Seeing as I can’t find myself disagreeing with my colleague Matt’s detailed review from 2006, I’ve decided to reprint it here. For those simply wondering how the disc fares, feel free to scroll on down to the DVD section.
Danny and Oxide Pang, most commonly known as The Pang Brothers, are viewed as a sort of Wachowski Brothers of Asia, only they deal with horror rather than Sci-Fi. For a few years they garnered a reasonable strong reputation as talents to watch on the Thai movie scene, but it wasn’t until 2001 when they made the horror smash The Eye that they truly gained international attention. Since then they have been seen as one of the guiding lights of the horror scene, but their output has failed to match their reputation. The Eye 2 received mixed reviews; Abnormal Beauty didn’t fare much better, and The Eye 10 was so awful that even their most hardcore fans have started questioning whether they were ever as good as the hype suggested. Their latest film: Re-cycle, is perhaps their last chance to gain back the respect of horror fans worldwide.
Angelica Lee plays Ting Yin, a popular young author suffering from writer’s block on her prematurely announced latest novel: The Re-cycle. At a press conference for the film adaptation of one of her earlier novels she is drawn into a conversation about the female protagonist of her latest book, in which she reveals that she writes part of herself into every character she creates. Later that evening Ting Yin writes a rough description of the main character in The Re-cycle: a tall female with long straight hair, but this design is promptly thrown in the bin for a protagonist much closer to Ting Yin herself. This is when the visions start. At first they’re just shadows and forms on the periphery of her vision, but when she starts discovering long strands of hair at the scene of each vision, Ting Yin starts to believe she might be haunted by the very character she created. Soon the visions get more varied, then one day she tries to leave her apartment block and finds herself trapped in some sort of twisted parallel universe where everything is worn down and bodies drop from the sky - including the long haired phantom that was haunting her. Fleeing from these horrid pursuers, Ting Yin comes across an old man who provides her with important clues about the world around her, and a young girl who becomes her companion and guide as the two work to find a way back into the “real” world.
In HK they like to keep labels nice and simple. Over there the Pang Brothers are known for making Ghost Films, their reputation as horror directors being such that when audiences by tickets to their latest film, they expect to be scared out of their skins. This is probably why the original Cantonese name of Re-cycle is Gwai Wik – Ghost Land; it immediately informs the average HK cinemagoer that the film is most likely going to meet their expectations. As it turns out though, this title is a gross understatement of the concepts the Pangs attempt to explore in Re-cycle. The truth is, despite their reputation, the Pang Brothers have never been out-and-out horror directors. Ever since The Eye they have been trying to gradually move into more dramatic territory, so far without success. Sure, The Eye 2 was more drama than horror, but the story was so dull and the protagonist so annoying that it failed totally to illicit an emotional response, while their attempts at scares ended up as hackneyed attempts at cheap “jump” scenes. Abnormal Beauty started off promising enough as a Peeping Tom inspired psychological thriller about a mentally disturbed female artist, but soon descends into a generic slasher thriller. The Eye 10 was a big step backwards, but with The Re-cycle they have managed to successfully explore a new genre with their first fantasy film - albeit one laced with horror trappings. They achieve this by almost completely dropping the one aspect of film making that they’ve always struggled with: The narrative.
The premise of Re-cycle is basic enough: Angelica Lee is trapped in an increasingly surreal world and needs to find a way out. This gives the Pang Brothers the freedom to let their imaginations run riot and paint a canvass that is truly stunning - you only have to check out the production stills or screen captures to see how visually arresting the film is. Indeed, the moment Ting Yin steps into the Re-cycle most of the story is told visually, and the directors are not short on ideas, often drawing on iconic HK culture, like when Ting Yin stumbles through the (now demolished) Kowloon Walled City, re-imagined as an eerie haunted house, or the small playground that houses an Amusement Park Ferris Wheel and a large, looming Pirate Ship ride that swings high above, seemingly anchored to the sky. Speaking of which, there’s also the idea that the theme of each level she enters decides the objects that will fall from the sky. So if she’s in a library, it’ll be books that constantly rain down, but if she’s in the city then it’s rotted bodies that fall down and lumber towards her in some sort of twisted pursuit. Yet, despite the imminent threat on Ting Yin’s personage and the almost monstrous appearance of The Re-cycle’s inhabitants, the worlds the Pang Brothers have created are more sombre than frightening and the mood of the piece is one of melancholic retrospection.
