Review: 'Ghost Child' - Supernatural Foreign Talents

The first word that came to my mind when the ghost child revealed its face was – Gollum. It was a dimunitive but bloody little alien-creature that had carnivorous teeth. And what little fingers it has too! It is little wonder that if you google the word Ghost Child, you can already find a dozen spoofs of it in the form the famous Gollum from J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

So for those who want a horror movie that titillates the senses yet does not make you lose that much sleep, Ghost Child directed by Gilbert Chan is something to consider. It is like sitting in ‘The Mummy’ adventure ride at Universal Studios – there are scares a plenty but you leave wanting to take home some of the Mummy-themed souvenirs at the gift shop.

Ghost Child is Glibert’s second feature film and also his second attempt at horror after the success of 2359. It borrows a concept native to the Nusantara roots of the region – that of a Toyol (Malay word for Ghost Child). A Toyol is said to be reared by some people with the dark intention of stealing valuables and money from others – somehow the Toyol has a way of siphoning the goods. But this child of a spirit is high-maintenance, you need to feed it milk and give it toys. And if you witness people praying to dead foetus stored in a jar, that’s the earthly proxy of the actual spirit.

In a satirical fashion, the story rests on an interplay of cultures between an everyday Singaporean heartlander family and a foreigner in the form of an Indonesian wife. It borrows the concept of a cultural transplant, picking up something unknown to the local setting to set the stage for fear. The story’s lead (played by Chen Han Wei) rescues an Indonesian lady running away from bullies who want something from her, marries her and brings her to Singapore, unknowingly bringing along an eerie change of fengshui in his family flat.

Then comes the cliché – strange things start to happen in the family – random cries and laughter of a child, doors opening by themselves, moving bumps underneath the blanket and an ominous chucky-like doll who likes to give the flat’s inhabitants some blips in their heart beats. In parallel, Kim, the daughter of Chen Han Wei’s character, starts to experience the uncanny in school in he form of better brains and brawns. She beats her bitchy classmates both in the test and in the pool, but at near-fatal costs to her antagonists, freaking her out. Perhaps the creepiest moment for me was when the grandmother tries to dispose eerie chucky-doll down the rubbish chute and it falls with letting out a spine-tingling shriek, only muffled by the lid on the chute and the director just has to make her try to open it again out of curiosity! (Not going to tell you what happens!)

The pressure is on for the family to escape its jinxed abode but the father is waiting for a pot of gold to be released from an ex-business partner. With a touch of greed, a knowing deviant turn from the conscience and a little whiff of Toyol magic, the family finally gets what they want at the expense of some tragedy. This is also when even stranger things start to happen, and the film seems to be saying we are running out of time and we need to surface the ghost child soon. The film reaches a resolution point when Na, the Indonesian wife tries to explain what she might have brought on to the family from her troubled past and makes a decision to move on to set the family free from disturbance.

The film story arc can be seen as the struggle of a foreign bride trying to find a better life for herself but cannot loosen off baggage from the past and is caught in frequent dilemma. If the film had kept to the intensity of a thoughtfully layered story like this, it would have created a poignant horror film that stirs the conscience and hits a resonant chord in many. Unfortunately, the film tends to diverge into the ‘high school’ sub-plot playing up a different sub-genre which has little consequence to the development of Toyol’s adventures with the family and only provides a platform for scare tactics.

The richness of the myth of the Toyol provides fodder for painting a flavourful back story. Unfortunately, this is revealed in hurry towards the end of the movie, not allowing enough time for us to appreciate Na’s poignant past or the vengeful spirit of the Toyol. However, the film does a good tease with the establishment of Kim’s mother’s recent death and her speculation that her mother’s spirit might be responsible for the ominous sightings and hearings. Many horror films play the guessing game with its audience on the identity of the supernatural being in question in the film. In Ghost Child, Gilbert does the same and shrewdly plants a few no-show-scares in the film to edge our curiosity on further. After having sustained the mystery for so long, Na, the Indonesian wife lets the whole cat out of the bag a little quickly. The past has caught up and we need time to buy it. There was not enough time.

Amazingly, this is Chen Han Wei’s film debut. Hard to believe but true. He pulls in a credible performance as the anchor while Jayley plays Kim, the troubled reclusive teen with honesty. On the other hand, Carmen Soo who plays the Indonesian, while delivering the right expressions, cripples her own performance with the use of Mandarin, which seems to dilute the flavour and motivations of her character Na. The ‘sinicisation’ of this character through her use of Mandarin and her complete assimilation into the daily rituals of a Chinese Singaporean family, makes it seem fictional. It is incredulous that she could transform herself so quickly from runaway village native in Indonesia to a localized HDB housewife. Then again, it’s not Carmen’s call. Point to note also that the grandmother steals the show at several points of time, sometimes with her punctuated acting, sometimes with her Pontianak-like hair.

I can’t help but feel a sense of ‘sameness’ about Ghost Child for its formulaic approach to creating scares. Even though no local movie has dealt with Toyols before, Ghost Child unfortunately does not richen the Singapore horror vocabulary that deeply. It is a moderately exciting journey to sit through the movie and it succeeds in delivering some very professionally-timed scares. But if I close my eyes, I find it is difficult to visualize a defining identity the movie carries. But there is still one – Google. I walk away from Ghost Child learning that I can actually be a part-time priest with the help of Google. Light a few candles, prick your finger for some blood and you will be ready to communicate with the nether world. Watching Kim google answers to dealing with the supernatural provided not just comic relief but it leaves us with a question in horror films – can we be smarter than ghosts?

Review by Jeremy Sing
Ghost Child is currently showing in several major cinemas.

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