Of late, the freshness and exotic vitality seems to have faded from Western perceptions of the modern Asian horror boom; the goodwill that was once reliably extended by Western horror fans to every and any entry in the genre, has long since been replaced by a jaded cynicism. There is the feeling that the elements that previously set the sub-genre apart from its predictable and clichéd Western brethren are now being consciously milked for all they're worth by jobbing Asian filmmakers who're increasingly more concerned with trying to second guess the tastes of foreign markets than expressing the uniqueness of their culture through the populist genre of the horror film — even though this was the very quality that made the work so appealing in the first place! True, there are still a few mavericks around, such as the inimitable Japanese cinefile Takashi Miike; but with such an unpredictable talent, there tend to be at least five times as many misses as hits in his -- admittedly prodigious -- output!
As many key directors in Asian horror move to Hollywood in order to remake their own style in a westernised form, so recent home-grown, Asian efforts have started to display every sign of looking more toward these foreign, reconstituted "copies" for their inspiration; in the process, many of them have ending up feeling more formulaic than the Hollywood product they once so easily humiliated for lack of imagination! Not all is lost though -- there are still signs that long-haired female ghosties have a little more to offer the thrill-hungry horror fan: the low-budget effort "Cursed" (not to be confused with the Wes Craven, Werewolf snooze-O-thone of course) displayed wit, originality and playfulness in its DV-shot riff on suppressed, ancient beliefs returning to take revenge on the shoppers at a twenty-four hour convenience store. Though the Asian horror genre has now solidified into a handful of predictable tropes and thematic concerns, this doesn't necessarily mean it has nothing left to offer -- just that it is simply no longer enough to throw long-haired girls in white dresses with jerky movements at the screen and expect this to send audiences and critics into instant paroxysms of feverish praise!
Into this harsh and much more demanding climate then, Anchor Bay UK thrust the inaugural release of their brand new "Dark Asia" label! Probably the leading purveyor of genre product in the UK at the moment, it is somewhat surprising that AB UK have taken this long to exploit the fashion for Asian horror -- allowing other companies to cash-in with UK releases of "Ringu" and "Ju-On". But, it seems, Dark Asia is planning something much more ambitious than simply rehashing proven Asian money-makers for a UK market: instead, AB UK/Dark Asia is looking to become "a leading force in bringing new, high quality horror productions direct from Asia to the UK", to quote the company's own press release. The film they have chosen to lead the way in this new venture is "The Commitment": the debut effort by young Thai director Montri Kong-im, which, as yet, remains unreleased in North America.
Thailand scored a resounding bulls-eye with the Pang Brothers' critically acclaimed modern ghost story, "The Eye"; but, since then, the country has struggled to produce credible, popular equivalents to this much lauded entry in Thailand's horror genre. "Bangkok Haunted" was very much a hit & miss affair; while the once promising Pang Brothers themselves, have since been content to wheel out a succession of increasingly derided sequels to their one big horror smash hit! "The Commitment" doesn't look likely to buck the trend and rather typifies the fashion for creeping commercialisation in the Asian horror market. Despite flashes of brilliance, Kong-im's film, though slick and occasionally disturbing, has essentially nothing new to add to the genre and rapidly descends into a predictable trot through every western horror cliché in the book!
The film starts off promisingly enough and looks set to develop into an interesting and unusual variation on Asian horror themes incorporating Thai Buddhist beliefs & traditions surrounding spirit houses. Thai Buddhism combines ancient animistic beliefs about spirits of the land with traditional Buddhist practices -- and spirit houses are still built in the grounds of most Thai houses and businesses in order to placate the spirits by offering them a shelter and providing a site to offer gifts so as to stop the mischievous spirits interfering with human affairs in a destructive way. "The Commitment" at first seems to be trying to merge these specifically Thai beliefs with the well-known obsessions of Japanese and Korean horror: a group of Thai teenage girls are worried about facing their college entrance exams; but, nevertheless, decide to fill their time by visiting a supposedly haunted house that has been left derelict for many years. In the garden, outside the house, is a spirit house shrine which is still being maintained -- despite the emptiness of the house it was originally erected to protect -- and a few of the girls request that the spirits of the shrine help them pass their entrance exams in return for a small "payment". One of the girls, Moss (Prangthong Changthorm) is not entirely serious in the endeavour and makes a mocking, half-hearted pledge that affects the fate of her two best friends, Mauy (Pinsuda Tanphairoh) and Pin (Viritipa Pakdeeprasong). Unknown to all, the ghost of a vengeful murdered female inhabits the site and is determined to extract payment in the most extreme manner for granting the small wishes of the teenage friends!
