“Hong Kong is so crowded these days, where would the ghosts live?” Back in 2002 it would seem that they lived in the Multiplexes. The tremendous success of “Ringu” saw an explosion of supernatural horror in Eastern Cinema and Hong Kong was no exception, with a proliferation of ghostly stories released to capitalize on the trend. From the quirky “My Left Eye See’s Ghosts” to “Visible Secret” and beyond, the screens at this time were full of spectres. With “Inner Senses”, Lo Chi-Leung crafts a more considered horror film behind the required jump moments. Whilst sadly forever linked with the tragic fate of it’s lead the following year, it still remains a film worthy on it’s own merit.
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Cheung Yan (Karena Lam) moves into an apartment complex and starts to find herself haunted by the ghosts of the landlord’s deceased wife and son. Reluctantly, she is persuaded to see the psychiatrist Jim Law (Leslie Cheung), a sceptic in the supernatural who is convinced they are just manifestations of her repressed psyche. The pair gradually grow closer until Jim Law admits they cannot be anything more than doctor and patient. After another “haunting”, Cheung Yan attempts suicide and Jim law learns that she has done this before, when her ex-boyfriend dumped her. As Jim Law attempts to help Cheung Yan come to terms with her past, he finds himself being haunted by his own long suppressed memories, just as their own relationship begins to form.
The film sets its stall out early with Jim Law demonstrating how our own memories form our perceptions, by using several classical narrative tales that have informed our subconscious. Jim Law is our standard sceptical protagonist and what makes the film work is the gradual erosion of this certainty.
“Inner Senses” can almost neatly be divided into two sections. The first containing Cheung Yan’s haunting by the landlord’s deceased family. We are never quite sure whether what we are witnessing is real or a projection of her subconscious. With the resolution of this storyline comes the switch and almost role reversal as in the final act it is Jim Law who is plagued with ghostly visions as his repressed memories come crashing back into the present and the lines between reality become blurred.
The psychoanalytic principle of the repressed psyche is in force in the film, with the idea that ghosts are in fact a representation of our own suppressed emotions, given form by our own perceptions. This gives the character of Jim Law a grounding that is not often explored within eastern cinema. There is traditionally a readiness to believe in the supernatural (A trait every other character in the movie has) and having a lead character prepared to question this notion allows for a degree of ambiguity in what we are witnessing. Once the story arc flips and it is Jim Law becoming haunted, these other characters become the rational ones seeking logical explanations for his now irrational behaviour.
The other theme is one prevalent in a lot of horror films of this time. That of loneliness and social isolation. The two main characters are lonely individuals. Jim Law works at the hospital and at his own practice and admits, at one point, that Wilson Chan (Waise Lee) is his only friend. Cheung Yan also appears to have an isolated existence with her only friends being Wilson Chan and his wife (Valerie Chow). These characters have a need to connect but their mutual pasts prevent them from sustaining relationships and so become almost ghosts themselves. The landlord Mr Chu admit.s when having dinner with Cheung Yan. that it’s been a long time since he ate with someone. The realisation that he still leaves the shoes out for his deceased family and cooks extra for his dead, causes Cheung Yan to seek an early exit. All these characters are trapped within their own existence and are unable to break free of the cycle.
The central pairing gives nicely judged performances and have neatly developed character arcs, always keeping the audience sympathies. The romance is underplayed with the sense that here are two flawed characters finding each other. Ably supporting them are Waise Lee and Tsiu Siu-Keung. Waise Lee gets to look suitably befuddled as his friend’s actions become stranger and Tsiu Siu Keung’s landlord furthers the theme of repressed guilt as he is haunted by the memory of his family and unable to move on.
With any movie involving ghosts it is the jump moments that define it’s success and here they work well without ever overshadowing the story. Some of the imagery here is reminiscent of Mario Bava at his finest. The dripping tap sequence is almost a homage to the classic scene in “Black Sabbath”. The film also parallels with the apartment setting of the Japanese Film “Dark Water”, furthering the idea that the Hong Kong film industry is a cinematic magpie, taking elements from other movies and recombining them into something with it’s own identity. The resolution is unusual for the genre, where happiness is generally fleeting and the cautious optimism is a refreshing change of pace.
With the focus on story and character development over out and out scare tactics, “Inner Senses” is an unusual entry into the Ghost Story canon. Well directed by Lo Chi-Leung, it bears the hallmarks of its producer Derek Lee, whose movies have generally focused as much on story and character as the genre elements. The final result is one of the better productions of the time and well worth rediscovering.