It probably comes as no surprise to regular readers of the site that “Red Eye”, the latest horror film out of South Korea, makes almost no effort to stride beyond the confines of its very limited genre tropes. Everything you would expect from your daily dose of Asian horror films, in particular the Asian ghost stories, are front and center, from the vengeful female ghost with long black hair to the now must-have “cool shot” of a ghost appearing out of an impossible place/location (in this case, a puddle of blood on the floor) ala Sadako’s dramatic exit from a TV in “Ringu”. As such, to call “Red Eye” derivative would be redundant, as by now any person of reasonable intelligence has stopped waiting for the Asian continent to break free from the bonds of the generic Asian horror film conventions of its own making.
The Korean “Red Eye” concerns itself with a certain midnight train that ferries passengers from Seoul to Yeosu, and takes place on the night of the train’s last run before decommission. Our guide is train stewardess Mi-sun (Shin-yeong Jan), who in the tradition of all leading ladies in Asian ghost films, moves as slowly and as unnaturally as possible, and has the personality of what can generously be called a blank slate. These familiar leading lady qualities are common within the genre, as the blank slate element is used by the filmmakers to bring the audience along on the ride. Less a character than an avatar for the audience, the leading lady is almost always in the dark on the movie’s happenings, and as she “fills up” with the film’s storyline, so too does the audience.
We learn that Mi-sun has swapped places with a co-worker to take the train’s last shift, and that today is also her birthday. It would seem like a poor night to transfer over any time of the year, as the train in question has a reputation of being haunted, and in fact it is carrying around parts left over from a terrible and deadly train crash many years ago. Add to that the fact that tonight is also the anniversary of the infamous train crash, and one gets the feeling that the screenwriters have moved Heaven and Earth in order to create all these “coincidences”. Along for the ride with Mi-sun is a disparate group of passengers, including some army guys, two morbid siblings, two kleptomaniac runaway girls, four ghost researchers (including one that can see ghosts, or so she claims), and a bickering married couple.
What should quickly become apparent is that “Red Eye” is one of those movies that just keep piling on the twists, even though the “twists” are little more than bad examples of Movie Coincidence run amok. Of the bigger whoppers, there is Mi-sun’s birthday, which just happens to coincide with the anniversary of the train crash, which her dead father just happened to be the conductor of. Also, Mi-sun’s co-worker just happens to be the boyfriend of the crashed train’s stewardess, who seems to be haunting the halls of the current train, nevermind that the boyfriend doesn’t look nearly old enough to have dated anyone when the crash took place 17 years ago. Not surprisingly, practically every minor character in the film has some relation to the train and the past.
Aside from its lack of attention toward some semblance of credulity, “Red Eye” is actually not a bad horror film, even if you could predict all the horrific elements, something you really should be able to do if you’ve even seen just one Asian horror film in your life. Even so, the film has some nice visuals, including the use of darkness and green gels. The transformation of the train from the two different eras are quite good, as well as some creative visual trickery used to show the gradual merging of the two different trains.
It’s mostly the fault of director Dong-bin Kim (who also directed the Korean remake of “Ringu” called “Ring Virus”) that “Red Eye” isn’t as scary as it should have been. For the most part Kim fails to capitalize on the train setting’s claustrophobic confines, and aside from a couple of scenes inside the train’s cramp bathrooms, the film never really develops that unnerving feeling of traveling between two cities on a mostly empty train in the dead of night. If anything, Kim seems to keep returning to the same tricks, as well as an over indulgence on the movie custom of lights turning off when you most need them. This is one of those genre cliché that gets old the first or second time a film uses them, which is saying something because “Red Eye” uses this same gimmick about a dozen times throughout the film.
Unfortunately the light clich’ is symptomatic of the film’s overall lack of imagination. For the uninitiated viewer, “Red Eye” does have some minor bumps in the night to be entertained by, most of them taking place as those familiar shrieking noises appear on the soundtrack, of course. There are probably too many characters in the cast, and about halfway through the audience will no doubt stop caring who these people are, and just wait for the film to reveal who is a ghost and who isn’t. Not that you could tell, as although “Red Eye” telegraphs most of its (attempted) scares and (supposed) twists from a mile away, the script is simply too uninteresting for the audience to voluntarily pay attention.
As another entry into the ever-growing list of Asian horror films about vengeful female ghosts and a blank slate leading lady going through the motions of discovering the past so she can resolve the present and save the future (the basic template of many Asian ghost stories since “Ringu”), “Red Eye” is ultimately a middling effort. It’s not overly horrible, but it’s not really all that good, either. If you’ve never seen an Asian horror film in your life, or any of the recent spate of American remakes, then I suppose “Red Eye” may be worth the price of a video rental. Then again, considering the film’s overall pedestrian qualities, waiting for the free TV broadcast might be a better deal.
Dong-bin Kim (director)
CAST: Shin-yeong Jang …. Oh Mi-sun
Ji-min Kwak …. So-hee
Dong-kyu Lee …. Jin-kyu
Hye-na Kim …. Hee-joo