'Vengeance: The Death Wish' by Ting Shin Mei

Asked why she chose to make a horror film for her final-year project, director Ting Shin Mei replied that the genre allowed for "more effects", which made it "more easy to score". One can only stand in awe of such brutal honesty, so rare among filmmakers eager to champion their films' depth. Nor could one have better summed up Vengeance, whose appeal lies solely in its lurid effects. The film pulls out the usual low-fi horror tricks: long takes on soon-to-be victims with an open doorway in the background; rapid match cuts from various women to the "angry ghost" that replaces them; bloody make-up and half-obscured angles that simulate the "ghost's" knife carving into her victims' skin.

If these money shots depict the vengeance of the title, the film's attempt at a "story" supplies its death wish. Vengeance starts not too dissimilar from a traffic awareness ad, as a woman running across the street gets knocked down, cutting to a close-up on her pocket watch. The same watch winds up on the shelf of some odds-and-ends store: no wonder some customer actually (gasp!) wants to buy it, despite the storeowner's insistence that it's not for sale. (Perhaps he feels self-conscious about lifting items off traffic-accident victims and putting them up for display.) When the customer persists that the storeowner should name a price, any price, a bald man walks over and warns her not to buy it. At this point she should have listened; I certainly would heed any omen uttered to me in a thrift store by some random bald man, though I'd suspect that he's eyeing the same object for himself, or that the two are in cahoots to fleece me for more than it's worth.

But the genre being what it is, she buys it anyway. This triggers the easy-to-score effects-laden scenes to which Ting referred, as the woman transforms through a simple cut into the "angry ghost" and tortures and kills the guy in the bedroom with her. And then, with no clear explanation, the timepiece finds its way into the hands of some other woman: rinse and repeat. There's no rhyme or reason to why these men die or who these women are; after the screening, one viewer actually asked who they were, and while the director claimed some relationship with a later character, none of it is evident from the film. Nor does it matter. The pulse of a schlocky horror film like this comes from how it makes us wince, and as the ghost drives a scalpel into her victim's skin, it achieves this goal just fine.

Yet there are other moments where we wince for the filmmaking, such as when the ghost, having carved a word onto her victim's face, asks him if he can see what she's written. It's a rhetorical question, of course, and she makes a huge fuss about bringing out a hand mirror. You'd think this would lead to a horrifying reverse-image in the mirror, but then she just tells him. "H! A! T! E!" Like a cheerleader gone wrong. The campy-ness of the whole thing undercuts the horror, so the only thing we're thinking when we finally get a full look at the ghost's handiwork is that her penmanship is pretty good.

Really, given the filmmakers' avowed reasons for making the film, it's the last kind of film that needs any pretense at a connective story, and is the worse for it when it tries. As it turns out, the ghost's last target is some guy she used to bed, and her pocketwatch was the "heirloom" he bequeathed to her (and yes, he calls it his "heirloom", in undubbed English). Fleeing from her ghost, he takes refuge in a multistorey carpark and dials not the police, but his pastor. Better, the ghost extermination service pastor turns out to be the same random bald man who was skulking around in the thrift store earlier. The pastor proceeds to vanquish the ghost with some inappropriate cross of Christian catechism and voodoo-ish hand-waving, and then absolves the guy of his sins in a church that looks suspiciously like a lecture hall.

Later, when asked what she thought about the audience's laughter in her horror film, Ting gave perhaps the classiest response that this situation could afford: "Maybe it's a failure for a horror film... but I'm glad that everyone was entertained." Entertained we might have been, but no more than we would otherwise for a film that weren't, in more ways than one, so "easy to score".

Ting Shin Mei is a graduate from Singapore's Institute of Technical Education (ITE). 'Vengeance', her final-year project, won Best Director and Best Editor in ITE's graduation showcase. It was screened as part of Substation's First Take this month.

Share:

3 cent worth