To its benefit, the film does spend a considerable amount of time exploring the relationship between the girls and the beliefs that shape the culture they belong to; and, despite a bungled sequence near the start, where the girls' exploration of the haunted house is shot in a flat and uninteresting way that owes more to Western, B-movie teen slashers than the best of Asian horror, Kong-im does manage to inject some of the colour of Thai attitudes to the supernatural into the material. As with many Japanese entries in the genre, the girls' modernity (they're forever tapping away on internet message boards, texting or phoning each other on flashy miniaturised mobile phones, or recording their exploits on digital camcorders) is contrasted with the ancient rituals and beliefs of the culture -- in this case surrounding the spirit house. There is a rather conservative punitive streak to the film's subtext since the girls are portrayed as having become blasé and mocking of their culture's traditions -- perhaps through prolonged exposure to the trappings of modern technology -- and it is this lack of seriousness in their attitude toward the supernatural that leads to the terrible events that eventually befall them.
This is a rather common theme in Asian horror of course, but it is drummed home here with such a lack of subtlety that it actually becomes quite hectoring! The director even says, in the short interview featured elsewhere on the disc, that the film is intended as a moral lesson for teenagers to be more careful in what they say and how they behave! A morally strengthening horror film seems like a contradiction in terms to many in the West, but it actually results in the film featuring a lot more horrific content than most other Asian horrors, which usually rely almost completely on atmosphere. Once the ghostly shenanigans begin proper, Kong-im takes his cue from films such as "Ringu" and "Ju-On", and we are treated to some fairly robust scenes of long-haired, white dressed, ghostie ghoulishness that, though entirely derivative of their Japanese sources, are, nonetheless, quite effective. The nasty punishments that the ghost spirit inflicts on some of the girls are unusually gory and graphic though -- lending these scenes more of an edge than is usually present in their Japanese cousins. Particularly unpleasant is a scene where one of the girls' hair falls out in bloody clumps, and another, where two girls are possessed into self-harming by means of hacking at their arms and wrists with pieces of broken glass, is particularly wince-making!
Kong-im shows flashes of vitality in his direction in a few of these sequences, but it is not long before the film's Western influences take over and it ends up sliding into a derivative check list of horror clichés: un-scary "shock" moments that can be seen coming a mile away; dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream sequences (no doubt included to pad out the floundering story line which has long since run out of ideas by this stage). The old shock tactic where a figure suddenly appears in the reflection of a mirror is now so past its sell-by date that both Tobe Hopper's remake of "The Toolbox Massacre" and "Switchblade Romance" recently satirised it! Here it is again though -- dished up without any irony whatsoever! Unbelievably, the shower scene from 'Psycho" is reprised complete with snapping shower curtain and blood draining down the plug hole! No doubt this is a deliberate homage, but unfortunately it must be the millionth such homage since "Psycho" was first released in 1960!
Energy is also leeched away from proceedings by an unusually lifeless audio track. Asian horror movies have always been notable for their scary soundtracks full of strange rumbling ambient noises -- this element has been more instrumental in creating the atmospheric chills of the best examples in the genre than almost anything else. Here, an opportunity is wasted with an uneventful and unimaginative audio track that adds little to the film's punch. Worse still, its generic incidental music score sounds cheap and tacky and emphasises every on-screen event in a very unsubtle and boring way.
Anchor Bay UK/Dark Asia present "The Commitment" in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer that captures the pleasant and sometimes colourful nature of the film's photography quite well, but is marred by a general softness of image and occasional artefacts such as ghosting which leads one to conclude that it is probably the result of an NTSC to PAL conversion. The audio features consist of 2.0 Stereo, 5.1 surround sound, and optional DTS. The film's audio design is so flaccid that one does not particularly gain much from the addition of these last two options though!
Extras initially look impressive: we get interviews with the director and three of the film's female stars (4:3 non-anamorphic) which can be viewed separately or together in one block. Unfortunately, the combined running time of all of these is little more than ten minutes -- so don't expect anything too in-depth! The disc also includes a non-anamorphic, letterboxed trailer for the film.
"The Commitment" is a watchable but unimpressive addition to the genre then, with only the occasional hint that its young director has anything more to offer than bland rehashes of Western slasher movie clichés.