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Arts & Culture

The Eye

In recent years, films such as The Ring and The Grudge (each spawning sequels in their native Japan) challenged the dominance of Hollywood fare in the global market.  That's when Roy Lee, a Washington, D.C. lawyer turned Hollywood player, had a bright idea -- take the most popular of these Asian films and remake them in the United States. The first film to catch his eye was the atmospheric Japanese thriller The Ring . When Lee showed the film to Dreamworks, they immediately wanted to buy it. Lee had similar luck with nearly a dozen other Asian titles. What makes these films so attractive to Hollywood is that they tend to be from familiar genres, they have proven popularity in an existing and as of yet unexploited market, and, as Lee pointed out when I spoke with him back in 2002, they offer studios a fully realized product.

"By seeing a completed movie," Lee said, "they could see what works and doesn’t work. Because it could have easily been a writer submitting a script with the same premise but this just happens to work out better. It’s more easy to access. They are really surprised how well crafted these movies are and they’re up to the standards of U.S. films and the budgets are ridiculously low compared to U.S., most are under $1 million."


Alessandro Nivola and Jessica Alba as doctor and patient in The Eye (Lionsgate)

The latest of Lee's Asian remake projects to hit the screen is The Eye , based on the Pang Brothers' atmospheric horror film of the same name. Tom Cruise's C/W Productions initially picked up the title, and now it hits theaters with Jessica Alba taking on the role of blind violinist Sydney Wells, who regains her sight through a cornea transplant. But after the operation she begins to see strange things -- shadowy figures leading people away, a bedroom morphing into a completely different locale, and people that seem able to pass right through her. When she tells her doctor, Paul Faulkner (Alessandro Nivola), he tries to convince her that it's not unusual for someone seeing for essentially the first time to have trouble processing visual information. But Sydney is convinced it's something else. Online she finds information about "cellular memory," and stories about people who have received donor organs and shown bizarre connections to their donors. Now she wants to find out whose eyes she has and what that person saw.

Remaking a movie is always tough because it means that something already exists in the same format for comparison. Remaking horror films proves especially difficult because horror films depend heavily on being able to surprise the audience and deliver the unexpected in a manner that scares viewers, which is harder if people know what to expect from having seen the original. Add to that the problem of remaking a horror film that succeeded not so much on a clever plot or good scripting but rather on the stylish flourishes of its filmmakers. These are the considerable hurdles that the American version of The Eye must overcome.

Possibly in a nod to the original filmmakers, this new The Eye boasts a pair of directors at the helm as well. David Moreau and Xavier Palud have partnered before on a French film called Ils/Them .

If Cloverfield experimented with shakycam then you could say The Eye dabbles in blurry-vision as it tries to convey Sydney’s returning sight and ever shifting depth of field. The initial shadowy figures that appear in the periphery of her sight are intriguing as the film offers a kind of twist on The Sixth Sense's "I see dead people" idea. The sensory overload of visual stimuli is also nicely conveyed in some early scenes. I also like the way Sydney’s apartment is sparsely furnished, has no lights and uses grays and blacks in the decor. Too many blind people in Hollywood movies have brightly lit apartments. But I do wonder why she has so much artwork up on her walls.


But ultimately, Moreau and Palud decide to trade in the creepy, atmospheric style of the Pang Brothers for a more amped up Hollywood approach. So they start the film with a grabber -- there's fire, abusive kids throwing stones, death, and an apparent suicide. It's as if the filmmakers were making a TV show and needed to open with a bang because they didn't want to lose viewers during the commercial break. But starting like this is more a sign that the filmmakers are the ones who are scared. They seem afraid of a slow build up that delays the horror. Their grabber open reveals too much about where the film is going and comes across as a contrived attempt to jolt the audience.

One Missed Call, another American remake of a J-horror film, chose to start in exactly the same way. These kinds of opens end up feeling very disconnected because their sole purpose is to shock that means the filmmakers feel little obligation to try and make these “teasers” fit smoothly into the overall narrative of the films. Both opens could be sliced off the top of the films with no damage done.

Lookout behind you! Jessica Alba in The Eye (Lionsgate)

Moreau and Palud also resort to heavy-handed musical punctuation to both announce each scare and then pound it home. These are not subtle sound effects work but rather an attempt to insure that audience doesn’t miss any of the visual scares. Moreau and Palud have some creepy make-up/effects work and import a couple scenes right out of the original film that have chilling potential but they tend overplay their scenes as if they don't have confidence in subtler means of unnerving the audience.

