Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't meddle

Sigaw (The Echo)
Philippines, 2004

Baby-faced twenty-something Marvin (Richard Gutierrez) is on his own for the first time, having bought an apartment in a run-down older building. At first he's thrilled, but then he's disturbed every night by the sound of terrible domestic arguments down the hall, by the obviously beaten-up wife who bangs on everybody's doors, asking for help, and by the couple's creepy little daughter, who seems to be playing a perpetual game of hide-and-seek.

Eager to prove his independence to his mother (and even to his girlfriend Pinky, who'd obviously prefer they move in together to a nicer, newer building), he stubbornly refuses to hear any talk of trying to move out. He makes futile complaints to the management, loses sleep, and ponders trying to help the neighbor, despite the fact that the primary advice he gets is "don't meddle."

Eventually the situation escalates to the point where he witnesses a possibly fatal beating, and the drunken caretaker finally admits what should be obvious by now: the family is long-dead and re-enacting their last, violent day in ghostly form. Marvin tries to cope by focusing on the fact that it's not real, that they're not really there. But one day Pinky comes by looking for him, and it becomes clear that the abusive husband may not be corporeal any more, but he's still able to hurt people. And when bloody apparitions start following the two of them around, Marvin decides he needs to stand up and confront the ghosts once and for all...

As directed and co-written by Yam Laranas, Sigaw is a well-crafted movie, albeit it doesn't do anything really innovative with its premise. It bears more of a similarity to the current cycle of well-known Japanese, Korean and Thai horror films than, say, the same year's Feng Shui did (although a lot of commentators find Sigaw spookier and better made in general). The decrepit apartment building, always darkly lit and sinister looking, could be out of either of the Dark Water movies. But oddly, that fact just highlights the universality of the protagonist's experience in an alienated urban environment, where, as he complains about his apartment, "there's privacy but no security."

In the modern apartment setting, there's no connection or community between the neighbors, who don't know each other and barely even see each other. On the one hand, this suits Marvin fine, since he's trying to lead his own life, and mind his own business. But in reality, he's still vulnerable to the actions (and, especially, the problems) of the people around him. Both he and the neighbor seen in flashback, who used to live in Marvin's unit, are affected and potentially threatened by complete strangers.

Similarly, Marvin tries to cope with his problems himself, turning away his girlfriend's offers of help, and not telling her everything that's going on. But of course, the troubles that affect him also affect her, and recognizing that is part of his growing up.

Needless to say, there's an American remake in production right now, with the same director and Iza Calzado, the original's abused wife, playing the new version of the same character. The main star, though, is Jesse Bradford, who's always struck me as a generic male starlet, so I can't say I have high hopes. Not that one ever should, in the world of Asian horror remakes. Some day, somehow, I'm going to be pleasantly surprised. Come on, Hollywood, rise to that challenge!

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