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Ghosts of the mind
A region 2 DVD review of INNER SENSES / YEE DO HUNG GAAN by Slarek
 

The opening few minutes of Lo Chi-Leung's Inner Senses [Yee do hung gaan] are almost guaranteed to prompt quiet groans of recognition from anyone who knows their way round the J-Horror sub-genre, which despite its Hong Kong origins this film initially appears to be very much a part of. A nervous-looking and uncommunicative girl named Yan is shown round a new apartment, which she agrees to rent, and almost immediately starts seeing what looks like the living dead. A short while later she's in the office of young psychiatrist Jim Law and revealing that she regularly sees ghosts. So that's it, huh? She sees dead people. We've seen this all before, surely. Do we really need to see it again?

Or have we? Components may be familiar, but they are not assembled into quite the expected package. The doubting doctor/psychiatrist is a familiar figure in horror cinema, there to be convinced that ghosts really do exist or that this child really is possessed by the devil, and the audience knows from the start that his attempts to explain it all away as repressed memories will eventually be shown to be misguided. The difference here is that you soon suspect that he might actually be right. From his very plausible lecture on why we believe we see ghosts when none are there, delivered as much for the benefit of the audience as his students, the charismatic Leslie Cheung makes Jim a likeable and persuasive figure – he knows his stuff and he genuinely cares for his patient, and you thus find yourself willing for him to be right. But is he? As played by Kar Yan Lam, the troubled Yan is similarly convincing, and by taking a cinematically subjective approach, director Lo allows us to see what she sees and in the process exposes us to some of the spookiest visions and best jolts I've seen in a horror film for some time (it is worth noting, however, that the best shock of all has nothing to do with supernatural apparitions, but an assault by an angry parent).

Impressively low key handling and excellent central performances make the developing relationship between Jim and Yan the dramatic core of the film, one that lifts it above the more recent pack of often derivative J-Horror knock-offs. The emphasis on the psychological over the supernatural makes for a refreshing change and allows the plot to develop along unexpected lines, with rational explanations provided for seemingly paranormal phenomena and a startling inversion of roles two-thirds of the way in, a narrative flip-over hinted at earlier that still caught me by surprise. More than once Lo steps onto a tightrope and maintains a precarious balance – the falling-in-love musical montage that never becomes saccharine; the multiple climactic visions that stop just short of excess; the borrowings from Nakata Hideo and the Pang brothers that are inventively developed – resulting in a work that slots comfortably into its sub-genre but whose qualities enable it to stand out from an increasingly busy crowd.

Research suggests that although Inner Senses has its supporters, the general consensus is "nice try, but not quite there." I have to disagree. I've seen quite a bit of J-Horror (and, K-Horror and HK-Horror if you want to be picky) recently and watched this film on a double bill with Lee Woo-Cheol's more frequently acclaimed Cello, which for my money was more derivative and less inventive than Lo's film. Even if you are becoming weary of the J-Horror formula, then give Inner Senses a look – despite its borrowings, it has solid ideas of its own, is well written and very well performed, and ghosts or no ghosts, it still delivers on the chills.

footnote

This was, for those who do not know, the final screen performance of the always impressive Leslie Cheung, a widely respected and successful actor and singer and veteran of 58 films, including A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), A Better Tomorrow II (1987), Days of Being Wild (1991), Farewell My Concubine (1993), Ashes of Time (1994) and Happy Together (1997). A year after completing Inner Senses he committed suicide by jumping from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong's main business district while suffering from depression, a death that devastated the Hong Kong community. With that in mind, the climax of Inner Senses is a particularly creepy one, acting almost as a premonition of real events to follow.

sound and vision

I've remarked before that J-Horror films rarely appear in pristine form on UK DVD, and despite its Hong Kong origin, Inner Senses is no exception. Although an anamorphic transfer, the picture is slightly soft and the colours not quite right, suggesting an NTSC to PAL conversion somewhere down the line. It's still a very watchable transfer, but could have been better.

The usual Tartan trio of Dolby 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround and DTS surround are on offer, and as with any modern horror film worth its salt, sound plays a key part in the atmosphere and scares here, so 5.1 and DTS are definitely the way to go. That said, the volume differential between dialogue and made-you-jump bangs is very large, so be prepared for a start if you like your dialogue loud.

extra features

Not too much here. The Trailer (1:41) has too much of the final scene for my liking, but is otherwise a serviceable sell.

Behind the Scenes (11:25) finds us in EPK territory, an extended and not that interesting sell for the press and other interested parties, with film extracts intercut with cast members telling scare stories in character and some only slightly more insightful contributions from co-scriptwriter Derek Yee and director Lo Chi-Leung.

summary

An underrated psychological thriller that deserves recognition beyond its status as the final film of one of Hong Kong's most respected and talented stars. Tartan's DVD does better on sound than on picture, and the extra features are not up to much, but the film itself still makes this one well worth a look.

Inner Senses
Yee do hung gaan

Hong Kong 2002
100 mins
director
Lo Chi-Leung
starring
Leslie Cheung
Kar Yan Lam
Maggie Poon
Waise Lee
Valerie Chow
Norman Chu
Samuel Lam

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
Cantonese
subtitles .
English
extras
Trailer
Behind-the-scenes featurette
distributor
Tartan
release date
13 November 2006
review posted
4 December 2006