INNER SENSES (2002) review

The worldwide triumph of The Sixth Sense in 1999 led to a wave of horror films from everywhere, trying to be as narratively clever, emotionally grounded and atmospherically potent as M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece. Of course, Hong Kong tried its hand at it, but while its most famous outing in this genre was undoubtebly The Pang brothers’ The Eye in 2002, Law Chi Leung’s Inner Senses pre-dates it by a few months and beats it by a few notches in quality. It has the tragic distinction of being superstar Leslie Cheung’s last film before his suicide in 2002, aged only 46. The suicide note he left pointed towards some kind of long-lasting, hidden sense of despair, which happens to find an eerie echo in film’s plot.

In the film, Cheung Yan (Karena Lam) is a young translator who moves in a new flat to turn a new leaf after a messy break-up with her boyfriend. When she starts seeing ghosts (it’s not clear whether she was seeing any before moving to her new place), ghosts who could actually be those of her landlord’s (Norman Chu) wife and son who died years ago, her sister and brother-in-law (Valerie Chow and Waise Lee) construe it as a form of psychological distress and call upon the services of Jim Law (Leslie Cheung), a lonely and dedicated psychologist. As the therapy proceeds, Jim and Yan start falling in love, but he pushes her back in the name of ethics. A fiercely pragmatic man, he doesn’t believe in ghosts and considers her affliction a side-effect of her long-time estrangement from careless parents and her troubled love life : her ex-boyfriend didn’t simply break up with her, he ran away from her, scared by her brutally controlling ways. But as Yan edges closer to some kind of psychological recovery, Jim in turn starts seeing the ghost of a mysterious schoolgirl, which brings back a long-buried secret of his past…

For a film that sets itself up as a horror film of sorts, Inner Senses is surprisingly light on scares. Shocks are kept to a minimum, and the film’s pace is dangerously languid at times, though it does conjure a few hair-raising visions of decaying bodies staring mournfully at the character, an image that is now a bonafide cliché, but in 2001 was still somewhat fresh. But the film only masquerades as horror. What it is at its heart, is really an affecting character study built around the theme of guilt, one of the primary destructive forces of this world, how we work our way against or around it. Yan and Jim are fleshed-out characters, their relationship feels real, and you almost get the feeling the film would have been just as effective without the ghosts. Law Chi Leung’s direction is assured and the atmosphere he conjures with the help of Peter Kam’s moving and insidious score serves the film’s purpose perfectly, as it can be construed either as macabre or as one of despair, or as both.

The cast is uniformly excellent : Karena Lam gives a subtle and affecting performance in a role that could easily have been made annoying by a lesser actress, Waise Lee brings a reassuring levity to his scenes, while Norman Chu is superbly ambiguous as the landlord who might just be a madman ; only Valerie Chow is wasted in a nothing role. But it is of course Leslie Cheung who anchors the film with a tour-de-force performance that sees him slowly going from a pragmatic, assured psychologist to a emotionally wrecked human being on the brink of self-destruction. Seeing this, one cannot help but wonder why he took this film, if not as some kind of therapy against whatever was gnawing at him. It is of course useless to ponder, but still, the emotional distress his character goes through and the suicidal pulsions he feels are so close to the reality of Cheung’s suicide shortly after, that art and life meld into a strange, doom-ladden swan song.

Long Story Short : Deftly directed and superbly acted, though a bit languidly paced, Inner Senses is more character study than horror film, and is made all the more poignant by Leslie Cheung’s tragic suicide shortly after its release. ****


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