Friday, September 29, 2006

The Maid (efilmcritic.com)

I once told a friend that I found it easier to believe in the possibility of ghosts than I did in the possibility of good ghost movies, to which he replied that I was the only gullible cynic he knew.

This exchange took place during that wretched hiatus between the release of Jan de Bont’s “The Haunting” and the American DVD release of the revelation that was Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu” four years later.

Since then, the Pacific Rim film cultures have given us some of the scariest, most challenging ghost movies of all time. In the west, ghost stories are just another subgenre under the heading “Horror.” In Asia, ghost stories are taken far more seriously.

Billed as Singapore’s first “home grown” horror movie, “The Maid” is an intriguing blend of ghost movie staples with superior acting and a fascinating background which will be unknown to most western viewers.

A pretty Filipina (Alessandra de Rossi) arrives in Singpore on the first day of the seventh month of the Chinese calendar, the Month of the Hungry Ghosts. She is warned by the couple in whose home she will work as a maid not to offend these spirits.

She watches Mrs. Teo (Huifang Hong) place food on the sidewalk in front of the Teo house to appease the ghosts’ appetite. She and her husband (Schucheng Chen) burn paper offerings and scold Rosa when she innocently tries to sweep away the ashes. It’s something you don’t do, like look a ghost in the face, stay out after 5:00 in the evening, or respond when someone calls your name from behind you.

The Teos work with a Chinese opera company, and when Rosa attends one of the performances she sits on the front row. Soon a pale, wizened man forces her to move as she is sitting in his wife’s seat. He’s a ghost and so, Rosa discovers, is everyone sitting on the front row with her. The seats are reserved for spirits.

These episodes are unnerving for Rosa, but her encounters with the Hungry Ghosts soon turn much nastier. She has befriended Ah Soon (Benny Soh), her master’s and mistress’ retarded, adult son. In a quartet of outstanding performances, Soh’s is chilling in a way you almost hate to admit. So brilliantly does he recreate the facial expressions, movements and mannerisms of a retarded man, he makes you uncomfortable when you watch him. Rarely has that feeling of uneasy voyeurism you felt the first time you watched “Freaks” been generated so convincingly from the screen.

As she and Ah Soon play, Rosa notices that the unfortunate man insists on calling her Esther, the name of the Teo’s last maid, the one they tell her met a man a ran away. When? Oh, about this time last year.

But if Esther ran away, why does she keep turning up around the house?

Writer/director Kelvin Tong uses many of the standard tricks of the spookshow trade, but he uses them so well most of them seem new. If he borrows a little obviously from popular western films of recent years, I suspect he’s only finding his way.

And, to be honest, the film’s producer has admitted that he was aiming at making an “international” film, i.e., one that would appeal to a western audience. But western audiences don’t respond so favorably to the new Asian horror movies because they ape the American product. We like them for their different approaches to the material to which we’ve grown so bored from the overuse of cliches. In other words, we like best what’s most Asian in these films.

I think Tong is capable of some pretty eerie stuff in future, if he chooses to stick with horror for a few more movies.

“The Maid” isn’t the most frightening picture that’s come out of the east, nor is it the most original, but it promises much and uses its background well, introducing us to customs and beliefs we haven’t been exposed to before. That’s more than what we expect from a good horror movie—it’s what we should be able to expect from a good movie, period.

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