Tuesday, July 16, 2013

HAUNTED CHANGI (2010) -- B-




MSRP: $14.95
RATED: Unrated
STUDIO:  Seminal Films
RUNNING TIME: 81 minutes
SPECIAL FEATURES:
• World War II Archival Footage
• Crew Blog Archive
• First Three Chapters of the Book, What Happened to the Crew of “Haunted Changi”?

The Pitch:

Yet another addition to the booming found footage horror genre, albeit one set in a real-life haunted hospital in Singapore.

The Humans:

Andrew Lua, Sheena Chan, Farid Assalam, Audi Khalid

The Nutshell:

In early 2010, a ragtag group of Singaporean filmmakers decided to make a documentary about Old Changi Hospital. As is the case with every single found footage horror film ever made, some very bad things ensue.

The Lowdown:
I think it’s safe to say that Singaporeans love ghost stories. For immediate proof, one need look no further than the perpetually bestselling local book series entitled True Singapore Ghost Stories, which has gone on to spawn not only various imitators from other publishing houses, but also a television series and as many as twenty-one official sequels since the first volume’s publication in 1989. While contemporary Singaporean films range from the broad comedies of Jack Neo to the art films of Eric Khoo, the national fascination with the macabre has gradually crept its way onscreen in recent years. While there have been plenty of horror comedies and straight-up horror films, Haunted Changi (2010) marks the first Singaporean attempt at a found footage horror film. 

 The Singaporean government’s worst nightmare: graffiti.

The title of the movie refers to Old Changi Hospital (OCH), which was shut down in 1997, but has a long, tortured history dating back to World War II. In the film, we follow an independent film crew composed of director Andrew Lau (Andrew Lua), producer Sheena Chung (Sheena Chan), soundman Farid Azlam (Farid Assalam), and cameraman Audi Khalis (Audie Khalid) as they explore the history of OCH for a feature documentary. The film builds slowly, taking its sweet time to properly set up the background history of Old Changi Hospital through various “man on the street” interviews.  According to the locals, the alleged horrors lurking inside Old Changi range from the ghosts of Japanese invaders during World War II to a Pontianak, a vampire-like creature from Malay folklore.






Things start to get out of hand.

There aren’t many genuine scares in the first thirty or so minutes of Haunted Changi, but the film does manage to build a palpable sense of dread in anticipation for what will come next. Soon enough, things take a dramatic turn, as Andrew claims to have met a Chinese national named Xiao Juan who has taken up residence inside Old Changi Hospital as a squatter. Andrew embarks on private interviews with this mysterious woman, which provokes—quite artificially, I might add—the jealous ire of Sheena, his producer. 

Andrew’s fascination with the girl from China turns quickly to obsession, as he grows wan and sickly after his frequent visits with her. Not long after, a frightening incident during night shoots causes Sheena and Farid to grow leery of continuing the documentary, but Andrew—like most arrogant directors in these found footage movies—is far too ambitious for his own good and returns with his cameraman to discover the truth about Old Changi Hospital. Bad idea.

Presumably taking their cues from The Blair Witch Project (1999), the marketing team behind Haunted Changi took great pains to convince the public of the film’s veracity, even starting a crew blog and fake Facebook pages for each of their actors to create an air of verisimilitude. While the film was actually written and directed by Tony Kern, the conceit of Haunted Changi centers on the idea that the footage we’re watching was purchased and edited together by a production company, which has decided to release the film in theaters. To its credit, Haunted Changi doesn’t seem “cheap,” despite its presumably small budget. In fact, it superbly replicates the look and feel of the kind of slick, supernatural-themed documentaries one would find on U.S. basic cable, albeit one where there will be a gruesome, rather banal payoff. 


 A question all found footage movies should be forced to address.

I also have to give the filmmakers credit for taking the time to address some of the major problems that tends to plague found footage movies; namely, considering all the horrible stuff happening, a) why is the film crew still shooting the movie and b) how are they getting such impossibly good shots?  Haunted Changi resolves this issue by having at least one  camera mounted on a helmet on the director’s head, so no matter what happens, everything we see is presumably from his perspective, rather than through a conscious effort to “get the shot” no matter the cost. If the film contains an impossible shot or some other kind of egregious cinematic cheat, I didn’t detect it.

I also liked that the characters weren’t trapped in the hospital and could come and go as they pleased. The fact that we spend time with Andrew, Sheena, Farid, and Audi as they head back to the editing bay after each day’s shoot allows for crucial moments of character development, which isn’t exactly prone to happen if the characters are screaming their heads off from the very first frame. I also love how the television show, Ghost Hunters International gets lampooned by having a local chapter of the group arrive to save the day, only to watch them turn tail when things take a serious turn.

Despite my appreciation for these elements, Haunted Changi isn’t without its problems. I think director Tony Kern makes a major blunder by choosing to give away a crucial scene from the climax in the opening moments of the film. The “begin at the end and then start from the beginning” structure is a tired clich√© , and it doesn’t seem like an effective way to begin a documentary, especially if that’s exactly what the film is pretending to be. I would also fault the film for making us endure long stretches of footage taken from the POV of the headmounted camera in which nothing actually happens. I often felt like I was watching someone playing a first person shooter, as he or she roamed down long, seemingly endless corridors without any competition in sight. While the technique is inherently creepy—you can’t help but wonder what kind of horrors lurk around each corner or what image will be in the frame this time that wasn’t there before –it also gets repetitive and a little dizzying for the viewer to endure. Thankfully, there’s an effective payoff to all this running around, but I’m not sure the journey was worth the destination. 

The film also can’t seem to decide what kind of antagonist we’re dealing with—the spirits of long-dead Japanese soldiers, their headless victims, former patients of the hospital, or a straight-up vampire. The suggestion at the end is that we’re dealing with ALL of them, but that revelation only seems to dilute the scares rather than ratchet them up. It would have perhaps been more effective if the filmmakers thought they were exploring one kind of supernatural entity, only to discover something far worse instead.

Ultimately, Haunted Changi amounts to a mostly polished, surprisingly impressive example of indie horror cinema coming out of Singapore. It is by no means the best or scariest found footage horror film I’ve seen, and I certainly had a number of problems with the finished product. However, from a cultural and technical standpoint, I found Haunted Changi to be an involving, if not consistently terrifying variation on an otherwise tired genre.

The Package:

The film boasts a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that was surprisingly sharp for this kind of DVD release. On the audio front, the English language track is in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound with optional subtitles for Westerners who might have difficulty understanding the actors’ Singlish – i.e. English with a Singaporean twist. The DVD includes The Fall of Singapore, an almost twenty-four minute WWII-era documentary produced and directed by Sherman Grinberg detailing the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The crew blog is archived on the DVD, so you can see the original blogger account and fake Facebook pages for some of the characters. And finally, the film contains the first three chapters of a non-existent book that details one character’s experience during the aftermath of the events depicted in Haunted Changi, including the theatrical release. Chapter three ends abruptly with a really killer “punchline” that was so strong I wish it would’ve been incorporated into the finished film somehow. The DVD also contains over five minutes of behind the scenes footage, albeit hidden as an Easter Egg in the Special Features menu.  

Rating:

3 out of 5.



No comments: