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Capsule Reviews

Diary    (2006)
Sometimes when you're being derivative good things transpire, and that in itself can deliver a more shocking revelation than all the cheesy FX and predictable chillers put together.

This is what happens with The Diary, a foray once more into the Pang Brothers breech with their entourage of Thai filmmakers and knack for intelligent gore. After the disappointing Re-Cycle set the prolific siblings back a bit, it's pleasant to see them back in moderately satisfying form with a short yet titillating release timed nicely for the Halloween season.

On the surface, The Diary seems like it's bound for also-ran perdition, hinting just a slight too much at working that tired old The Eye magic one time too many. Even its main star, Charlene Choi, puts on a spectacular Angelica Lee imitation to the point where at the onset of proceedings wary viewers will be tempted to give up and call it a write off.

Do not: perseverance here is a bona fide virtue, and The Diary has going for it more than meets, well, the eye. Ironically, those very fears of this effort descending into a realm of rip-off fiascoes save it from a fate worse than celluloid death. As soon as one thinks they've seen it before, which they have in many ways, The Diary comes charging through to twist those well-worn elements and throw our own jaded sights right back at us.

Choi dabbles in some of her best acting yet as disturbed Winnie (Leung Wing Ni we believe in the original Cantonese), a lone young woman trapped in a bizarrely old-fashioned dwelling full of marionettes and assorted memories. She has a diary going on, although it's not as imperative to events as the title suggests. Instead, this film revolves around perceptions, memories and knowing what's real. The prime horror here aren't ghosts, devils or monsters, but the worst enemy a person could ever have: their own mind.

Winnie struggles with sadness and guilt over the parting of her boyfriend Seth, until meeting another man whom she believes to look remarkably like the flame lost. However, this entanglement soon also takes on sinister undertones. The man, Ray, offers scant solace and never truly feels to Winnie the way a significant other should. Wonder why. Ray's done by Shawn Yu, an excellent performer in his own right and worthy successor to sensitive-manly icons a la Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung. Yue deploys his full range of down-to-earth but superlative tricks to help immerse us in the story, making up for The Diary's obvious genre associations and further highlighting serious acting going on here.

Another boon comes from Isabella Leung (accidentally credited as Isabbela), doing Winnie's friend and sounding board, although, much like Ray, she too never really behaves the way you'd expect from someone who cares.

The trio move around The Diary's reality, or lack thereof, with a pervasive sense of malaise, affecting the movie's delectable mood of diseased uncertainty. We must again mention their surprising and impressive work as seen here, something to write about, home or otherwise. They're not usually considered part of the annual awards posse, and so it's quite gratifying to behold the potent characterizations rendered so eloquently for the benefit of audiences willing to look past pop-star prejudices.

Coupled with dozens of genuinely puzzling moments and several startling devices, they add up to a promising product that's by far the best Pang Bros outing since The Eye itself wowed us over four years ago.

Despite its reasonable IIB rating, The Diary fields some gore and more than that beckons with the suggestion of things terrible lurking in the background. Its staunch refusal to commit to specifics such as time and place defy the desire to put it in neat brackets. There's dated entries from the diary Winnie keeps, but those eventually turn out to mean next to nothing in themselves. As for geography, the close-cropped cinematography denies the broad vistas needed for reassurances, as visuals deny audiences the comfort of knowing where and why anecdotes unfold. All we see are basically glimpses or brief vignettes of apartments, markets and office buildings. There's very little context, an important tool in establishing surrealism. However, this could conceivably have something to do with the Pangs maybe trying to pass the mainland off for HK due to cost cutting. Another mystery, apparently.

Its short runtime alludes to The Diary's potential as a chapter in a Three... Extremes-esquire project, as does Winnie with her penchant for "cookery". But just when it could have bowed out on a note of unresolved malice, its makers run away and close with extra scenes consisting of resolution we could have done better without.

Even so, and despite lacking the brute force of a mind blower, The Diary has enough pseudo-horror intelligence and winding twists to be enjoyable. It likely won't stand the test of time in the long run, but nonetheless does something to inject more life into a thread of movie-making beset with settling for average and using one pasty-faced protagonist too many.

For those on the prowl and looking to sink gnashing teeth into something fun and dark at the same time, The Diary comes recommended. (8/10)
Lee Alon 11/1/2006 - top

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 11/1/2006 Lee Alon

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