Can a simple premise and a vast array of film effects buoy a movie lacking a well-crafted script? Hong Kong’s Pang Brothers experiment with bucking horror movie cliches and a paint-by-numbers plot by means of special effects and while the resulting spectacle can be impressive this movie is an empty experience. A stunning absence of innovation and a sense of wasted effort lurk behind the green screen that makes this about as fulfilling as watching someone else playing video games.
Popular author Ting-Yin Tsui (Angelica Lee, famous for her starring role in The Eye, although I’ve only seen her in the waste of time Koma) is riding the crest of a successful romance trilogy. As one of her novels has just been adapted to the silver screen her publicist announces that she is currently working on a new book, which is greatly upsetting to Ting-Yin because her latest efforts to write have left her with an overworked white board and a collection of crumpled notes. Her former lover, a great resource for her best-selling output, returns from years abroad to add to the mounting pressure.
She wants to write about the paranormal but she’s only been heart-broken, never haunted. Sequestered in her luxurious apartment scribbling character sketches and deleting paragraphs shadowy figures begin to appear at the edge of her vision. A mysterious length of black hair is found on the kitchen sink, telephone calls of strange noises and cries begin to torment her– is she losing her mind or are the crumbled and abandoned pages of work really crawling around in the trash can?
Her most stunning bit of critical thinking finally connects these visions to the story ideas she has conjured and then dismissed. After a deep breath she experiments, attempting to use these jarring episodes to propel her through writer’s block. Riding the elevator she is joined by an ancient grandmother and a little girl but when she leaves them in the garage they continue to descend. In a panic she runs outside but finds she’s fallen down the rabbit hole.
This isn’t a Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, it’s a bleak and twisted shell of a city crawling with reanimated corpses, contorted children and M.C. Escher drawings come to life. An unwelcome stranger in a strange land Ting-Yin finds herself pursued by terrifying beings– one with long black hair! Tumbling through underground corridors of ramshackle apartments and barking dogs, creepy kids and bad lighting she miraculously emerges in a sunny, if empty, amusement park.
An old man (Siu-Ming Lau) sits among the rusting carousel and other rides. He tells her she doesn’t belong in this place but before she can rouse him to be less enigmatic the horizon darkens and things begin to disintegrate. It’s the horrifying Re-Cycle, which is also the name of her unwritten book!
So she runs from the special effects and finds herself surrounded by a forest full of hanged men, but is rescued by a little girl (Yaqi Zeng) riding a toy-horse wearing a creepy mask. Safe in a land of toys the situation is finally explained; this is the land of the abandoned where discarded ideas and forgotten memories find an eternity. Unless the Re-Cycle comes to get them. Not the place for a flesh and blood person to be, so the little girl (ditching the mask) takes her to the old man who’s now fixing books to learn how to escape this dread land.
And so it continues, the two making their way to the mythical Transit where Ting-Yin can catch a ride back to the real world. But there’s a lot of people abandoning things every day, and these figments take shape mostly as dangerous undead. Constantly pursued by the Re-Cycle and the long-haired, finger-pointing figure from earlier the race is on.
Any number of movies have taken the fantasy-world challenge and succeeded and most of those are geared towards children. It generally helps that the characters, both protagonists and those met along the way, are a little more cultivated. Ting-Yin is a writer with a former flame and that’s all she remains through the entire movie. The enigmatic old man and the little girl are unexplained contrivances in a world of zombies sharing their personality. Every other character is a blank enemy, a ceaseless parade of make-up and lighting, who fail to scare or amuse.
Even the one-sheet story is irritating in its laziness. The writer conjures her own hell– fine, but what to do with that? This concept becomes an entire movie and the viewer isn’t allowed to decide that this is so on their own because of some horribly blatant foreshadowing and wholly unnecessary flashbacks. The land of abandoned things is poorly populated with the most obvious and tangible, although I did appreciate the idea of forgotten relatives and aborted fetuses becoming disgruntled cast members. Unfortunately these two shimmering gems in a steaming turd also become centerpieces for a moralistic crown which feels as paper-thin as the rest of the movie.
Not much is required of Angelica Lee, so she reverts to the same fragile, anemic, crazed-eye tantrum I saw in Koma but with less crying. There’s nothing for her character to learn so there’s no growth beyond a sudden yearning for companionship as she gets to know the little girl. Too bad the little girl is just a little girl with no story. I mean, she’s adorable and everything but for little girls lost in the land of the abandoned she seems a little too chipper about being chased by zombies. The old man is a cheap delight, borrowed from the school of Yoda and all other would-be frustrating father-figures.
The Pang Brothers direct like a second-unit team, concentrating on atmosphere and design without regard for any of the actors. The earlier, more horror-oriented scenes are shot with practiced skill but no energy or care. The bulk of the film takes place on soundstages with everything added during post-production and it’s kind of like watching a bad karaoke video where no one’s drunk enough to be any fun. Pretty disappointing since I rather enjoyed Oxide’s One Take Only, a movie that was similarly light in the script and ripe with stylistic annoyances but won me over on charm and excitement that is lacking here. More money and international recognition haven’t done these guys any favors.
I watched a screener of this which dropped the color once in a while and reminded me I can’t sell this. I’m pretty sure the actual DVD release by Image has the same content minus the preview protection. The transfer was excellent, not too difficult going from digital to digital and all. The sound was fine, the subtitles were fine, the movie needed a lot of work. Available on Netflix and screeners around the world.