Friday, July 11, 2008

SHUTTER (2008) d. Masayuki Ochiai

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Since childhood, I’ve had an interest in geology, and whenever a chance allowed I thoroughly enjoyed rock hunting, especially in old mines. I found the whole idea of a mine pretty fascinating when I gave it a little thought; digging deeply into the Earth, following a vein of valuable metal or mineral, not knowing how far you’ll get before the lode is tapped out and whether what you find will be enough for your needs. Film making is a little like mining, for when a story or shooting trend becomes popular, everybody wants to jump on the express to success and ride that train as long as they can. Mining a successful trend is even more challenging when you are remaking an earlier film that was itself part of the same trend. Masayuki Ochiai’s 2008 film SHUTTER is a remake of the 2004 Thai film of the same name by Banjong Pisanthankun. The newest version of SHUTTER is a success, but by the skin of its teeth, for as I watched it, I often said to myself, “I’ve seen this before”.

SHUTTER is the story of Ben and Jane Shaw, a newlywed American couple on a “working honeymoon” in Japan. Ben is a professional photographer and it is while the two are enjoying their new life together that they become aware that they are being haunted, first by spectral images in Ben’s photographs, but more and more by ghostly sightings out of the corner of their eyes, in reflections of windows and mirrors and eventually right before their faces. Ben and Jane race to find answers to these eerie and terrifying incidents before something dreadful happens, but the answers the two uncover turn out to be just as unsettling as the supernatural experiences they have encountered.

SHUTTER did nearly everything right. It told a patient story that carefully built suspense and spread its dependence on success over a strong foundation of a tight narrative, fine camera work, a mix of beautiful, stark and unsettling imagery, steady if unspectacular performances, a good soundtrack and incidental music and while being a little predictable at times, there were some fun twists here and there. One of the great pleasures of SHUTTER is that there are more scares created by a slow build-up of tension rather than “jump scares” which are nothing but a cheat. Although the “fish out of water” plot device using Jane’s character has certainly been done before, when added to the already intricate narrative mix, it helps add a layer of “discomfort” and aids in intensifying the feeling that “something is wrong” with the characters’ situation. In the end, between a good story and even better visual components (no shakey-cam, overly dark scenes and rapid editing), I enjoyed watching SHUTTER and I am sure most people who like ghost stories will enjoy it too. Why then, if it did so much right, am I not raving like a lunatic about how great this movie is? A lot of it has to do with the feeling that I had reached the end of a tapped-out mine.

About ten years ago, I started getting into Asian cinema of all types and genres and I still enjoy that continuing foray. I watched original Japanese and Hong Kong versions of films like THE RING, THE EYE, DARK WATER and too many others to list, and then watched their American remakes, sometimes with positive results and other times finding myself disappointed. When I got interested in Asian horror, the “ghost story” trend had been going on a long time. Even SHUTTER’s director Masayuki Ochiai admitted in an interview that viewers in Japan have “become bored with the long, dark haired girl ghost” in films, and I suspect we are fast reaching that reaction here in the U.S. At least this time the ghost was an adult, and the resolution of conflict was not a “happy ending” per se. Be that as it may, SHUTTER is a remake of a film that fairly recently mined a trend that seems to be in the process of burning out. Beyond the tired story idea, even the actors felt like they were derivative. Whether it was a casting director’s/producer’s choice or no, Rachel Taylor looked too much like THE RING’s Naomi Watts for comfort. During the film she sounded like an American, but when interviewed, she even betrayed her Australian accent. While Miss Taylor did a good job in her performance as Jane, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was watching a doppelganger for Naomi Watts and it kept me from really sinking into the loam of the film. The same goes for Joshua Jackson, who also gave a reasonably strong performance as Ben, but who looked eerily like Ewan McGregor, who has done his own share of mysteries/horror. Some may call it coincidence, but it felt like cynical marketing to me, and it kept me from enjoying the film as much as I wanted to. I truly believe that those who have seen little or no Asian horror cinema and/or western remakes of the originals will probably find SHUTTER very powerful, but so many of these types of films have saturated the market over the last five years that the “virgin” audience may be pure no longer and film makers may have reached the limit of the lode and taken all the ore.

SHUTTER has a surprising treasure trove of goodies in the “bonus features” section, and for that I was immensely thankful. In addition to a commentary track with production executive Alex Sundell, screenwriter Luke Dawson and actress Rachel Taylor, there are no less than seven featurettes and a deleted/alternate scenes section. All of these extras are informative, compelling or amusing in some fashion. There is an 8 minute featurette called “Ghost in the Lens” which is a series of short interview segments, behind the scenes shots and film clips with actors Joshua Jackson, Rachel Taylor and John Hensley, producer Roy Lee, screenwriter Luke Dawson and spirit photography expert Hideyuki Kokubo. Next is a 9 ½ minute featurette called “A Cultural Divide: Shooting in Japan” which looks into the impact of Japanese culture on this film project through interview clips with actors Joshua Jackson, Rachel Taylor and David Denman, producer Roy Lee , screenwriter Luke Dawson, stuntman Shinji Noro and translator Chiho Asada. Following that is a 9 ½ minute subtitled interview with “The Director: Masayuki Ochiai” that looks at his reflections on the film, its predecessor, motivations for the project and his thoughts on ghosts. Next up is a 5 ½ minute “Conversation with screenwriter Luke Dawson”, followed by a 5 minute “History of Spirit Photography” mini-documentary. Then there is a 4 minute short feature called “Create your own Spirit Photo”, explaining the computer method of photo-manipulation. Finally, there is a 2 ½ minute text feature called “Hints for the Haunt: Tools and tips for Ghost-Hunting”. After you’ve delved deeply into these extras, there are 11 deleted or alternate scenes to enjoy and a pair of Fox trailers not on the autoplay opening segment or the “Inside Look” selection from the main menu which gives you a trailer for MIRRORS, coming out in August. There haven’t been too many discs I perused recently that have as deep an extras menu as SHUTTER, and for that I was impressed. The interviews segments answered a great number of questions that I had and improved my appreciation of SHUTTER and its history.

When it was released back in March 2008, SHUTTER grossed more than $25 million domestically and over $43 million worldwide. I can’t help thinking that had this film been released a few years ago, it might have been the blockbuster that THE RING was, or at least somewhere in that range. Sadly, we are probably reaching the end of the line for the “Asian-inspired ghost story” and as a result viewers like me, who have seen a thing or two, are a little jaded and are yearning for something new, will be turned off or left feeling ambivalent towards a film that deserved better. SHUTTER was a good film and has a lot going for it, but just like that last bite of turkey leftovers after the Thanksgiving holiday; you are just a little tired of “the same old thing”. Just as I discovered after ambling through a few old mines as a youth, the best pickings had already been taken and I wasn’t likely to find anything too precious now that the mine had been cleaned out.

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