Tuesday 9 December 2008

The Maid (2005)

Once you start delving into Asian horror there seems to be no end to the places that get in the act. Beyond Japan and Hong Kong, there's plenty from Korea, then Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and now Singapore. I haven't seen a Singaporean horror movie before, but that's hardly surprising because this was apparently the first one ever made. It's not entirely effective but it's certainly capable and it's a worthy first start to a new genre for the country. Maybe the first couple of attempts to build suspense were deliberately clumsy so that the first real ones would carry even more impact. There are many such effective shocks, not all of which are expected.

We follow Rosa Dimaano, the eighteen year old maid of the title, who has travelled from the Philippines to Singapore to become a maid for the Teo family. She arrives during the Chinese seventh month. According to Chinese tradition, once a year during the seventh month, the gates of hell will open and the ghosts are hungry for revenge and justice, hence the colloquial term of 'hungry ghost month'. The locals offer meat and burn money in respect to their ancestors but unfortunately Rosa doesn't know the rules. So she tries to sweep up the ashes of the burned money outside the house and she sits in the front row at the local Chinese Opera production. Both are no nos, the ashes and the seats being reserved for the ghosts.

The shocks are plentiful and they don't take long in coming. Rosa starts dreaming about ghosts and seeing them in her waking hours too. Initialy it's hard to tell, but the Teo's retarded son Ah Song sees them too. The question we have to ask and that Rosa starts asking too is what purpose they have. Are they trying to punish her for offending their memory, albeit inadvertently, or are they trying to tell her something. Soon we realise that there's another maid of the title too, by the name of Esther Santos and by that point the questions multiply.

Being my first Singaporean film, let alone Singaporean horror film, I don't know any of the names involved. Writer and director Kelvin Tong had made a couple of movies before this one and he followed it up with a few more, including another ghost film, Men in White, which seems to be a lot less well received than this one. The actors are decent, especially as they have to act in a few different languages. The film switches between English, Filipino, Tagalog and Teochew, which is a Chinese dialect so poorly represented in film that I've now seen 14% of them all. That's one out of seven.

The lead actress, playing a Filipino character in Singapore, is actually English and, just to confuse things even more, she has an Italian name: Alessandra de Rossi. Apparently her mother was Filipina and her father was Italian. Whatever her heritage she's an interesting actress: professional and experienced (she now has 21 films to her name) but very natural in her performance. Backing her up are Huifang Hong and Shucheng Chen as the Teos, with Benny Soh as their retarded son Ah Soon. He does a great job, so much so that I wonder if his sole screen credit means that he wasn't doing too much acting. It's a good film, though it's not a great one.

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