Back in my wayward youth – not all that dissimilar to my wayward adulthood – I recall watching numerous horror anthology films on late night Saturday TV. Those were the days. Corkers like the original Tales from the Crypt with Peter Cushing and, um, Joan Collins, and Trilogy of Terror, the well known trio of films all starring Karen Black, one of which featured a particularly nasty African Zuni fetish doll that comes to life and wreaks merry havoc.
They don’t make ‘em like that any more. I mean, no, they really don’t. Occasionally the U.S. churns out B Grade fare like Campfire Tales or Tales from the Darkside, but even those are a decade or more old. Which is one of the reasons why the Three series is so welcome.
‘Series’ might be a little hopeful – there are only two entries so far. This one is actually the first, originally entitled just plain ol’ Three. The more well known version, known locally as Three Extremes, featured films by Fruit Chan, Park Chan Woo and Takashi Miike, and followed around three years later.
But it is a nice concept, essentially getting three hot directors from the major Asian film markets to pony up with a film, so it is worth hoping that there are more entries in the future. Three Extremes covered Hong Kong, Korea and Japan, while this, its predecessor, now numerically titled as the sequel, drops Japan and replaces it with a film from Thailand. All very clear, right? Right.
The first in this entry – ‘Memories’ – is from Ji woon-Kim, the director behind the almost terrific A Tale Of Two Sisters. It is an odyssey tale, a returning home story of husband and wife, where the returning person (in this case, the wife), has various, slightly surreal adventures along the way. Okay, it’s not Odysseus or Homer, but the reference is clear. The twist – and of course there is a twist, this is, after all, a horror tale – is that the husband is at home, worried about his wife who has gone missing, and we first see her, coming out of an apparent coma on a roadside, whereabouts unknown. Really, really unknown – she has no memory whatsoever.
It is a real neat trick. Homer’s tale told of a husband returning to a longing wife. Here the tale is subverted by degrees. It doesn’t take an Einstein to work out what has actually happened: the opening sequence has the husband waking up and seeing ghost like figures. But the film takes its themes on what constitutes memory and how memory works on our emotional state and works them through with reasonable effectiveness – grief, happiness, guilt all make appearances.
The cinematography is all tight frames and clean lighting, the acting and scripts are minimal and thoughtful. You would think, then, that a film that plays with such ideas as Memory vs Reality, time as an elastic concept (quite nicely explored throughout the narrative arc), ghosts real or imagined and so on, would be chilling and contemplative. But no. Somehow this film falls dreadfully flat, even going so far as to recklessly over-use already overdone Asian horror tropes: ghostly faces outside lift windows, jerkily walking women with long black hair and white dresses. It is, of course, wonderful to have horror standards and these images are no less worthy than vampires and crosses. But they seem superfluous and ill-used here.
It gets worse in the second film.
‘The Wheel’, directed by Thai director Nonzee Nimibutr, features another good horror standard: possessed puppets. This should be a great short film. The puppets are set in the world of traditional Thai street theatre. The setting – jungles, the river, set mostly at night time, lit by firelight and moonlight – well, it should scream vivid lushness, shadows and general spookiness. It doesn’t. Sure, we get a mix of elemental horror, where the river (water), fire, and even earth seem to threaten and overwhelm the characters. But the film seems haphazard and lazy and pitifully un-scary. Which is such a shame.
Which is why the final film, ‘Going Home’ from director Peter Chan, is such a wonderful gift. It’s rare to see a genre film deal so perfectly in lyricism but this film does.
A policeman and his son move into a rambling, abandoned-by-degrees apartment building. The son is frightened by a red coat wearing little girl and then disappears. His distraught father looks for him everywhere, and eventually his suspicion rests on his mysterious doctor neighbour. Breaking into the doctor’s apartment he finds that the doctor/mad scientist is living with the perfectly preserved corpse of his wife, whom he talks to and regularly bathes. As you do. The doctor springs the policeman from behind, and our heroic cop awakes handcuffed and witness to the doctor’s belief that his wife will come back to life in three day’s time.
OK, it sounds a little silly on paper. But the truth is that this is a moving, lovely film about love and reunion, with some odd takes on bondage thrown in, emphasising perhaps both the emotional and physical “ties” we have to each other (our policeman is always trussed up in different ways in different scenes). It is movie that is also, on occasion, definitely unsettling. Watch for the breaking of a beer glass scene which almost seems improvised. It’s a jaw dropper.
Chan developed this into a feature film, which is well reviewed here by Alison. I am very interested in seeing that, partly because the economy of this short is one it’s great strengths and plays up the subtle silences, space and poetry of the film. But with terrific performances, especially from pop idol Leon Lai, assured direction and stark cinematography from the brilliant Christopher Doyle, it is sure to be darn fine. And so, for the record, my rating is mainly on the strength of this film alone …