The film opens with frustrated best-selling author, Tsui Ting-Yin, whose muse seems to have vanished as quickly as her last love interest. This is unfortunate seeing as how her agent has just prematurely announced her latest release (agents don’t actually do this in real life, publishers do, but bear with me here), aptly titled Re-Cycle. Surprise, surprise, it’s a horror novel.
Next ensues a series of events that are your typical Asian horror-flick fare; greasy dark hair showing up in creepy places, water in even creepier places, and lots of walking that was filmed backwards, only to be played forwards, to give you that something’s-wrong-here-but-I-don’t-know-what feeling. But don’t hit the eject button just yet because…it all goes to hell in a hand basket. The Pang brothers essentially drop kick Ting-Yin into a horrific landscape that’s a bit reminiscent of the fantasy world created for What Dreams May Come.
If What Dreams May Come had frozen zombie-like people, and all of the supernatural entities from The Ring, Poltergeist, and the original Phantasm combined.
The brilliance of the transition here from ordinary horror flick, to extraordinary filmmaking, is how subtle and yet startling it is. Ting-Yin enters the elevator (you know, the one where the lighting never works) in her apartment building along with an elderly grandmother and her grand daughter, but when she steps out and turns around in the hall of the ground floor she sees the other two passengers stay put. Insert eerie pause for effect. They then proceed to go through the floor: Subtle, simple even, yet strangely horrifying.
Ting-Yin runs out of the building in terror and exits into the “other” world mentioned above, and there the pace picks up dramatically. The CGI is visual eye candy—well done and unexpected in its presentation. The colors are beautiful, the camera work clever, and the acting, while not outstanding, is consistent enough to be a cohesive part of the movie and not detract from its depth.
In the second half of Re-Cycle, there is very little use of the negative action that’s typically used to generate tension in a film. Instead, buildings turn upside down, horrific creatures come from the depths, and laws of gravity are broken all in a split second, providing plenty of “jump out of your seat” kind of moments.
In addition to providing constant visual interest, the sound track of this film is truly award-worthy. It pulls heartstrings, fuels anticipation, and fluidly pulls the viewer through one terrific frame to the next without ever feeling overdone or pretentious.
Several twists and turns provide for an interesting ride for the remainder of the film, including the reason for the alternate reality. Some viewers may take offense to it, as it is as controversial as it is unexpected. Looking for a spoiler? Sorry, you’ll have to watch it for yourself. Rest assured though, whether you appreciate the biggest twist or not, the film does wrap back around fully to where it began. The viewer isn’t left with any loose ends—only some unsettling thoughts surrounding whether or not our reality is quite what we think it is.
The themes are weighty: Abandonment, societal pressure, familial obligations, and cultural norms and traditions. Re-cycle won awards in Hong Kong for its special effects, but was received with mixed reviews in the U.S. More than a few well-respected critics have held the film to the grinding stone for having what they deem to be a thin plot, poorly developed characters, and no explanation for the CGI gymnastics. But, this isn’t your average horror/dark fantasy film. The creep factor in the first half of the film is second to the deeper horrors presented in the second half; fears like the fear of death and dying, or aging and being forgotten by the younger generation, or even the fear of failure and cultural condemnation. For viewers with an appetite for psychological thrillers and intelligent dramas, no detailed explanation is necessary.
As far as the accusation of poorly developed characters, this reviewer is under the general impression that the Pang brothers never intended it to be about the lead characters, but more about engaging the individual viewer. And isn’t that where the real efficacy of fright films are? In your own mind?
If you’re looking for gore and violence, look elsewhere. If you’re looking for something similar to Pang Brother’s previous hit, The Eye, give it a shot. You might be surprised by what they’ve done with Asian horror tropes. Be prepared to use your brain though…this isn’t a movie where you can press play, then check in on occasion.
Overall, the film could be interpreted a number of ways. So, if you happen to hate the “big deal” at the end, you can view it from the aspect of Ting-Yin being an author and how that pertains to a writer’s, or artist’s creations and ideas. That likely won’t make any sense till you’ve seen the film, but to watch it knowing the spoiler would be like knowing Bruce Willis is dead in Sixth Sense. It’s just not the same.