Zombos Says: Very Good
I always make the mistake of picking up the phone. If I would just let it ring and ring, and let voicemail kick in, I’d be fine. I had a lapse in judgement, what else can I say?
"Look," my editor told me over the phone," you're seriously behind in your reviews. I've got DVDs coming out of my—oh, good god!" I heard him gasp.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"It's the ghost of Mae Nak, she's pissed you haven't reviewed her movie yet. Wow, you've got quite a hole in the head there,"
"Not you, the ghost. She's got this J-Horror thing going on, and a gaping hole right in the middle of her head."
"Fine," I said. "Tell her I’ll get to the review as soon as I can. Not like I’m getting paid for this, you know."
"She's not buying it. She hissed you still get free DVDs so stop the crap. Hey, cut that out! Look, I'm just the editor, Zoc’s the one you should—ouch, stop!" he yelled.
I had to hold the cell phone away from my ear as things were getting a bit loud. There was a scream or two, then silence.
"Hello? Hello? Are you still there?" I asked. A loud hissing sound, followed by a crash of glass and some foul-sounding foreign language sputtered from the phone, then it went dead. Oh, well, I thought, that’s that. I was wrong.
I turned around and found the ghost of Mae Nak floating a few feet in the air from me. She definitely was not a happy camper. I can't remember any Asian ghosts that ever were, come to think of it. They are always out for revenge, or retribution, or something else equally nasty. Not seeing a good ending to all this, I started to think faster than Bugs Bunny.
"That's a nasty hole in her head, isn't it," I said.
Mae Nak wailed a frightful one. Banshees had nothing over her in that department.
"Okay, look. I can get to the review today. I'll even toss in a review of The Maid for good measure. Just stop pestering me so I can get back to work.
Mae Nak nodded, floated over to my office attic’s door, and then through it, as easily as a hot knife cuts through butter.
I picked up the phone to see if my editor was still alive.
I could hear a whimpering sound, followed by labored breathing, punctuated by "oh, sh*t, oh, sh*t" over and over again.
"Good, you're still there," I said. "I’ll send you the review for The Maid before Mae Nak comes back. What? Broken? Well then, use your good hand, then."
I hung up and quickly finished the review.
An effective ghost story should have an air of mystery to it: why is there a ghost? What purpose does the ghost have in haunting a particular place or person? A modicum of pathos is also important for a truly emotional turn of the screw, as a ghost cannot only be vindictive or vengeful, but must have sadness about it; something that we can empathize that will make the haunting all the more tragic, as well as spooky.
Gore also must be kept to a minimum as an effective ghost story relies on creating and sustaining a balanced mood of tension. Too much gore and the balance shifts into rapid moments of revulsion and anxiety, whereas a good ghost story relies on impression and subtlety, implying more than is actually shown.
The mystery in The Maid builds slowly and inexorably toward a climax that brings us from where we thought we were to an unexpected place that surprises us. Director and writer Kelvin Tong, while using the now standard shock cuts of ghosts sitting, floating and crawling, keeps the gore factor down and raises and twists Rosa's (Alessandra de Rossi) impressions of what's happening in this first significant horror movie from Singapore.
Rosa is a young Philippine maid who travels to Singapore to work for the Teo family. While traveling as a stranger in a strange land is stressful enough, her trip is made more vexing by the timing of it. She arrives at the Teo residence during Hungry Ghost Month, a time when the gates of hell unlock and all those annoying relatives you really didn't want to see anymore return.
Of course, there are ways to appease the ghosts, and Rosa, not at all familiar with the rituals that the community follows during this preternatural month, sweeps up ashes that were better left alone. No sooner than you can say boo! she's seeing dead people, or sitting in their reserved chairs for the opera, or hearing strange sounds and watching doors fly open as they pull their usual scare tactics. Let's face it, if you're dead, scaring the living can be lots of fun. What else can you do?
As she becomes more and more unnerved by all this, she notices a neighbor that runs away from her, and the Teo family begins to act a little odd. Which is quite a change from her initial entry into the musically-inclined family; who, with their co-workers in the opera, broke into song upon her arrival. But now the Teo family is becoming distant, and more controlling.
And then there is Ah Soon (Benny Soh), the little-boy that can't grow up with his body, the Teo's son. He develops an infatuation with Rosa, and Rosa plays along with his childish behavior. Which isn’t a good thing to do.
Through the increasing ghostly activity, Rosa realizes one ghost in particular is trying to get her attention. But why? Like any well-crafted mystery there are clues along the way, but of course you never notice them until the summary flashbacks at the end, then you kick yourself for not realizing what's happening
Okay, I kickmyself for not realizing what's happening.
In too many American horror movies, it's the undead or loony-toon psycho, and the soon-to-be-dead that are prominent in the story, along with a modicum of T&A and flashy gore for good measure. The Maid eschews all that and focuses on the relationships between the living and the dead, and Rosa, who doesn't disrobe at any point in this movie (take note of my disappointment here), or curse using soap-worthy words, or act in any way like "I'm just here to be killed" kind of fashion. Instead, Tong builds his story on the traditions and eeriness inherent in Hungry Ghost Month, and provides quiet moments of uncertainty at first, then less quiet moments as Rosa realizes the supernatural world is real and uncomfortably close.
But is she in danger from the ghosts or from the Teo family? Or both?
Her struggle to find out makes Tong's story a suspenseful, slightly scary, and very entertaining traditional ghost story to watch.
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