This four-part horror anthology is centered around the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, where spirits are able to walk among the living, and friends and families pay tribute to long dead ancestors, as well as rectifying the suffering of the deceased who never received proper rituals.
Each of the four segments deals with varying levels of spiritual unrest, and while fairly straightforward tales, they contain some potentially intriguing glimpses into Malaysian culture that’s rarely seen in western films.
The chief problem with Visits is that none of the directors manage to really create big shocks or a creepy mood, and a major drawback is the variable quality of the cast; some are professional actors, a few are striking models, and some are newcomers who transform moments of fright into plain silliness.
The first tale, “1413,” has a promising beginning as schoolgirl Mai Ling awakens in hospital, and senses the enshrouded bed a few meters away may harbor an evil spiritual presence. Soon she finds herself being chased down hallways by the ghost of her best friend, Jia Chyi. After she's been discharged from the hospital, Ling also discovers the emotional support from the dead girl’s boyfriend may not be so earnest at all. The finale takes place on the rooftop of a large building, and it’s here where details of a suicide pact between the two girls come to light.
Director Low Ngai Yuen deserves credit for giving her segment of the DV production some visual flair, but her scare scenes just don’t work. A chase through the hospital hallways between Ling and the ghost is shown via a camera that’s been bolted to Ling’s wheelchair, and because the sequence is told in long takes, Yuen couldn’t have cut out the weaker acting bits without affecting the sequences’ continuity.
Both teen actresses are fine in the flashback scenes, but the lack of dramatic visuals and editing collectively deny the segment of any terror, and the twist finale is merely perfunctory.
“Waiting for Them,” the second segment, deals with a businesswoman whose involvement with a married man is corroding her self-worth. When a best friend calls for emotional support, she allows her to stay for a few days, and ultimately realizes the friend may have been a ghost. The story has strong potential for small but memorable shocks (a ghost in the closet comes close), but director James Lee’s decision to have the actors play their roles in a severe, emotionally muted style makes whole scenes feel utterly flat, with only a pretense of wavering inner conflicts.
Director Ng Tian Hann’s “Nodding Scoop” segment has the most dramatic potential since it initially deals with a group of naive college brats thinking they can films a séance, recall the spirit of a recently deceased woman in the apartment she once occupied, and quickly thereafter sell the DVD to reality TV fans. The problem is that the wannabe filmmakers are idiots. The basic setup of the séance involves the arrangement of a creepy mobile where a robe and a long-haired wig are placed over a suspended ladle (hence the title), and when the spirit attempts communication, the squatting figure is supposed to nod.
The odd set-up does resembles a hunched-over figure, but the segment’s mood is undone by the group’s juvenile bickering and incompetence as filmmakers; there’s simply no way their amateurish efforts will yield usable footage using one camera. A few shocks work – the boy seeing a ghost in the viewfinder when the others see an empty chair nearby – but those rare moment are offset by poor contrivances meant to separate the characters.
A lame elevator sequence sends the boy to the building lobby so the girls are left alone with the angry ghost, and when he returns, he finds the two semi-possessed by the spirit, which sends him fleeing into the street, presumably wisened that messing with ghosts is a bad idea.
The last segment, “Anybody Home,” is marginally creepy for combining voyeurism and a ghost’s revenge. Director Ho Yuhang tells the story using surveillance cameras and handycam footage from camcorders hidden in a woman’s apartment by the building’s lone security guard.
Much in the way Alone with Her (2004) relied on locked camera setups and mobile camcorders, Yuhang also captures the guard’s entry into the woman’s unit, setting up the cameras, examining private items, and the woman going about her daily business, unaware she’s being spied on by a pervert.
One day the woman finds him in her apartment, and she clocks him on the head with a hammer. As she drags his bloodied cadaver into the kitchen and finishes him off, she starts to suspect she may not be alone in the apartment. Cornered in the darkness, she has a flashback to a drive with her ex-lover - a married man who apparently decides to commit suicide after she tells him of her plans to tell his wife about their unborn lovechild. When the flashback ends, the woman finds herself being strangled by the ghost of her lover, who leaves the dead woman once the deed is done.
Yuhang’s final shot is of the woman lying dead in the clutches of the dead security guard, so the presumption (as hinted at in “Nodding Scoop”) is that ghosts can take over the body of another and trick both parties into seeing completely different people, causing them to react defensively. In “Nodding Scoop” the boy thinks he sees the dead woman and tries to strangle his friend, and in “Anybody Home” it’s the woman who believes she’s being strangled by the ghost of her dead lover.
The flaw in Yuhang’s finale is that the twist flashback barely conveys any new information: after their brief exhange in a parked car, the man is seen standing by a river front in deep contemplation, while the woman heads off for a walk along the highway. We can only presume he committed suicide based on his sudden return via the security guard’s cadaver.
Secondly, Yuhang also breaks the narrative wall he’s set up from the start: once the woman has dragged the guard into the kitchen and finishes him off with a hammer, the apartment’s power goes dead, and the rest of the segment is no longer being told through hidden cameras, except at the very end.
By suddenly cutting from a reality TV style to traditional film narrative, the short becomes a ‘movie,’ and loses the edginess of peeking into peoples’ private environs. The switch also mandates that whatever is being shown will be inherent to a conventional horror movie, and therefore predictable. Moreover, Yuhang used the same building as Lee, including the same stairwells, lobby, and elevators – a decision that cheapens both segments.
The connective material in Visits comes from a theme of ghosts, but it’s odd that the film’s producer didn’t aim for stories with ghosts having starkly different past histories, much in the way there are two women involved with married men. The film is bookended by a radio station host who explains the seasonal festival, and then returns at the end, opening up a Q&A session and finding himself speaking to a ghost.
Bone House Asia has included a making-of featurette featuring interviews with each of the directors, as well as main actors and the film’s producer. The overall theme is of making a mainstream film in Malaysia, and the hopes of the project bringing further interest in filming outside of the major Asian markets. In spite of the enthusiasm and optimism among the filmmakers, Visits is too light on scares, but it does provide faint glimpses of a culture that’s rarely shown in western markets.
The 1.33:1 transfer is adequate, there are four chapter stops, and the menu is derived from the striking cover art and poster. The soundtrack, however, is a mono mix with very low dialogue levels. (One suspects an error in the master, where perhaps one track from a Dolby 2.0 surround mix was used by accident.)
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan