Danny and Oxide Pang, most commonly known as The Pang Brothers, are viewed as a sort of Wachowski Brothers of Asia, only they deal with horror rather than Sci-Fi. For a few years they garnered a reasonable strong reputation as talents to watch on the Thai movie scene, but it wasn’t until 2001 when they made the horror smash The Eye that they truly gained international attention. Since then they have been seen as one of the guiding lights of the horror scene, but their output has failed to match their reputation. The Eye 2 received mixed reviews; Abnormal Beauty didn’t fare much better, and The Eye 10 was so awful that even their most hardcore fans have started questioning whether they were ever as good as the hype suggested. Their latest film: Re-cycle, is perhaps their last chance to gain back the respect of horror fans worldwide.
Angelica Lee plays Ting Yin, a popular young author suffering from writer’s block on her prematurely announced latest novel: The Re-cycle. At a press conference for the film adaptation of one of her earlier novels she is drawn into a conversation about the female protagonist of her latest book, in which she reveals that she writes part of herself into every character she creates. Later that evening Ting Yin writes a rough description of the main character in The Re-cycle: a tall female with long straight hair, but this design is promptly thrown in the bin for a protagonist much closer to Ting Yin herself. This is when the visions start. At first they’re just shadows and forms on the periphery of her vision, but when she starts discovering long strands of hair at the scene of each vision, Ting Yin starts to believe she might be haunted by the very character she created. Soon the visions get more varied, then one day she tries to leave her apartment block and finds herself trapped in some sort of twisted parallel universe where everything is worn down and bodies drop from the sky - including the long haired phantom that was haunting her. Fleeing from these horrid pursuers, Ting Yin comes across an old man who provides her with important clues about the world around her, and a young girl who becomes her companion and guide as the two work to find a way back into the “real” world.
In HK they like to keep labels nice and simple. Over there the Pang Brothers are known for making Ghost Films, their reputation as horror directors being such that when audiences by tickets to their latest film, they expect to be scared out of their skins. This is probably why the original Cantonese name of Re-cycle is Gwai Wik – Ghost Land; it immediately informs the average HK cinemagoer that the film is most likely going to meet their expectations. As it turns out though, this title is a gross understatement of the concepts the Pangs attempt to explore in Re-cycle. The truth is, despite their reputation, the Pang Brothers have never been out-and-out horror directors. Ever since The Eye they have been trying to gradually move into more dramatic territory, so far without success. Sure, the Eye 2 was more drama than horror, but the story was so dull and the protagonist so annoying that it failed totally to illicit an emotional response, while their attempts at scares ended up as hackneyed attempts at cheap “jump” scenes. Abnormal Beauty started off promising enough as a Peeping Tom inspired psychological thriller about a mentally disturbed female artist, but soon descends into a generic slasher thriller. The Eye 10 was a big step backwards, but with The Re-cycle they have managed to successfully explore a new genre with their first fantasy film - albeit one laced with horror trappings. They achieve this by almost completely dropping the one aspect of film making that they’ve always struggled with: The narrative.
The premise of Re-cycle is basic enough: Angelica Lee is trapped in an increasingly surreal world and needs to find a way out. This gives the Pang Brothers the freedom to let their imaginations run riot and paint a canvass that is truly stunning - you only have to check out the production stills or screen captures to see how visually arresting the film is. Indeed, the moment Ting Yin steps into the Re-cycle most of the story is told visually, and the directors are not short on ideas, often drawing on iconic HK culture, like when Ting Yin stumbles through the (now demolished) Kowloon Walled City, re-imagined as an eerie haunted house, or the small playground that houses an Amusement Park Ferris Wheel and a large, looming Pirate Ship ride that swings high above, seemingly anchored to the sky. Speaking of which, there’s also the idea that the theme of each level she enters decides the objects that will fall from the sky. So if she’s in a library, it’ll be books that constantly rain down, but if she’s in the city then it’s rotted bodies that fall down and lumber towards her in some sort of twisted pursuit. Yet, despite the imminent threat on Ting Yin’s personage and the almost monstrous appearance of The Re-cycle’s inhabitants, the worlds the Pang Brothers have created are more sombre than frightening and the mood of the piece is one of melancholic retrospection.
To create the macabre landscapes of The Re-cycle calls upon large scale CGI and technically the film is rather impressive, with over 90% of the worlds Angelica Lee wanders through being created via green screen technology. The cinematography also plays a big part in making The Re-cycle feel like a solid, real world by basking each level in its own set of dreary primary colours. In fact such is the effectiveness of this almost monotone lighting that the one level that fails to convince is lit the most conventionally. The performances too are a vital part of the process and Angelica Lee is on fine form, giving a very subtle performance in the film’s opening act and reacting to the CGI in a totally convincing manner. Her supporting cast: elderly character actor Lu Siu Ming and eight year old Zeng QiQi also feel right at home acting in front of green screens.
This isn’t to say that Re-cycle is a resounding success though; the framing of Ting Yin’s journey into The Re-cycle is definitely below par. The opening act is rather generic, including a basic subplot where Ting Yin is attempting to fend off an ex-lover who dumped her to get married and is back to reclaim their relationship now that he’s divorced. Once she starts writing the novel outright, a series of hauntings occur that serve as little more than to let the directors throw a few cheap “jump” scenes at viewers. What’s most damning is that if The Pang Brothers display an impressive amount of imagination in the Re-cycle world, they have managed to match this with their inability to end the story in a satisfying manner. Instead they drop a ton of clues in a build up to two twists, the first of which is so obvious that if you haven’t figured it out after forty minutes then you have not been paying enough attention. What’s more, once this twist plays out the film descends into some truly cringeworthy melodrama. The second twist is less obvious, but the closer you near the end the less likely any other possible outcome can come about, so when the final scene does play out it’s no longer shocking.
