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Naraka 19

Gillian Chung visits Hell in Naraka 19.

Chinese: 地獄第19層
Year: 2007  
Director: Carol Lai Miu-Suet
Producer: Catherine Hun
Writer: Carol Lai Miu-Suet, Thirteen Chan
Cast: Gillian Chung Yun-Tung, Vincy Chan Wing-Yee, Bonnie Xian, Shaun Tam Chun-Yin, Patrick Tam Yiu-Man, Jones Xu, Maggie Li, James Wong Ka-Lok, Calvin Choi Yat-Chi, Michelle Mai Suet, Yan Ng Yat-Yin, Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin
The Skinny: Intriguing but not very fulfilling. This based-on-an-Internet-novel horror film is too gimmicky to take seriously, and too remote to really affect. It manages to interest, but ultimately proves muddled and rather inconclusive. At the very least this is a decent ride for interested teens and Twins fans. That's probably not everyone, though.
by Kozo:

Based on a popular Internet novel, Naraka 19 is Hong Kong's latest attempt at the youth-targeted horror film, and is dressed up with pseudo-psychological themes and generous helpings of CG. Carol Lai (The Floating Landscape) directs this labored, but still intriguing effort, which stars one of those ever-popular Twins girls. Gillian Chung is the Twin du jour this time; Chung plays Rain, a perfect-complexioned princess who checks into a college dormitory suite along with pals Mandy (Bonnie Xin), Violet (new EEG starlet Vincy), and Eva (Maggie Li). The suite is your standard used-and-abused four-person room, except this place comes with bad karma: back in 1997, bohemian stud Gao Yuan (Jones Xu) offed himself in the same room, and the bad times are now coming home to roost. Not only is Gao Yuan seemingly wandering the halls of the school in 2007, but the quartet of girls seem to be following him to Hell, one-by-one.

The "Hell" on offer here isn't figurative, but actually literal. The title is a reference to the 18 levels of Hell described in Buddhist lore ("Naraka" is Sanskrit for the underworld - yay, Wikipedia!), and somehow the girls of Naraka 19 manage to enter a "game" where they travel to each level of Hell, in hopes of passing through them all and reaching a fabled 19th level. The means of playing this game are like this: the girls get invited via a text message, and at the appointed time, they manage to warp into a level of Hell represented onscreen via copious CG. They must face obstacles - some personal, some physical - before making it to the exit, thus solving the level and earning them passage to the next level. If they don't pass the level, then they go mad, which in the real world means they sometimes do something really severe, like killing themselves. Eva is the first player of the game, and her skills obviously lack, because she offs herself right in front of Rain's pretty little eyes. The mystery of Eva's death is what draws Rain into the game. That, and she can't ignore her SMS messages asking her to play. Modern technology: it's a curse.

Of course, kids dying is not a good thing, which is why Inspector Yip (Shaun Tam a.k.a.: son of Ti Lung) gets involved. A sloppy cop who dislikes using elevators, Yip's investigation starts with the girls and grows to encompass the history of the school, which includes Gao Yuan and his legacy of death. The big secrets behind the "game" are a combination of the occult and watered-down Buddhist lore mixed with modern technology, and explaining it all would be a spoiler. It could also be quite exhausting, as the ins-and-outs of Naraka 19 are rather involved, and the film takes so long to dispense its answers that it threatens to alienate first. The movie leaps very quickly into its visions of Hell, and the characters seldom behave in a rational manner, i.e. nobody really stops to question their sudden flirtation with eternal damnation. Their denseness is ultimately explained away, though the explanation is not overt, and the girls' continued freak-outs start to become laughable long before they make sense. Is the game these girls are playing supernatural in nature, or is it psychological? Are the girls really visiting Hell, or are they just trapped in their own minds? What's with the dog shadow seared into the wall? Why can't the girls just turn off their mobile phones to stop playing? And could the identity of the villain behind the game be any more obvious?

In the early going, Naraka 19 has a hard time convincing. The relatively quick pace introduces fantastic ideas and concepts so quickly that the audience barely has time to buy in. The film's vision of Hell also feels initially fake, because it's rendered in Re-cycle-like CG, and employs many RPG-like concepts, including the use of a mobile phone as a user interface. The girls can use their mobile phones to show them the level's exit, plus get convenient text messages offering hints or tips. The phone can even be used to select weapons or choose paths, and the existence of completion bonuses and level-skipping furthers the cheesy video game flavor of the film. Not aiding matters is the acting, which is rather uninspired. Gillian Chung makes a fetching terror victim, but brings little to the proceedings besides her omnipresent adorable looks, which never seem to get mussed. The other girls range from passable to decent, while Shaun Tam and Patrick Tam (no relation) provide effective, nondescript support. As a down-and-dirty horror film, Naraka 19 falls short because it's not disturbing or frightening enough to really connect to the audience. There is one implied grisly moment early on in the film, but after that the film is rather tame, settling for camera-induced tension and shock sound effects.

Still, the mystery of Naraka 19 is interesting, and Carol Lai manages to get some tension going through effective cross-cutting and competent commercial technique. A lot of this stuff isn't new, e.g. the pounding soundtrack, cold colors, and deadly-serious tone, but Lai uses it all decently, delivering a commercial thriller that could entertain the film's target audience. That audience - teens and young adults - would presumably settle for the photogenic young stars, their nifty mobile phone games, and the potentially dark fates that may or may not await them. Adults may not feel as charitable towards Naraka 19, as much of the film seems derivative, and the details, while intriguing, ultimately go nowhere. Naraka 19 resembles Lai's last film, the slasher-horror flick The Third Eye, in that both possess effective technique. However, both are also loaded with portentous psychobabble and intriguing, but empty details. Ultimately, Lai resorts to a marathon of exposition and explanation to connect all the dots, and while the answers are welcome, they don't provide an adequate payoff to everything that came before.

Naraka 19 ends ambiguously, which could be bad or good, depending on what you want. Those who like their movies tied up in neat little packages may feel unfulfilled, because it's not clear what the ending really accomplishes. Some characters face their personal demons head on, but the fates of others are left hanging, if not simply forgotten. Also, most of the characters are patently uninteresting and only register because they're photogenic or eat up lots of screen time. This lack of any affecting emotion renders Naraka 19 more of a clinical experience than a primal one. The best horror pictures manage to find identifiable emotions between the scares, jumps, and screams, and Naraka 19 doesn't do that, falling a step behind stuff like Re-cycle or even Diary. Still, Naraka 19 can be interesting, and manages to improve from a flat-footed and alienating start to become a watchable, albeit shallow ride. Ultimately, Naraka 19 is little more than an average commercial film for teens, and hits its marks well enough that dissing it for not being great cinema would probably be too harsh. And besides, the filmmakers find room among these levels of Hell to throw in a sly meta-reference to that inescapable phenomenon known as the Twins. For some people, it could cause groans, but for Twins fans, the reference is probably Heaven. Naraka 19 is for that second group. (Kozo 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mei Ah Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

image courtesy of Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen