Wednesday, June 18, 2008

THE WIG (2005) d. Shin-yeon Won

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

No matter how striking and flashy the special effects, or how talented and beautiful the actors and actresses, the story of any film is its backbone. You can have exotic or surreal filming locations and/or lavish costumes and an emotive musical score, but without a compelling tale that can be comprehended and internalized by the viewers, a movie is going to be somewhat or totally unsatisfying. Most films use a linear storyline, which progresses in a simplistic fashion but may have some unforeseen twists and turns along the way like PSYCHO or PLANET OF THE APES. Non-linear stories are a risky but sometimes very satisfying adventure, for they are complex, challenging and force the viewer to examine the film in new ways, as did THE VANISHING POINT or MEMENTO. Whether it is a standard storyline or one told in flashbacks or reverse sequence, in the end, the writer wants the viewers to arrive at a certain point and not get lost along the way. THE WIG is a film that has a very complex narrative told in a sometimes obscure but occasionally gripping manner that may not appeal to everyone, but in the end has some very worthwhile components.

THE WIG is the tale of two sisters, the older Jihyun and the younger Soo-hyun. Soo-Hyun is a terminal cancer patient languishing in the hospital, when it is decided to release her so that she can take pleasure in what remains of her life. Jihyun buys a wig for her bald sister so that some of her return to normalcy can be affected. It is not long before bizarre incidents begin and cracks in the sisterly bonds increase as Soo-hyun’s personality and even her appearance begins to change. As more unsettling events occur, Jihyun suspects that there is something sinister about the wig and tries to find out the truth before everyone who comes in contact with her sister ends up dead.

On the surface, it would seem that the tale of THE WIG is fairly simple and that the obvious premise would lead to a cohesive narrative, but that is not the case. One of the strangely compelling qualities of this film is the lack of dialogue. At times, it almost feels like a silent film since there are so many scenes where actions speak louder than words. The verbal interplay is fairly sparse over the first 60% of the movie and more time is spent developing the imagery, the mood and emotional landscape of the film. Interspersed with these softly modulated dramatic swells are small, inconsistent stabs of fear that are injected into the story. In the first two-thirds of the film, these frightening moments are less common and do not occur at regular intervals. As a result, some viewers might consider the pacing of THE WIG to be slow, but I found it to be patient, albeit almost to a fault. At no time did I find myself disliking the film, I was just unsure as to where it was headed as the path progressed. The ultimate direction of the film was obvious, but the screenplay writers clearly wanted the road to be as circuitous as possible, for the rising action is disjointed, the characters are disconnected emotionally, there are flashbacks, flash forwards, intensely destabilizing loops and twists that bring forth totally unexpected developments that cause the story no end of stress to its cohesiveness. In the end, the pace of the tale intensifies greatly over the last one-quarter of the film and you are brought to the point where you thought you’d be with a few shocks to the system along the way. While the end result may not have been totally satisfying, it did engage the emotions and the intellect.

What THE WIG does have is deeply engrossing imagery that is powerful, ominous, gloomy and unsettling. The camera work is very measured and patient, so that while the story may be convoluted, the imagery is created in such a way that you are given plenty of time to contemplate what you are seeing and what it means. When scenes are very dark and somewhat ambiguous, it is part of the purpose of blended story and atmosphere and is not simply vague-looking for darkness sake. Whether it is an emotionally deprived interior of the sisters’ house or a beach scene loaded with nostalgic wistfulness, a dance club that is somehow creepier than a slaughterhouse or the stark, antiseptic environs of a hospital, every set and scene is photographed with care. In addition to the unsettling imagery, THE WIG is filled with intense, but understated performances that magnify the truly dramatic moments when emotion gushes forth from the overburdened souls of these damaged and cursed people. In one scene, after a seemingly arbitrary tragedy occurs, Jihyun’s character, played by Seon Yu, is observed lying on a sofa with tears pouring down her alabaster face in the direction of her pure white turtleneck sweater, framed by her raven hair. When contrasted with a later scene when she is screeching like an injured banshee over the inert body of her sister in the hospital, the drama on the “feel-o-meter” goes rocketing upward in an unsettling fashion just as it should in any horror film. Min-seo Chae’s performance as Soo-hyun is quite impressive as she sways between the poles of being pathetic, winsome, manic and malevolent and each extreme is created with a calculated effort that makes Soo-hyun both accessible and repellent. Through the good offices of the photography team, the director and the actors, the weaknesses in THE WIG’s overly complex story are ameliorated to some degree.

As has been the case with several of CJ Entertainment’s Korean-made dvd offerings, there is a surprisingly deep extras menu to be enjoyed. There is a “Making of THE WIG” documentary, followed by two featurettes. One featurette explores the special effects efforts of THE WIG, while the other is a “behind the scenes” look at the creation of the film. While the general premise of these features is not all that imaginative, and most westerners will be unfamiliar with the cast and crew, a look at the production and creative teams of any film project are always a worthwhile journey. In addition, having the opportunity to compare and contrast Asian film-making techniques and life on the set with that of “the Hollywood experience” is always fascinating. Kudos has to be passed along to CJ Entertainment for their efforts at developing “grocer goodwill” with the western lovers of Asian horror cinema.

While I wish that THE WIG had been a little better paced and told in a slightly less choppy fashion, this was a thought-provoking film that left me contemplative and forced me to explore and examine its merits. That is always a good sign with me. If I immediately dismiss a film or worse yet rip it from the player unfinished, clearly the bar was set too low and the outcome was a filthy piece of sludge. Such was not the case with THE WIG. I liked what I saw, was moved in a visceral manner by the imagery and the performances and understood the final message of the screenwriters. I don’t think every narrative should be linear or simplistic, but I came out of THE WIG concerned that too many westerners may be unready or unwilling to apply the self-control necessary to savor the strengths of this subtle stew. Let’s hope that won’t be the case.

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