Like many Pang Brothers fans, I was excited to see the sibling writer/director team’s 2006 film Re-Cycle finally make its US DVD debut. On the heels of the pedestrian supernatural thriller The Messengers and the most recent Nicholas Cage gag reel, Bangkok Dangerous, a remake of their own 1999 debut, I was eager to wash the taste of Hollywood flop from my mouth and get back to what the Pang Brothers do best: tense, tight supernatural thrillers.
Reuniting with Angelica Lee, the star of their biggest hit The Eye, the sibling duo took a big swing with Re-Cycle, aiming to craft a scary, moving, visually spectacular movie that would even make people think—a home run of a film that would let them transcend their roots in spooky thrillers and action-packed melodramas. Unfortunately, Re-Cycle suffers from the problem common to most big swings: flaming out on the warning track rather than living up to its own expectations.
One of the problems is that, while the Pang Brothers may want to do something that goes beyond a standard horror movie, they bring a big bag full of the genre’s clichés along with them. Writer Ning Yu (Lee) is struggling on her anticipated next novel, a horror fantasy tale whose discarded notions seem to be coming to life around her even as she tosses them on the scrap heap. Standard issue long haired ghosts pass behind translucent screens before flitting out of frame while rattling, raspy moans and cries issue from dark corners and answering machines. Want to see something scary? Just be sure to look over the main character’s shoulder!
But after a mundane opening which will leave anyone with even a beginner’s background in Asian horror cinema with a distinct sense of déjà vu, Re-Cycle is off to the races. Yu finds herself brusquely dumped into a terrifying alternate reality that plays home to all the abandoned things of the world. Just how she arrives here is never quite addressed, but it’s a fault easily forgotten amidst the stunning imagery on display.
Dreary ghettos peter out in sheer cliffs. Bodies rain from the sky before springing to life. And it’s here that Re-Cycle comes into its own, resembling at it’s best a dark fantasia reminiscent of a grown up Dark Crystal. The Pangs Land of the Lost recalls Carrol’s Wonderland imagined by David Fincher, a looking glass world of washed out colors, broken windows and squealing hinges that boasts quite a few genuinely novel visual treats.
With so much eye candy going around, it’s a shame that the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to put more effort into crafting the story behind all of it. The irony inherent in a movie about ideas that get thrown out desperately needing some basic story editing is apparently lost on the Pang Brothers. The directors could have played fair, giving the audience enough breadcrumbs to hash out things for themselves.
Instead, they cut back to scenes that viewers have been denied. The plot twists trudge along predictably, and the film’s big reveal is weighed down by a ‘Gotcha!’ mentality that leaves one feeling cheated. The result is a muddled climax to a story that manages to seem predictable while not making much sense.
It’s also a reflection of the poor editing on display in Re-Cycle, in which twitchy camerawork is too often substituted for real action or suspense. The Pang’s lens seems indecisive, over-eager to capture a scene from every perspective, jumping around when it should choose a shot and take it.
But even this would be more forgivable if the filmmakers hadn’t tried to substitute a fumbling and heavy handed anti-abortion message in lieu of bothering to write a third act. This tactless subplot comes off as a high-inded morality play directed at Hong Kong audiences who are deeply conflicted about abortion, which remains a shameful taboo in polite society despite Hong Kong having the highest abortion rate in the developed world.
But the film’s take on the controversial issue also served as a marketing tool during its initial release, as evidenced in the special features footage of the Hong Kong premiere. This speaks to a less than noble desire to have it both ways, especially evident when Oxide mentions that he wants audiences not only to be scared, but to also “get the message” of the film. On what exactly that message is, though, he remains conspicuously silent.
Unpleasant preachiness aside, it’s distinctly possible that the Pang Brothers will make another film that reminds audiences why it seemed like these guys might be a big deal not too long ago. With films like Forest of Death still unreleased in the US and the effects laden action epic Storm Warriors in post production, it’s possible they already have. But despite its pretty face, Re-Cycle is not that film.
Instead, the film’s half-baked plot, ham-fisted morality and uneven, often sloppy editing, only serve to drive home the notion that the Danny and Oxide Pang are one-dimensional filmmakers who aren’t quite ready for primetime.