Asian Horror films rarely break the mold. But every so often a filmmaker comes along and through sheer force of talent alters our perception of what a tried and true genre entry can be. Director Chao-Bin Su—best known for contributing the GOING HOME storyline to Peter Chan’s segment of the Asian horror anthology THREE (released in the U.S. as THREE EXTREMES II)—writes and directs this latest entry in the lexicon of raven-haired-spectral-revenge thrillers. What makes SILK stand heads above its often uninspired brethren is Chao-Bin’s ability to bridge the supernatural stereotypes by employing elements of science-fiction and melodrama to the tale.
SILK is the simple thread that bins a group of scientists who have captured the ghost of a young boy using a new technological development named the Menger Sponge. In reality, the Menger Sponge is a mathematical designation for the topography of a segmented cube, and the filmmakers employ a three dimensional model of the actual Menger Sponge as the means for harnessing the ghost’s energy. The team is led by Hashimoto (Yôsuke Eguchi), a brilliant but physically handicapped scientist who is determined to discover the secrets of the child’s immorality to further his own dreams of cheating death. As the team moves closer and closer to the truth they find themselves trapped between the mystery of a murdered child—bound to this earth by an unknown force—and a fight for their very own survival.
In terms of originality SILK ranks pretty high on the scale of excellent ideas transferred from sheet to screen—in essence moving Asian Horror cinema ahead in the same manner as Darren Aronofsky’s PI or Vincenzo Natali’s CUBE took the genre. It borrows an element of scientific reality and bends that reality to suit the needs of the story. It makes no matter if the mathematic actuality of the Menger Sponge has any absolute factual basis in the story. Think of if like Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE or any other number of Sci-fi films in that same regard. The reality is superseded by a storyline that makes its audience believe, and that is the great success of SILK. I was encapsulated by the story. I found it hard to place who was good and who was bad. Chao-Bin further blurs that distinction between the ghosts as well. Are all of the spirits in the film seeking revenge—carrying their existence on with the energy of hatred, or are some still searching for life and love? These are the philosophical debates that rage within the film, eventually trickling down to the assorted cast of characters and pushing their stories toward the inevitable conclusion.
SILK also dares to ask lofty questions about the sanctity of life. It doesn’t spend its precious frames drudging up ghastly images and gallons of grue. The film is visually arresting but virtually bloodless. The ghosts never pop into frame from unsuspecting locals for the purpose of cheap jump scares and shrieking teenage thrills. Even the music is subdued, with echoes of flutes and waterfalls of cascading chimes punctuated by deep drum beats and wooden block percussion. The minimalism of the score is—at its most basic—the perfect compliment to the action on the screen. SILK is—as Winston Churchill once described—“a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”—Yet, the film is still simple to follow. It never gets lost inside its own mythology—making it a fantastically user-friendly film for western audiences who are often taken aback at the disjointed and seemingly incoherent nature of many Eastern offerings.
I was especially impressed with the performances of Yôsuke Eguchi as Hashimoto and Chang Chen as Tung. Chang is no stranger to Eastern cinema fans as he famously appeared in Wong Kar-wai’s brilliant HAPPY TOGETHER and then as Lo in Ang Lee’s Oscar winning epic CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. Chang’s character of Tung ultimately becomes the focus of SILK a point which drives home the drama of the story and infuses it with a counterpoint of humanity against Hashimoto’s ever increasing maniacal behavior. What especially drew me into the film was that all of the cast members were able to project their performances though the barrier of language and the burden of subtitles to really connect with the totality of their situations. It made the story more intimate and less about the science and the supernatural. SILK proves once again that cinema is most powerful when it is more about people than plot device and pyrotechnics.
SILK is an ambitious film, but still accessible. It takes pains to make the story clear but never dumbs down the plot to advance its often distinguished point of view. Filled with characters that harbor real desires and faults, the supernatural element of the film is only the catalyst for plumbing the very real depths of the human condition. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to ask for more out of a genre that has been overrun by lackluster interpretations of cultural myth and outright plagiaristic translation of former box office champions. If you find the J-Horror set to illusive for your tastes or are looking for an unexpected and revitalizing entry after too many JU-ON films then SILK is exactly the film you need to see.