Judge Joel Pearce says the ghosts in this Chinese horror picture need to get a life.
Our review of The Maid (2009), published July 5th, 2010, is also available.
Singapore's first homegrown horror movie.
Over the past few years, I have reviewed dozens of horror films from Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. Well, it seems that Singapore wants in on the action, and has served up The Maid for your viewing pleasure. Derivative in some ways, completely unique in others, this industry first ends up being exactly what we expect from the nation with the world's stiffest littering fines.
Facts of the Case
The Teo family needs a new housekeeper, so Rosa (Alessandra De Rossi, Homecoming) is hired from the Philippines. Unfortunately, Rosa knows nothing about Chinese mysticism, even though she has arrived right in time for the Chinese seventh month. According to Chinese legend, the ghosts of the dead return during this month and careful rules must be followed if mayhem is to be avoided. Not knowing the rules, Rosa soon offends these ghosts, and the troubles begin.
The first thing that struck me as I started watching The Maid is that it was produced by Singapore's Media Development Authority. As the film unfolded, this organization's influence became increasingly clear. Much of the film plays out like a tourism advertisement for Singapore. The citizens are happy and wealthy; the streets are clean; everyone gets along. Rosa is very lucky to escape the horrible bonds of the Philippines to be a servant here!
Although Singapore is glorified to an almost ridiculous level, the authority had another goal in producing this film. The Maid is designed to educate its audience in the finer details of Chinese mysticism. It exists as a warning of what happens when you break away from the longstanding traditions that have kept Chinese people safe on the seventh month. Although I know little about Singapore, I suspect that recent years (as in most nations) have seen a falling away from traditional values and beliefs. The Maid acts as both a primer for the uninitiated, as well as a vivid example of what happens to unbelievers. To be honest, I can't imagine this tactic actually working for anyone. For those of us who don't believe in ghosts, the faux documentary approach just comes off as silly. I'm willing to accept that ghosts are real within the boundaries of a fictional story, but don't use a fictional story to try to make me believe that they really exist.
In the midst of all this cultural propaganda, director Kelvin Tong does the best he can to craft a creepy ghost story. He has obviously watched his predecessors carefully, as some of the sequences distinctly echo Ringu and The Eye. Unfortunately, he missed a key point somewhere along the way. In order to be scary through a whole film, ghosts need to do scary things. While the ghost scenes have been skillfully shot, Tong's ghosts do little more than stand around. After ten shots of old people in blue paint, the impact does fade a little. Once some of the other twists come along, the ghosts are no longer the source of fear and the film works a bit better, but by that point in the film the screenplay doesn't make much sense. It's almost as though Tong's original script was appropriated by the Media Development Authority (which it probably was), and changed to deliver the desired message. I guess we'll never know how impressive The Maid could have been. I suspect, though, that Tong's desired film would have been edgier and a bit subversive, giving a much more accurate picture of the culture.
Speaking of inaccurate pictures, I am once again disappointed by Tartan's video transfer. The box proclaims that The Maid is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and in a way I suppose it is. Unfortunately, it's a non-anamorphic image flattened to fit an anamorphic frame. On a 4x3 television, the aspect ratio of the player simply needs to be changed. On a widescreen TV, however, any attempt to fix the problem either leaves the image squashed or drops the subtitles out of frame. The image actually looks quite good, but this is a serious error. I am left wondering, once again, how mistakes like this slip through undetected. The sound, at least, is better. The DTS track makes subtle and creepy use of the surrounds, and the LFE often kicks in at critical moments. There is a brief production featurette included.
In retrospect, The Maid is probably better than I have made it sound. It features a number of well-crafted sequences, and the performances are top-notch. Alessandra De Rossi, in particular, should be watched for future performances.
Given the freedom to make the film he wanted, I suspect that this could have been an international breakthrough for Kelvin Tong. I suppose we can only hope that he'll have more freedom for his next picture, and that he uses the opportunity to show off what he can really do. Until then, we can only watch with sadness as strict government oversight once again triumphs over individual artistic vision.
The Media Development Authority has angered the hungry ghosts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Production Featurette
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