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Cue a fast pan across Asia

Movies with intentional multi-country appeal, particularly horror films, are eclipsing the traditional Hong Kong product.

June 01, 2003|David Chute | Special to The Times

The Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide, are identical twin co-directors, born in Hong Kong in 1965. But their pan-Asian horror hit "The Eye," which opens in the U.S. this week, has given rise to some understandable confusion about their nationality.

The press kit for "The Eye" describes them as "Thai directors." But Danny Pang, speaking his native Cantonese through an adept interpreter, brusquely rejects this: "We are 100% born and raised in Hong Kong."

And then the film's producer, Peter Chan Ho-sun, speaking by phone from the Hong Kong offices of Applause Pictures, suggests that there is some truth in both views. "They are Chinese," he says, "but they are Thai directors. They moved there 12 years ago, and they had never worked in Hong Kong before they made 'The Eye.' "

It was this "confusion" that attracted the attention of Applause, which Chan founded in 2000 to encourage crossovers and co-productions among the struggling film industries of Asia.

"The Pang brothers are exactly what we are trying to do," Chan says. "Their movies are influenced by Hong Kong films, but local audiences and critics find that there is a freshness in their tempos and editing that comes from Thai cinema. At the same time, 'The Eye' became the highest-grossing Hong Kong movie ever in Thailand. The Thais seem to have forgotten that it was not a local film. It was made in Hong Kong, but it has Thai elements, so it works in both places."

Applause's recent productions have attempted to help create, by example, a new pan-Asian "fusion cinema." The Eye" is a comparatively subtle example. The horror anthology film "Three" (2002) is more overt, with episodes filmed in South Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong (Chan's own "Going Home," the strongest of the three). No more foreign-looking in Korea or Thailand than in Hong Kong, it could be promoted as a local production in all three territories.

As genres go, of course, horror is famous for "traveling well." For instance, imitations of "The Sixth Sense" and the 1998 Japanese shocker "The Ring" have sprouted across Asia in recent years, from South Korea's "Ring" knockoffs "The Phone" and "Ring Virus," to Hong Kong's "Sixth Sense"-themed "My Left Eye Sees Ghosts."

Hollywood has chosen the more overt route of purchasing remake rights to successful Asian creep shows: A U.S. revamp of "The Ring" was a major hit last year, and an American version of "The Eye" is already in the works, courtesy of Tom Cruise and Cruise Wagner Productions.

Set primarily in Hong Kong, "The Eye" tells the story of a young blind woman (Angelica Lee Sin-je) who undergoes a successful cornea transplant operation and, in the process, acquires the unknown donor's power to see the lurking spirits of the restless dead. In the film's third act, she travels to the donor's hometown in rural Thailand to unravel the mystery.

At last year's Hong Kong Film Awards, Lee won the best actress prize for her eloquent, thin-skinned performance. It lent immediacy to the film's scariest moments, which are rooted in everyday anxieties.

"We found several memories that everybody can relate to," says Danny Pang, eating a dismembered hotel hamburger with a knife and fork during a press stop in Los Angeles. "Everyone all over the world, in every culture, has a certain fear when they look in a mirror by themselves, or when they are in an elevator all alone at night. By using these two things, we got the audience to feel the fear at the same time as the actress."

Despite its supernatural content, "The Eye" was inspired by two real events. One was the tragedy of a 16-year-old girl in Hong Kong who received a successful cornea transplant but committed suicide a week later. "I wondered what she could have seen in that one week," Danny recalls, "that could have affected her so deeply that she chose to kill herself."

The other was a disastrous accident in Thailand in which 200 people died. " 'The Eye' is about fate," co-director Oxide Pang explains by e-mail from Hong Kong, "and we wanted to include an incident that fully demonstrates the nature of fate -- ideally an implausible but real incident. We actually shot that scene at the place where the real event occurred."

The Pang brothers' films blend a Hong Kong-style flair for action with Thai film's strong sense of the textures of ordinary life, Danny Pang says.

With this mix of sensibilities, Chan says, "we are introducing foreign filmmakers to our home audience in Hong Kong, but in a context that still feels like a local movie. At the same time, we are introducing Hong Kong filmmakers to audiences in other countries, in a context that is comfortable for them. Because the days when Hong Kong cinema was the mainstream in Asia are long gone."

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