One of the predicaments that producers face when translating Asian horror movies into English is our profound lack of, like, spirituality. In Eastern culture ghosts are accepted, feared and revered. Highlights of Western appreciation for the supernatural stop at Paranormal State and half-hearted fumblings with a ouija board. Ditto our conception of the afterlife. This problem is manifested in The Eye, the newest reincarnation of J-Horror to hit screens. Based on the Chinese hit, Gin Gwai, The Eye provides alarming insight into Western death anxiety. In Gin Gwai, ghostly figures come benignly to take away the dead—all shadowy and indistinct. Translated into American, they become ferocious and terrifying, all jagged teeth and growls. They also have an alarming tendency to leap out at you. Death isn’t portrayed as a release, or even an ending: it’s a vicious abduction by hooded demons. The lack of any spiritual consciousness renders The Eye far less plausible, even conceptually, than the original. Then again, it was produced by Tom Cruise.
“Dios Mio. You have her eyes,” says Rosa Martinez as she meets Sydney Wells (Jessica Alba), the recipient of Martinez’s daughter’s corneas in a transplant operation. As bald statements go, it’s a winner. Alba, glaringly miscast, portrays a young concert violinist who lost her sight at the age of five from playing with firecrackers. The Eye is awash with structural horror elements: Final Girl, horrifying surprises, grisly angry ghosts, unconvincing romantic subplot. And there’s more. With her vision restored, Wells suddenly finds herself in a terrifying simulacrum of reality, where she literally cannot believe her eyes. This is one of the more interesting concepts that the movie tantalizes with, before it retreats into deliberate stupidity. The dynamite concept of exposing what happens when a blind person regains their vision, and yet can’t trust what they see, is determinedly glossed over, presumably for fear of alienating the teenage demographic.
This movie is almost a big step forward for Alba, in that it requires more from her than pouting and wearing swimwear. But this apparent solution appears to be the problem. She’s far too attractive for the role. Alba’s not really awful, but she lacks sufficient depth of expression to engage an audience intellectually. It would have been refreshing to see more in-depth insight into Sydney’s psychological state, but this absence partly has to do with the fact that Alba possesses only two facial expressions in her repertoire: scared and serene. Her dismay at the Baudrillardian hyper-reality in which she finds herself is expressed chiefly through lack of makeup. And sometimes her hair gets a bit tangled. Clearly the fact that she looks a little less than perfect is meant to signify a serious role, but it’s hardly Oscar territory. A kookier, older actress would have been a more convincing choice (Renee Zellweger was initially confirmed for the role but reportedly got sick of it and signed on to make Case 39 instead). Alba contributes to the film’s identity crisis—it’s not sure if it wants to be a smart, psychological horror or a big box-office-slasher. It ends up being neither.
That said, moments can be damn scary. As we begin to realize that Sydney’s new corneas have some unusual qualities, not to mention a highly dubious past, toned-down color and stark lines shift the mood. Directors Xavier Palud and David Moreau rely heavily on the element of surprise, as well as some of the more eerie scenes lifted from the original. When Sydney’s sight is still recovering, the shapes she sees are blurry and indistinct. A strings-based, oppressive score by Marco Beltrami tells us that it must be scary, but there’s enough room for speculation to question Sydney’s psychological state of mind. Sydney’s psychiatrist, Dr. Paul Faulkner (Alessandro Nivola) thinks that she’s fibbing so that people will think she’s “special” again. As her eyesight recovers, her “visions” become clearer and more disturbing, leading up to a particularly terrifying scene in Sydney’s apartment building, as the ghost of a man with half his head missing creeps towards Sydney in what must be the world’s slowest elevator. The timing is exquisite.
You have to wonder though, given that Sydney’s most terrifying visions occur at home, why is she always in such a hurry to get there? Do ghosts have an inherent respect for locked doors? This aspect of the film makes much more sense in China, where home layouts are specifically tailored to keep ghosts out. In one scene in Gin Gwai a priest comes to remove bad energy from the house. When you translate this aspect into a Western interpretation, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. As if to make amends, the directors refer to a number of other horror movies. There’s a seemingly ironic “I see [dead] people!” line from Sydney, as she tries to explain her predicament. There’s more: a scary man facing the corner of the room, hands grasping a bloodshot eye, and even a self-referential scene in a Chinese restaurant filled with spooky Chinese people. It’s almost like the people who brought you Scary Movie trying to make a serious film. Or possibly, the genre has become so much a part of pop culture within recent years that we have exhausted all the iconic images.
The Eye isn’t as bad as has been made out (if you like being frightened a lot) but it could be much better, and much smarter. Parker Posey is underemployed as the elder sister whose cloying guilt about Sydney’s blindness is hinted at but never explored. The movie also suffers from dialogue that seems to have been translated from Chinese using an online dictionary. ““We see what we look at,” poses Sydney’s psychiatrist, in a staggeringly profound analysis. “The gift of Ana’s sight made me see what I was afraid to,” summates Sydney, in a deduction that means nothing no matter how long you think about it. The double entendres involving “seeing” and “vision” are flogged until they collapse. There are a few requisite shots of Sydney in the shower, Sydney in a towel, Sydney in a see-through vest; which may redeem The Eye to its key demographic: 8th-grade boys. Maybe in a few years they’ll remake it as a Jungian horror movie and fully indulge the psychological meanderings of the Pang brothers. Until then, Jessica Alba’s blind musician is as profound as America gets.
London, England's Sophie Gilbert is a secret fan of Disney movies who currently resides in Queens.