There are, roughly speaking, three types of horror movies. The first is gleefully bad, like Evil Dead or Nightmare on Elmstreet. They give you splatter, and comedy, and a good scare without making you think too much about anything. The second kind is insidious and thoughtful, locating horror in the viewer’s own mind, inviting you to reflect upon what you’ve seen, drawing terror from terrors. The first few minutes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where you don’t know what you’re seeing or what’s going on but just that something truly bad is going down, and the devastating end of Se7en are typical of this type. The third type, and the only, in my opinion, bad kind of horror / suspense films, are those of the first kind with aspirations to being the second: they lack the latter’s piercing insight and the former’s sense of play, ending as dully grotesque exercises in pretension.
The Eye, I am happy to say, does not fall into this trap, but is an effective, affecting entry in the genre, drawing its power in equal parts from primal fears and basic human empathy.
Lee Sin-je stars as Mun, who went blind as a child at the age of two and has just had her sight restored by a corneal transplant. The former owner, however, appears to have left Mun more than the gift of sight. Mun begins to look in the mirror and see something other than her own reflection. This, of course, leads to the horrific mystery and the corpse and the scares, but before it does Mun experiences the far more everyday terror of not knowing who she is. Sin-je can play the screaming, yet competent heroine as well as anyone you’ve ever seen, but does a truly wonderful job of communicating Mun’s almost wordless fear at her dissolving identity. Not that the more traditional terrors are absent. There’s one scene involving an elevator which should have everyone taking the stairs. The Pang brothers give the procedings the aura of a dream using eerily beautiful, off kilter shots. The entire film is haunted by ghostly, half-glimpsed images.
The premise for the film is one of the oldest in oral and film tradition: the borrowed body part which retains vestiges of its old owner’s fate and imbues its new one with powers. But by making the body part the titular eye, the film becomes charged with additional allusions. Injury to the eye is one of the most basic and common human fears for good reason: it is the only soft tissue or organ with absolutely no protection. Eyes were at one time considered to be windows to the soul and, in medieval times, to hold the last sight of murder victims: their murderers. In many ways, the film simply literalizes these beliefs. Mun literally sees with another’s eyes, and into another’s soul. She is also granted access to the “record” of the crime and becomes the instrument of its revenge. A shoddy film would fall under such a barrage of myths and layers of meaning. The Eye thrives on them.