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October 20, 2010

Visits: Hungry Ghost Anthology

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Low Ngai Yuen, James Lee, Ng Tian Hann, Ho Yu-hang - 2004
Tidepoint Pictures Region 1 DVD

Visits is one of those films that is better understood by watching the "Making of" supplement. Unlike the usual documentation of the director and actor going through the motions of creating a shot, we get to see the four directors discuss the making of their short films, and the producer, Lina Tan, discuss the inspiration and context for the work. The inspiration is the Hungry Ghost Festival. The context is a Chinese language film for the ethnic Chinese, a significant minority, in the primarily Muslim country of Malaysia. From skimming a couple of the reviews of the film, a western viewer, especially one who views Asian film with little awareness of cultural difference, tends to dismiss Visits as falling short of the expectations created by films in more artistically liberal countries such as Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. What might be more explicitly shown or stated in these other countries has to be suggested in Malaysia in keeping with what is allowed for a general audience. The equivalent to the PG-13 rating was only introduced about two years ago. For western critics, Visits has been dismissed at least in part due to cultural misunderstandings.

What was interesting for me was how two pairs of stories seemed to segue into each other, with the first story, "1413", about the intense friendship between two high school girls followed by another story about friendship between women, "Waiting for Them", with its more obvious lesbian theme. The third story, about a film student attempting to document a ghost beckoning ritual in "Nodding Scoop", was followed by "Anybody Home?" a story primarily told in the form of shots from surveillance cameras in an apartment and the hidden cameras positioned in a woman's apartment. As the work of four different filmmakers, like many omnibus productions, there is an uneven quality with the best of the shorts being from the two most accomplished directors, the relatively internationally regarded James Lee, and Low Ngai Yuen.

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"Waiting for Them"

While the filmmakers note that the film was shot on digital video, with a small budget, further research has indicated that Visits was the inaugural feature for a Malaysian theater chain with theaters specializing in art and independent films, done in conjunction with the local production company Red Films. Even though Visits had made the round of film festivals, mostly on the strength of Lee's involvement, I have to assume that the production costs were kept down to recoup costs from a mostly local audience. The star of Lee's film mentions working during the day while filming at night, suggesting that within Malaysia there are only a handful of full-time professional actors. The biggest name in Visits is the pan-Asian star, Carmen Soo.

The limited budget also meant that the number of actors is small. Most of the time, only two or three actors are onscreen. Kuala Lampur is depopulated, with a virtually empty hospital, restaurant, office and street among the settings. In a strange way this works to the overall film's advantage making the film take place in an other worldly environment, and adding to the general sense of unease.

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"Nodding Scoop"

Low's film relies the most on some of the familiar tropes of horror films, with a long haired young woman haunting her friend, suffering from amnesia. The two first seen following an assumed suicide pact, having fallen from a tall building. There is a scene with a priest doing some form of exorcism when the amnesiac girl reports seeing a ghost, with the priest not clearly Buddhist or any specified faith. As in James Lee's film, ghosts sometimes appear not for haunting, but for reconciliation with others, or as a means of finding peace within themselves.

Lee's film is about the friendship between two women, Sam and Anne. Anne is distraught over the ending of her relationship with another woman, conveyed through a phone conversation with Sam. The two plan to talk more over the phone later that night. Anne never answers her phone. Sam's boyfriend shows up, they talk, but they do not sleep together, with Sam offering a guest bedroom. The next night, Sam finds Anne walking alone, and picks her up. In Sam's apartment, Anne expresses her appreciation for Sam's continued friendship, even when something was revealed about Anne. It is never stated what that something is, although one can guess, especially when Sam describes to her boyfriend, Anne's relationship as "complicated". Anne goes to the guest room where she finds a ghost in the closet. One might argue that more is being read into this than intended. Or Lee is using some visual signals for a love that dare not speak its name in a Muslim country. Lee has reportedly revisited some of the elements in "Waiting for Them" with his first 35mm feature, Histeria.

The "Nodding Scoop" is a large ladle that is rigged with a small bucket, a wig, and some cloth. The wigged scoop appears to look like a small, reclusive long haired ghost, with the head nodding back and forth. Hoping to scare viewers, and scare up a career, Ng Tian Hann's budding filmmaker finds himself over his head with a possibly real ghosts as well as two rival female assistants. Ho Yu-Hang's film similarly is about a male seemingly in control of a situation, only to discover that his voyeurism comes with a heavy price. The security guard of an apartment building, he sets up cameras to follow the life of an attractive female tenant. Watching her from a television screen is soon replaced by spending time in her apartment, sleeping on her bed, smelling her bra, and discovering more than he would have wanted to know. "Anybody Home?" is overlong, but is finally worth watching for the scene of a distraught Jackie Lim, illuminated by a barely clasped flashlight.

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"Anybody Home?"

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 20, 2010 12:44 AM