To create the macabre landscapes of The Re-cycle calls upon large scale CGI and technically the film is rather impressive, with over 90% of the worlds Angelica Lee wanders through being created via green screen technology. The cinematography also plays a big part in making The Re-cycle feel like a solid, real world by basking each level in its own set of dreary primary colours. In fact such is the effectiveness of this almost monotone lighting that the one level that fails to convince is lit the most conventionally. The performances too are a vital part of the process and Angelica Lee is on fine form, giving a very subtle performance in the film’s opening act and reacting to the CGI in a totally convincing manner. Her supporting cast: elderly character actor Lu Siu Ming and eight year old Zeng QiQi also feel right at home acting in front of green screens.
This isn’t to say that Re-cycle is a resounding success though; the framing of Ting Yin’s journey into The Re-cycle is definitely below par. The opening act is rather generic, including a basic subplot where Ting Yin is attempting to fend off an ex-lover who dumped her to get married and is back to reclaim their relationship now that he’s divorced. Once she starts writing the novel outright, a series of hauntings occur that serve as little more than to let the directors throw a few cheap “jump” scenes at viewers. What’s most damning is that if The Pang Brothers display an impressive amount of imagination in the Re-cycle world, they have managed to match this with their inability to end the story in a satisfying manner. Instead they drop a ton of clues in a build up to two twists, the first of which is so obvious that if you haven’t figured it out after forty minutes then you have not been paying enough attention. What’s more, once this twist plays out the film descends into some truly cringeworthy melodrama. The second twist is less obvious, but the closer you near the end the less likely any other possible outcome can come about, so when the final scene does play out it’s no longer shocking.
Alas, such weak plotting is something audiences have come to expect from Danny and Oxide Pang, your ability to overlook these flaws will boil down to how you approach the film and its visuals. If you take the subtext too seriously and treat it as a profound wannabe arthouse horror film, then the uneven tone will probably prove critical. Approach it as popcorn entertainment however, and I think you’ll find it is one of the most adventurous and artful mainstream releases this year - which is something that remains in your mind long after the lousy final act ever does.
Cine Du Monde’s 2.35:1 NTSC anamorphic presentation would be generally solid if not for some pesky interlacing. Ghosting effects - aside from the actual ghosts - is evident throughout, while aliasing tends to bother a fair number of wide shots, particularly those featuring wire-y, dilapidated structures. Otherwise it’s acceptable for a film made up of a number of harsh sequences. Black levels and contrast hold up well under dark and foreboding scenes, with just minor levels of noise, while detail is strong, especially in close-ups. Re-cycle is one of those features that really should deserve the High-definition treatment but as it stands it’s unlikely to look much better on the DVD format.
The Cantonese DD5.1 track rises above any of the caveats mentioned, by offering a fully immersive experience. It does a great job of pulling the viewer into The Re-cycle with Ting Yin, utilising some excellent rear direction and staying equally focused on dialogue up front. Top stuff. Optional English subtitles are available, though with a few little errors here and there
The biggest draw to this release is its Audio Commentary, featuring Directors Danny and Oxide Pang, Actress Angelica Lee and VFX Director Ko Fai. Most of the track is led by the directors who focus plenty on the film’s aesthetics, which doesn’t entertain as much as one might expect given the other features on disc, more so in that Ko Fai doesn’t have nearly as much to say on the matter. There’s certainly enthusiasm here on the Pang brothers’ part and they do provide some interesting titbits on their work ethics but it doesn’t make for entirely essential listening.
Running for fifteen minutes the Making Of is rather a collection of featurettes that run in the region of 2-3 minutes each. These provide interviews primarily with Danny, Oxide and Angelica about the film’s concept, themes and visual components, interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage.
Deleted Scenes serves up 8 minutes worth of mood-building stuff. Much of it follows Ting Yin around, with no additional dialogue, save for the final scene which offers a fascinating glimpse into a new world known as “The Forest of Memories”, which never made it into the final cut. Additionally we have a CG Rendering Comparison but at under 2 minutes it’s an all-too-brief breakdown of some of the film’s impressive VFX sequences.
‘Premiere’ runs for 16 minutes but it’s actually comprised of interviews held on two separate occasions. The first is its Gala Premiere - a press junket held before its first audience screening in Hong Kong. It’s all bog-standard stuff; if you’ve seen one Asian press conference you’ve seen them all. Lots of nice words being thrown around, nothing revelatory to learn and a really overbearing woman fronting the entire thing. Unfortunately, she returns one week later for a Gross Celebration Party, which gathers everyone together again to see how well the film has performed at the box-office. A really crap and embarrassing outing.
The ‘Cast and Crew Q&A’ provides a much better insight into the film when discussed between actual film fans who wish to know more about its themes, contrasting visuals and subtext. At just 8 minutes, there isn’t a whole lot to learn but at least the directors and Angelica are on board to discuss some of Re-cycle’s more interesting facets.
A trailer is also included, along with reels for other Cine Du Monde releases.