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Tuesday 14 April 2009

Silk (2006)

Director: Su Chao-Bin
Stars: Chen Chang and Yosuke Eguchi

This Taiwanese horror film opens a little strangely, with a Japanese guy with a French accent speaking English to a Canadian man who wants to capture a ghost on film. OK, the French accent doesn't last, but still. The Canadian uses special Japanese film with menger sponge coating, whatever that is, and he visits a particular location that he's told about. He then follows a few rules he's given about taking pictures of the furniture every hour without flash, only to die of an apparent heart attack when he actually sees a ghost. And that's it for the English language portion of the film, as we switch to Asian languages: some Japanese and Mandarin, but mostly Hokkien, which is one of the Chinese dialects spoken in Taiwan. At least I think that's the key one.

Our Japanese guy goes by the name of Hashimoto and he's the key name working in the field of menger sponges, which are the MacGuffin in our story. Menger sponge is a substance apparently made of human protein that looks somewhat like a lament configuration box from Hellraiser. However it doesn't reconfigure itself to let loose demons, it's a sort of black hole that sucks in electromagnetic waves. This is key for two things that Hashimoto and his team are interested in: it can be used to trap energy, which is what ghosts are comprised of, and with enough energy is key to the implementation of anti gravity. There are downsides: it doesn't work on a large scale and there's a radioactivity issue to contend with.

However Hashimoto has made a breakthrough. The room in which the Canadian photographer died is entirely coated with menger sponge to trap a ghost inside. This has all worked fine and the ghost of a young boy now resides in the room, but Hashimoto and his team can't work out who this ghost is and why he hasn't just disappeared. So they hire a cop by the name of Yeh Qi Tung, who has a number of abilities, not least an acute sense of sight enhanced still further by the ability to lip read, even from the side. That he's able to remain calm in very trying circumstances can't hurt and he's also very aware of death as his mother is slipping slowly into a coma.

This is a pretty cool setup but it's put over with panache. Everything is consistent but nothing is obvious and it takes us places we don't expect to go. After two deaths, they let the young ghost out and Tung gets to follow him to find out who he is and what happened to him, and this becomes seriously suspenseful. It's not a gory film, though we see our young ghost jump off a building and there's a neat throat cutting; it's more of a suspense film wrapped around an intelligent ghost story, which is highly refreshing. And it doesn't let up. We see where some of it's going through working out the motivations of the characters but the surprises keep coming and we're never quite sure where it's all going to end up.

I wasn't that impressed with my previous Taiwanese horror movie, Leste Chen's The Heirloom, because of the potential it wasted. It promised much and didn't deliver until the end. This film promises much too but hooked me in quickly and kept me hooked. It's not perfect but it's fascinating and tense stuff. The effects are mainly excellent, including the corpses and the ghosts, though a few are a little less consistent. The worst offender, not in quality but in realisation, is the cheesy way the large menger sponge is activated. The direction is solid with less cinematic tricks than I would have expected.

The acting is solid too. Chen Chang is the standout as Tung, though he plays much of the film perhaps a little subdued. The child actor who plays Yao does a wonderful job and plays both a great corpse and a great ghost. Yosuke Eguchi played Hashimoto, the character that it would have been easiest to dominate proceedings with, and he does to a degree, but reins it in. I wonder what Tadanobu Asano would have done with the role. I think he would have reined it in as much but added a little more quirkiness. The star is the story though, courtesy of writer director Chao-Bin Su, who has directed two films (the other is 2002's Better Than Sex) and written a total of seven. I haven't seen any of them thus far but he did write a third of Three Extremes II, which I have on DVD.

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