Friday, June 20, 2014

They Wait, Dorothy Mills: two great little ghost stories encountered on DVD

So my upcoming root canal has me in a "what can I sell" kind of mood, which has me looking at my possessions and trying to decide which of them I really need. This applies even to things that have no particular financial value anymore, like DVDs: I spent a couple of hours digging through the dozens of DVDs I've picked up out of Rogers Video PV bins and thrift stores, some of which have been sitting around on my shelves for years, unwatched, unappreciated, near-forgotten. Mostly these are low budget horror flicks that I bought specifically because they were cheap and because it looked like they might amuse me someday. Is Urban Legends any good? Is the third Pumpkinhead movie even half as good as the first one (Doug Bradley is in it!). Could the American adaptation of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse possibly be worth seeing, all evidence to the contrary? Will I find any redeeming value in Brian Paulin's At Dawn They Sleep? I have yet to answer these questions, but after an evening watching the first ten minutes of various films that I elected to sell as soon as possible, and sitting through one bad but entertaining urban-rural thriller (Creature, which I cannot recommend but which is nowhere as bad as people say), I did find two real winners, two films that anyone with a love of genre cinema should seek out: the Vancouver-set Chinese ghost story They Wait, and the Irish multiple personality disorder quasi-ghost story Dorothy Mills
The first thing that struck me about They Wait is that, as I was complaining about a few posts back, it's one of those movies where the marketing and the description on the back of the DVD take pains to erase or de-emphasize precisely those cultural specificities that make the film most interesting. The box art (also the art used on the poster I saw when the film played the VIFF) features an image of a girl with a sewn-up mouth, but nothing about it suggests the face of the person in question is that of a non-Caucasian. The back of the DVD does show in the images that there are at least a couple of Asian characters in the film, but the copy is typically un-revealing:
It is Ghost Month, when the realm of the living intersects with the realm of the dead, and the world is thrown into madness. Sarah (JAIME KING), Jason (TERRY CHEN) and young son Sam (REGAN OEY), return from Shanghai from North America for a family funeral. But something strange is going on. Sam starts seeing ghosts and then falls gravely ill. Traditional western medicine offers no hope; he is being held in a death grip by a living corpse. Sarah must find out what the spirits want if she is to save her child, and she must do it before dawn, because once the sun rises at the end of Ghost Month, Sam will be lost forever.
This is a reasonably accurate description of the plot, as far as it goes, and it doesn't disguise that at least one actor in the film is of Chinese descent (who knows what ethnicity "Oey" is but "Chen" is pretty clear cut). Still,  notice that it effaces the following details: the family returns from Shanghai to Vancouver's Chinatown, where almost all of the film's action takes place; the ghosts, the mythology around them, even the concept of (hungry) ghost month, are entirely Chinese; all but two of the characters are Chinese, half-Chinese, or Chinese-Canadian; and the spirits want atonement for wrongs that are specifically related to the actual, historical Chinese experience in Vancouver - involving, if you don't mind a few mild spoilers, the shipping of bones, the harvesting and smuggling of bear parts, and the conditions of sweatshop labour in Chinatown in the past. No doubt members of the Chinese community would find They Wait more than a little silly (though not so silly as Big Trouble in Little China, say); I don't mean to say its a shining example of historically-informed cinema. But it is still significant that the attempt is made to incorporate the Chinese experience into a western film, to even acknowledge it, since Vancouver-set cinema almost always stays out of Chinatown, like it is too politically complex to even acknowledge, too fraught with possibilities of getting things wrong, being accused of cultural appropriation, Orientalism, what-have-you. Which are real dangers, but the end result is that even really earnest films like Nathaniel Geary's On The Corner, which is set in the downtown eastside, with most of its action taking place a block from Chinatown, barely acknowledge the Chinese community; in fact, I can't think of a Vancouver-set film designed for mainstream audiences that spends any amount of time in Chinatown at all. Sure, They Wait owes a debt to similar attempts to re-package Asian ghost stories for western audiences, like the Sarah Michelle Gellar version of Ju-On, say - and of course the main character had to be white! But the film deserves some credit for trying to set a ghost story in Chinatown, and it's not a bad ghost story at all...
Dorothy Mills - known in Europe only as Dorothy, apparently - is even more interesting, and also a bit of a ghost story, but - like Session 9, say - it is debatable just how necessary to the story the element of the supernatural is; it can't be done away with altogether, but the film's ghosts seem to be contextualized in a wider story involving the buried sins of a community and how they impact one particularly sensitive girl. The film involves a psychiatrist come from Dublin to a small, island-bound Irish community, to investigate a case in which a baby has been harmed by the babysitter, the titular character. Investigation reveals - as you will suspect within the first few minutes of the film - that Dorothy is suffering from multiple personality disorder, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. I'm almost as skeptical about that particular condition as I am about the existence of ghosts, but I was able to be thoroughly engaged by this film, which combines striking images of the Irish rural landscape with a rather chilling portrait of a xenophobic, guilt-ridden, secretive small town, where the mainland psychiatrist is regarded with great mistrust, and where the protection of the community trumps all other considerations. It's a spoiler to make the comparison but there's a little bit of The Wicker Man at work here, too, though the framework is stridently Christian and no overt pagan sacrifices take place. (The ancient Celtic practice of dumping bodies in bogs might be germain, but I really don't want to say too much on that count). 

Not sure how one goes about finding films like this in the post-video-store world, but however you seek out movies, They Wait and Dorothy Mills are both better-than-average, rather original films that I liked a great deal... you might too! 

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