Alas, such weak plotting is something audiences have come to expect from Danny and Oxide Pang, your ability to overlook these flaws will boil down to how you approach the film and its visuals. If you take the subtext too seriously and treat it as a profound wannabe arthouse horror film, then the uneven tone will probably prove critical Approach it as popcorn entertainment however, and I think you’ll find it is one of the most adventurous and artful mainstream releases this year - which is something that remains in your mind long after the lousy final act ever does.
PresentationThere are two DVD releases of Re-cycle on R3HK DVD, a single disc and 2-disc Special Edition. The review below is for the Special Edition, which comes housed in a magnetically closing Digipack packed with two concept art sketch booklets. The first DVD in this set is the same as the single disc release, but disc two features a healthy set of exclusive extras. What’s more, all extras have English subs – including the Audio Commentary. Yes Asia customers purchasing the 2-disc set will also be treated to exclusive (but naff) badges!
Presented anamorphically at approximately 2.35:1, the transfer for Re-cycle is definitely sub-par for a film so new. For a start the video is interlaced, exhibiting obvious signs of 3:2 Pulldown. This leads to juddering in camera pans/sweeps and intrusive aliasing in areas of fine detail. Another major problem is with low-level noise, which floods into many of the darker sequences. Black levels too are a very mixed bag, sometimes they’re fine, but every now and then a scene will appear with noticeably poor black levels, looking more like a noisy, dark grey. Universe can almost be forgiven for this a little because Re-cycle’s dark cinematography is very unforgiving on the DVD format. Every other aspect of the image is good enough, the rather grainy image exhibits a good level of detail and – given the film’s muted palette - colours are as bold as you can expect and reasonably clean, although certain sequences (like the “baby tunnel” sequence) exhibit noticeable chroma noise. Contrast is solid and skin tones appear quite natural, while Edge Enhancement appears to be non-existent.
Cantonese DD5.1 & DTS and a Mandarin dub in DD5.1 are provided for viewers, and for the purpose I this review I mostly listened to the DTS track, which does the film’s sound design a great service. Dialogue is completely clean and audible throughout, while the bass is sharp and powerful, never losing control. Sound dynamics too are impressive, with every audio element breaking through in the score and audio effects. The sound stage is open and varied; there are many rear effects used in the film’s numerous scary set pieces. In short, this is a great audio track that almost makes up for the mediocre video. The Cantonese DD5.1 track holds up quite well against the DTS, but doesn’t quite match it completely for audio quality. The Mandarin track is equivalent to the Cantonese.
The Removable English subtitles provided have surprisingly poor grammar in certain scenes, resulting in some classic comments like:
“Please don’t keep staring, you’re really scaring” and “Maybe you just mistake”.
Removable Traditional and Chinese subtitles are also available for Chinese viewers.
On the movie disc you will find Pang Brothers and Angelica Lee Filmographies and an Audio Commentary With the Pang Brothers, Angelica Lee, and Visual Effects Director Ko Fai which for the most part becomes a discussion on what things were real and what was CGI in each of the levels in the Re-cycle. There’s still time for some interesting revelations though, including an explanation of how the Pang brothers direct their films together by having one of them turn up on set to direct one way and the other directs the next day. They also mention that in the theatrical print of Re-cycle the film starts off in 1.85:1, then opens up to 2.35:1 when Ting Yin enters the Re-cycle. Danny and Oxide Pang sound almost identical, so it’s hard to tell who is saying what, but the brothers are unsurprisingly the most vocal commentators (I think Danny is talking most of the time), Angelical Lee and Ko Fai interject occasionally talk us through their role in the film’s production.
The first option on the 2nd disc is a slightly misleading Making Of section, which actually houses Interviews With Danny Pang, Oxide Pang, and Angelica Lee. At two minutes long, these amount to little more than a few sentences from each person. Alongside the interviews are Two Making Of Featurettes which are labelled Short Version and Long Version. Doubt let the labelling fool you though, these completely separate featurettes feature their own original footage – it’s just that one is longer than the other. Next up are six Deleted Scenes, half of which are extra ghost haunting stuff in Ting Yin’s home. The others show us a little more of The Re-cycle, with the last deleted scene providing a glimpse at an entirely new level called “The Forest of Memories”. The next section is the nine Extra CG shots, which is pretty self explanatory, each are very brief footage showing how they created the CGI in each level of the Re-Cycle.
In the Highlights section you will find three featurettes:
Re-Cycle Preview Showing Q&A: The Pang brothers and Angelica Lee field question from an audience of what I assume are film students, as the questions asked are quite involving. As such, this happens to be the most informative extra on the disc.
Gala Premiere: This is the usual conference Asian films hold where the directors and cast get up on stage and answer questions from an MC. The most notable thing about this feature is that it’s the only one to include the supporting actors Zeng QiQi, Lau Siu Ming, and Lawrence Chou. The feature also ends with an extremely naff publicity stunt.
One Week Gross Celebration Party: Held a week after the film hit HK cinemas, this is a rather dull publicity event to celebrate the fact Re-Cycle has broken the one week gross record for a ghost film in HK. The Pangs, Angelica Lee, and the head of Universe Entertainment Lam Shiu Ming are the victims of some more dodgy publicity stunts. Danny and Angela seem to be enjoying themselves, but Oxide looks like he’s in PR hell. He’s right.
Rounding off the extra material on the 2nd disc a Sketches Photo Gallery, which feature some excellent pre-production artwork.