In spite of the fact that it is directed by Oxide Pang, who along with his brother Danny is one of Hong Kong’s most dynamic and talented film makers, “Diary” doesn’t exactly grab the viewer and scream ‘watch me’. This could be for a number of reasons, such as the film’s rather uninspiring marketing campaign, which seemed unsure as whether to sell it as horror, mystery or mental illness drama. There’s also the pretty young thing style casting headed by popstrel Charlene Choi, and the basic fact that it is questionable whether the world needs yet another tale of a troubled young woman tormented by visions which may or may not be real. Thankfully “Diary” actually turns out to be far better than expected, largely due to Pang’s technical skills, and he manages to turn something potentially familiar into an atmospheric and disorienting mood piece which, despite a needless ‘big twist’ final act, is far more effective than most recent Hong Kong genre outings.
The film follows Winnie (Choi), a young woman who is clearly marked as being mentally disturbed from the first frame, as evidenced by her weird behaviour, fondness for making creepy and quite possibly symbolic puppets, unkempt clothes and hair, and of course, her obsessive writing in the titular book. It seems as though the poor girl has recently lost, in one way or another, her boyfriend Seth, something which has left her increasingly unable to deal with everyday life. After her friend (played by actress Isabella Leong, also in “Isabella”) advises moving on, Winnie finds herself a new man in the form of Ray (Shawn Yue, recently in “Dragon Tiger Gate”), who just happens to be a dead ringer for Seth. Things go from bad to worse, and Winnie’s mind gradually deteriorates, leading to the expected shocking revelations.
Anyone who has seen a film of this type before will have a pretty good idea of where the plot is going simply from reading the above synopsis. Even so, “Diary” does manage to pull a few extra surprises out of the hat during the climax, though mercifully without completely making nonsense of all that has gone before. The film’s central mystery is effective, if manipulative, with Pang making full use of the delusion vs. reality gambit as he has done in so many of his previous works. As such, the film could probably have done without the surprise ending, and would have arguably benefited from a subtler and less hysterical resolution.
Since “Diary” is seen from the perspective of its disturbed protagonist, it does make for disorienting viewing, with a number of sudden shifts which keep the viewer constantly off balance. This allows for a certain air of tension, or at least of discomfort, although Pang simply lets events play out rather than attempting to tell any kind of coherent story. As a result, the film tends to meander, and whilst this may be a reasonable enough reflection of an unhinged mind, it does result in a lack of focus.
However, since this to an extent is the point, with Pang clearly aiming for unsettling effect rather than any kind of substantial character study, it almost works in the film’s favour and further forces the viewer to experience events from Winnie’s skewed point of view. This gives Pang relatively free reign to try out a number of ambitious and hallucinogenic visual techniques, some of which are startlingly impressive and creative, and help move the film away from the usual clich’d scares of the genre, in a similarly imaginative way to the director’s recent “Re-Cycle”. The film also has a very interesting look, with a drab palette of greens and greys giving an unpleasant feeling of rot and decay, along with a few sudden bursts of sickly colour. Wisely, the running time is kept short, and at under an hour and a half, “Diary” never outstays its welcome.
One of the most obvious questions hanging over the film is whether Charlene Choi would be able to handle such a potentially complex role, and fortunately she turns in an adequate performance. Though it has to be said that this is largely due to the fact that Pang never makes much effort to explore Choi’s character, relying instead on the visual aspects of the film to do the talking. Although this perhaps robs the film of potential psychological depth, it never detracts from it as a viewing experience, and “Diary” stands as an off-kilter and stylish example of the director’s work which offers something far more interesting and entertaining than the usual long haired ghost story.
Oxide Pang Chun (director) / Oxide Pang Chun (screenplay)
CAST: Charlene Choi …. Leung Wing-na
Isabella Leong …. Yee
Shawn Yue …. Wai-ha