Killtoberfest 3 – #11: The Eye (2002)

In All, Movies by Kyu

“The souls of those who commit suicide are obliged to repeat their painful deaths every day.”

The next film in my Asian sounder, The Eye (2002), is all about seeing things you wish you hadn’t. Fitting.

That’s a little harsh, but not by much. I don’t regret seeing it, per se, but I didn’t get much out of it, either. A rather basic ghost story told in largely pedestrian fashion, The Eye simply fails to engage after a while, and then proceeds to outstay its welcome.

It’s not all bad, though. The story could have worked well: Mun, a young woman who has been blind since the age of 2, finds that after receiving a cornea transplant she can see… too much. Those who have died painfully or suddenly are visible to her as they wander the earth seeking the closure that eluded them in life, and those living who are about to die now have shadowy soul-guides waiting to take them to the afterlife, shadows only Mun can see. The problem with the film isn’t this set-up, which has plenty capacity to be interesting and worthwhile; the problem is the movie’s inability to choose between genres as it vacillates between horror and sappy melodrama–an indecision that saps the plot of all momentum and drags the pace down to a languid crawl. Most disappointing is the fact that the two most interesting aspects of the film aren’t integrated well enough throughout.

Both the horror and melodrama sides of the story have their moments, and the movie gets off to a good start. As Mun prepares for and then recovers from her surgery, we do get involved in her emotional processing of the transition. During these early scenes, the movie makes good use of close-ups and shallow depths of field in order to simulate the experience of imperfect vision, and the ghost effects are rarely creepier than they are here, when we suspect that blurred figures in the background might be supernatural in origin, but can’t be sure. Mun is still getting used to sight at all–she can’t read or write, or even identify certain objects without touching them first. She’s eager to learn and hopeful that her new perspective will show her the beauty in the world, but of course horror and pain wait for her, too. One of the most affecting scenes comes when Mun returns to her place in the orchestra at the center for the blind, only to be told that, now sighted, she can no longer play with them. It’s a sad moment, but as the film goes on to show, any transition means letting go of those things that were once vital to you.

Other moments in the film are not nearly as interesting, particularly an extended subplot involving a young, sick girl Mun befriends in the hospital; as soon as she’s introduced we know every beat of the coming story, and watching the film drag it out is pretty torturous. The Eye also takes too long for Mun to process her new supernatural visions, from understanding to believing to looking for help, and later belabors a point about her similarity to the woman whose corneas were donated into the ground and then through the ground and then through the metaphor.

I’m convinced it’s less the shoehorning in of the sick child or the romance plot with her new therapist that’s the problem than this middle portion of the movie, where Mun goes from fearing the ghosts around her to understanding that they’re really beings to be pitied and helped. It’s during this section that the plot collapses into a soggy mess, because it’s here that we realize Mun no longer has any real goals. We could invent a few for her that would be natural to her situation–desire to attain the therapist’s affections, a need to stop or understand her ghostly visions–but the film doesn’t bother to implement any of them. Instead, we just get scene after scene of Mun reacting in various ways to the ghosts she sees, talking with annoyance to a small boy eternally seeking his lost report card and running in terror from an old man who haunts the elevator in her apartment complex. Eventually she gives up, hiding in her room and retreating to her old, blind life, playing music and wearing sunglasses in the dark. While that’s a decision I sympathize with, it doesn’t push the movie forward, and although the rest of the film goes on to have Mun seek the truth behind her donor’s death, we never really get any reasons why she (or we) should care.

If the ghosts were uniformly terrifying, we would believe in her need to stop the visions; but one of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the cultural understanding of ghosts is much more compassionate than that. People throughout the film light incense for the dead, or lay out offerings, and generally discuss them as unhappy souls trapped in patterns of sorrow and distress. They’re less monsters than the traditional Buddhist “hungry ghost” who wanders the earth with a great hunger and thirst that symbolizes their lack of human connection and self-fulfillment in the afterlife. One, a little boy, actually munches on a ceremonial candle while Mun watches. They need help, but they’re also just about all the film has going for it on the horror front and in terms of plot motivation, so, while culturally interesting, the movie’s ambivalence toward these spirits is actually tremendously damaging to the whole story and thematic structure.

These problems and more resonate throughout the movie, making me yearn for The Sixth Sense, which was released three years prior to The Eye and took on almost the same story with significantly more skill, structure, and character. That film effectively wove scares with drama in a way that let both support the other, and has an ending that will justly go down in history as one of the most famous and memorable in cinema. The Eye‘s ending is so cheesy I could hardly believe it, and doesn’t even begin to satisfy, but what could? It’s a stone to mark the end of an existence poorly lived. Somewhere I hope The Eye is repeating its sins forever, but personally, I’m not going to look at it any further.

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.