Has James Lee sold out to commercialism?!
I suppose the Singapore International Film Festival is Malaysian director James Lee's festival of choice. Just last year alone, the first two of his Love Trilogy movies, Before We Fall In Love Again and Things We Do When We Fall In Love, were screened to a full house. And this year, we got the last of the Love Trilogy movie Waiting for Love, his new movie Breathing in Mud in competition for the Silver Screen Awards, we see James in front of the camera in Liew Seng Tat's Flower in the Pocket, and SIFF becomes the first venue for the International Premiere of his first movie shot in 35mm, the horror flick Histeria.
Horror movies are no doubt popular around here, but this is possibly one of the first to be featured in SIFF, amidst the rising dilution of the genre with countless of flat, lazy remakes, with material constantly drowning in cliches, or finding itself venturing into torture porn territory. Histeria turns out to be rather refreshing because it doesn't take itself too seriously, and it plays out nothing more than a B-grade monster movie complete with blood, gore and spilled guts, complete of course with James' assured handling of the subject matter at hand without indulging too much on the obvious.
Histeria opens with a girl walking down a dark hallway, covered in a blood soaked school uniform. Apparently the only sole survivor of something horrific that had happened, the narrative then goes back into flashback mode, where we get introduced to all the key characters whom we know will turn into fodder in time to come. A group of 6 schoolgirls in the mold of your rich kid princesses form a strong clique and being typically bored, decide to spice their lives up with a trip to the forest in order to recite some supernatural chants downloaded off the Internet. They return to pretend that one of them got possessed, and made fun of a "bomoh" (Malay witch doctor) when he arrives to try and exorcise the spirit.
Given that they're top students of the school, punishment is metted out with only a slap to the wrist, by dishing them a 3 day detention at an old dormitory where they have to clean up the school compound, coming across a mysterious gardener. And of course we know what will happen, don't we? While the set up of the premise and the development of the story might seem rather basic, James Lee does try to infuse some subtle suggestions at society, such as the light punishment given that the girls have influential fathers, or a scene which I think may not get past the Malaysian Censors (not only because of the blood and gore when things go bump), but an extremely teasing lesbian kiss that wasn't, playing coyly with the notion that alternative lifestyles may exist behind the doors of an all girls school.
It does take some time before the first victim falls at the 40 minute mark, where relationships within the clique get further established, but once the door of gore gets opened, there's no turning back. On one hand, you're likely to expect something horrific to happen, but yet with James at the helm, what was deemed to be "same old", take on a new spin. I think he managed to genuinely surprise the audience despite expectation looming, and doesn't lapse into the usual still camera and long takes that we've been accustomed to, but goes all out with the frantic pacing that grips you and doesn't relent all the way to the finishing point.
But that doesn't mean to say that we're offered groundbreakingly new conventions here. There are still a number of inevitable cliches, and they often draw laughter for an audience, akin to knowing the unwritten rule that the non-virginal semi-naked blonde will die in a horror movie. Here we get rescue teams coming to add to body count, as well as cheesy moments of coincidence such as a stalled car engine.
Histeria as a horror movie is nicely shot with satisfying gory, blood filled moments that send chills up your spine where it mattered, even though the ending is nothing mysterious or anything short of the expected. It's something fun and at times parodying the horror genre. We are probably familiar with the Pontianak folklore, and for those who decide to do a little bit of research into the Malay folklore of this particular spirit, hit the web and look for "Hantu Raya", which of course will spoil it for you, though not the first Malaysian horror movie to have touched on this spirit.
Producer of Histeria Gayatri was on hand for a Q&A after the screening. She shared that this version screened for the first time, was a simple mix of the movie on digibeta format exclusively for the festival, though tonight's projection somehow turned out too dark. She also shared the origins of the movie, where she met James some 2 years ago at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and asked him what he wanted to do for a commercial movie. He had 2 options, an action movie, which of course is expensive to produce, and a horror one, which became the more obvious choice.