Saturday, February 5, 2011

Seventh Moon: The Innocents Abroad

Looking at my tags so far, it occurs to me that "travel abroad is a bad idea" is right up there as one of the most frequently used ones. This is probably not by accident. As a species, we tend to prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar, and this probably has an adaptive function: If we've encountered it before and it didn't have us for breakfast, then it's probably safer than something we haven't encountered before. It's a known quantity. Take us out of familiar environs, and all of a sudden we're surrounded by unknown quantities. Who do you trust? Where can you find safety? Where are you? Can you get out again? And there are all sorts of ways to evoke this sense of dislocation and unease - foreign countries are just one of the easiest. You can also take a bunch of city folk out of the city and put them in the country. They might as well be in a foreign country at that point, and with the added fillip of rural areas suggesting older, more primitive ways of doing things. In a Western horror movie, finding yourself in a rural part of a foreign country is sort of a double whammy. For Americans abroad, this is like being doubly removed from "civilization," with all that that entails.

This idea of dislocation, of not belonging here, runs throughout Seventh Moon.

Melissa and Yul are on their honeymoon in Yul's native China - they're in the process of traveling deeper into the country to meet Yul's family and are seeing the sights on their way there. The movie opens with them in a city, shopping and participating in the festival of the Seventh Moon, a time of year roughly akin to All Hallow's Eve. They burn paper offerings to the dead, who rise and walk the land on the night of the seventh moon. These offerings symbolically appease the dead, much like the candy skeletons of Dia de los Muertos or, now that I think about it, Halloween candy. Huh. That never occurred to me before.

(So if candy given to costumed children on Halloween is meant to represent gifts to monsters and the risen dead, then what the hell is going on with Easter candy?)

So, anyway. Seventh Moon. Yul and Melissa spend the day partying and drinking, and by the time they rejoin their tour guide, Mister Ping, they're pretty well lit. Yul, though Chinese, acts more like your average Western frat boy than an Asian stereotype. It's good to see, but it also reinforces this idea of dislocation - it's not really his home anymore, either. His apparently poor Cantonese reinforces this - he doesn't even really speak the language anymore. He's gotten Ping a garish commemorative t-shirt from the festival and babbles embarrassingly about this t-shirt representing the bond they share now. It's a very bro moment, and painfully out of place in this country. Melissa gives Ping a nice bottle of wine, and there's a little arguing around it - Yul wanted to keep the wine for themselves, but Melissa thought it was more appropriate than the t-shirt. Again, divisions - Melissa, as a Westerner, is very out place here, but she has a better handle on niceties than Yul. There's some tension there, and of some of it seems to be wrapped up in ethnicity. Here, they're very aware of being a mixed-race couple and there's some sharpness around that, something brittle and unresolved. 

Ping drives them out into the country to where Yul's family lives, and in doing so, gets lost. Of course he does. It wouldn't be a city-folks-in-the-country movie if someone didn't get lost.  The roads are poorly marked, it's dark, the maps aren't very good. Ping apologizes profusely and stops outside of a small village. He tells the couple to wait while he goes into the village to get directions.

An hour later, he hasn't returned, and so Yul and Melissa head into the village to look for him. What they find is a village with all of the doors locked tight, chained shut, and doors painted with blood. An assortment of live animals are penned up and tied to stakes in the village square. Nobody opens their doors, nobody offers to help. Out here, they take the Festival of the Seventh Moon a little more literally. The dead are expected to walk, and expected to require real sacrifice.

There's not much more to the story than that, and I think that's unfortunate because the filmmakers could have done more with the ideas of cultural, social, and ethnic dislocation - they hint at it, but don't really use it - and the effect of a well-developed visual sense for the movie is undermined by some pacing issues and story choices. The movie looks great and uses color well - the opening is vivid and intense, with lots of light and bright colors in the city, and as the movie goes from day to night (and at the same time from urban to rural), the color drains away until all we're left with is mostly the monochrome of night, interrupted by patches of dull red illuminated fitfully by candles and flashlights. Menacing shapes are chalk white against the darkness. It's a complete transition from one state to another. The camerawork throughout is unsteady, as if filmed using handheld cameras, but we're never given a camera as a direct reference point - nobody's explicitly filming this like in Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project, but there's also not the formal distancing of fixed or dollied cameras either. The thought that kept running through my mind as I watched this was that it felt like this movie was shot from a second-person perspective. Which, as part of an aesthetic of dislocation, is great.

Still, we don't quite get the ride all of this leads us to anticipate. There are some problems keeping the tension up throughout - instead of the situation becoming progressively worse and worse, it feels like some stuff happens, people react, and then more stuff happens. Taken individually, some of the scenes in this movie are nice and tense or spooky, but moving from one scene to another without a clear sense of escalation or pressure dissipates a lot of the intensity each discrete scene might earn. The overall effect is inert, but not like a drugged or dreamlike inertness. There's a feeling of sitting around until the next thing happens.

There's also what felt to me like a poor story choice about two thirds of the way through that takes the characters out of their way (and out of the action) to restate something that's pretty easy to figure out early on. It's sort of like making a movie in which a bunch of people return to an abandoned hospital that was once the hunting ground of a serial killer, those people start getting picked off, and then two-thirds of the way through, the survivors are dragged into a room to be told by someone that this abandoned hospital was once the hunting ground of a serial killer, and a serial killer has lured them there tonight to be his prey. Not only have we as viewers figured that out, but the protagonists in the movie have pretty clearly figured it out too by this point in the movie. Nobody is learning anything new here, and it stops the momentum dead.

It's too bad, because you've got all of these different pieces coming together - people who aren't familiar at all with where they are, people who think they're familiar with it but aren't, a Western couple imposing their own logic and expectations on an Eastern culture, an urban couple imposing their own logic on a rural culture - it's a great example of people thinking they know everything and discovering over the course of a single night how little they actually know about the world in which they live. But it's hard to get invested - our fear doesn't rise with theirs, we are not shocked at turns of events. We're just sitting there, passive witnesses to one couple's horrible mistakes, ending with a shrug.

IMDB entry
Purchase on Amazon
Available on Netflix


  1. Spot-on assessment. There was a lot of potential here - it reminded me of Polanski's "Frantic", another thriller about dislocation and hubris that ultimately doesn't satisfactorily acquit its premise. Another bit of confusion was the scene in which Ping leaves the car. He has this knowing look, as if he's setting the couple up for something - but that would render the first wayfarer moot, as Yul and Melissa get in trouble presumably because they try to help him, then end up replacing him on the altar of sacrifice.

    Anyway, I've been reading for a few weeks now and I'd like to applaud you for your work, for both your writing and the focus of your analysis. It's a peculiar endeavor I don't think I've seen anywhere else on the net.

    I hate to use your commenting function to do this, but I don't see a direct contact anywhere else on the site and I'd very much like to invite you to take a look at and possibly contribute to my film criticism site, I'll fill you in on the details if you'd be so kind as to contact me here:

    If I don't hear from you now, best of luck and continued success in your noble undertaking! I will continue to be a reader.

  2. @Mark - thanks for the kind words. I'll look over the site and let you know.

    I'm okay with the addition of the couple to the first guy they meet, because I think you can read it as either "you need to do a ritual to prepare the sacrifice" or "this ritual stuff matters less than just having some warm bodies out there for them to take instead of us." So having three people out there instead of one just made the villagers odds better.

    It is too bad, though. The last act was shot beautifully.