously chilling scares and a subtle, compelling performance by Lee. Can an American remake with Jennifer Aniston or Nicole Kidman be far behind?