Of course their efforts aren't helped by star Jessica Alba. Alba may be able too distract audiences with dimply smiles and cuteness in films such as Fantastic Four and Good Luck Chuck , or bland sexiness in Sin City . But in The Eye, she has to act and she's bad at it. I read about how much work she claimed to have put into learning how to play the violin yet in the film she looks so stiff it's like a robot is playing the instrument. At one point Sydney holds someone that only she can see and the film cuts to the doctor's point of view in which Alba now has to pretend to be holding someone, and she does an incredibly poor job convincing us there's someone in her arms. Her performance fails to make us believe in Sydney's terror at the new sights she's seeing. Alba, unlike Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water , cannot convince us of the horrors she is seeing that others cannot see.

What did intrigue me about the film, however, were the cultural changes made to adapt the film to the U.S. market. In the U.S. film they force a “scientific” explanation for what’s happening. Sydney and her doctor explain to us about “cellular memory,” a kind of fuzzy science hypothesis that suggests things such as memories, habits, interests, and tastes may be stored in human cells and that people who receive organs may suddenly crave cigarettes like their donors or know a piece of music they never heard. This need for a logical explanation is very American. In the Hong Kong version of The Eye , there’s no logical reason for what’s happening only a spiritual one, a suggestion that the souls of people who commit suicide are doomed to haunt the earth, reliving their deaths everyday.  The shadowy figures that come to take people in the American The Eye are scary, angry and horrific figures. But in the Asian film, they are neutral, mere escorts taking people from one phase of their life to another. There are a number of Japanese anime, most notably the long-running Bleach , that deal with this notion of guides that take human spirits after they die and lead them to the spirit world. The only U.S. example (and it was actually a U.S-Canada production) that I can think of where such "escorts" appeared unthreatening was in the cable show Dead Like Me, where the guides or grim reapers were just average folks doing the job of escorting people to the after life. But that show got cancelled after one season. [CORRECTION: Two seasons. See comment below.]


One final difference between the two versions is in how the films end. I don't want to go into detail, but let me just say that the American film finds a way for Sydney to be viewed as a hero and to prove that the visions she was having were all fro a purpose. In the Asian film, the ending is more complex and very bittersweet fate as it allows its protagonist to understand the pain and distress that her organ donor went through as a person who had the ability to foresee death but no means of preventing it. Again there’s a cultural difference motivating the choices made by each film. That's probably why the  new version of The Eye chooses to take the story to Mexico to find Sydney's organ donor. That allows the film to move to a different culture where a more spiritual realm might be more acceptable. But even here, the film suggests, the ability to see into that spiritual world can frighten people. The woman whose eyes Sydney now has was condemned as a witch by her neighbors because they saw her as the cause of death and disaster rather than someone cursed with the ability to foresee such tragedies.


In comparing the two versions of The Eye , you can see some of these cultural differences highlighted, and that provides a fascinating insight into the differing approaches to horror.  Laurie MacDonald, who was one of the producers Roy Lee worked with on The Ring , addressed the notion of cultural differences. During a press day for The Ring back in 2002, she related her experiences serving on a judging panel with Asian colleagues for a Japanese Film Festival. She recalled that the creative disagreements centered on one thing: “It always came down to ambiguity, they only liked movies that to us made no sense at the end and we had no idea what they were saying, and we only liked movies that had some point and got to something. And ambiguity was clearly an issue for the two cultures -- one that adored it and one that ultimately couldn’t stand it at the end of the movie. It was so clear, it was very funny, and we had spirited and humorous arguments about that issue.”

The Eye (rated PG-13 for violence/terror and disturbing content) reflects a very contemporary American take on horror. It takes a bigger, louder approach, yet it fails to distinguish itself either as a remake or on its own terms as a horror film. As with the remakes of The Ring, The Grudge and Dark Water it keeps the scares gore-free and casts women in the leads in the hopes that the less graphic approach will appeal to the growing horror fan base of girls and women. As for The Eye -- nice try but the original is better.

Companion viewing: The Eye (Hong Kong version), Bleach , The Ring (either U.S. or Japanese version), Dead Like Me, The Sixth Sense