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Malaysian Ryon Lee’s Seventh (2014) is big on effects but low on scares, and that only creeps out viewers in the wrong way. Stephen Tan reviews.

For a Malaysian movie, the production values behind Ryon Lee’s Seventh (2014) are pretty good. As a horror film, it is even one or two notches above Hong Konger Stephen Yip’s Big Fortune Hotel (2015). But then, that’s not really saying much.

Photographer Cannon (Teddy Chin) and Mimi (Kim Thian) intend to capture the supernatural on film to take part in one of those Paranormal contests. They head up to a supposedly haunted house in the boondocks and discover that the caretaker, Huang, had died. His wake is being held by his grandson, Yi (Gino Tsai). As a child, Huang had locked Yi in a dark room and the ghost, Ying (Mindee Ong), had visited and comforted him. To the locals, Ying is the “hantu susu” (milk ghost) as her hauntings have her looking for milk for her baby.

As a Malaysian movie, it is understandable for the need to inject something local into the film. The rural locations look rustic enough and the multi-racial supporting cast with its Mandarin-Cantonese-Hokkien dialogue - well, all that is par for the course. And then, the ghostly Ying (and later even Yi) starts to coo a Malay lullaby?

It’d be fine if the delivery was natural (until that point, the film has not shown any Nonya [Peranakan or Straits Chinese] influences - but both Taiwanese Gino Tsai and $ingaporean Mindee Ong do not come across as (Malay) native speakers. And everytime they (attempt to) sing the lullaby, the film becomes very jarring. It’d work out much better if they had put in a Chinese tune as what the Pang brothers did in Re-cycle (2006).

For a horror movie, Seventh is neither scary - no big boo scenes - nor creepy. Even Thailand’s Shutter (2004) has more thrills. Think Anne Hui’s Secret or Visible Secret - with the former not even a supernatural tale at all but it has all the chills. Scriptwriter-turned-director Ryon Lee has a story in Seventh, only that it gets fleshed out in the final quarter while a good portion of the first half is wasted on the not-funny-at-all antics of Cannon and Mimi.

Actually, the constant bickering between Cannon and Mimi is tolerable but what turns into a nagging feeling is when the two characters are off-screen! According to some Chinese belief, the spirit of the recently departed returns for one last time on the seventh day. So Huang’s funeral wake lasts for seven days and while Cannon and Mimi already experience the supernatural right on Day One, what the hell are they doing when the characters are off-screen and why are they hanging around until the seventh day?

Shouldn’t they pack up and leave? And why aren’t the ghosts haunting them all the time? There is a lot of lag time in seven days! Even for dramatic reasons, having these two characters around and not scaring the bejeesus out of them is a major letdown. Don’t know about you but Chinese funeral effigies - those life-size paper dolls placed next to the coffin - can be some of the scariest things in movies and these are not utilised at all!

On the other hand, the film does have some money to spend in the graphics department. Like many recent Chinese horror films, again from Re-cycle to Rigor Moris (2013), the supernatural looks more like a computer game than anything that’s really frightening. While there are some nice physical effects (pop-out eyes), the money shot of Ying turning into the ghost-with-white-hair looks overdone and over the top and, strangely, the only digital effects shot that works is the change in the background from the present to the past, and that does not feature any “ghosts”.

There is something of a Sixth Sense twist in Ryon Lee’s Seventh and while there is an attempt to explain both the hauntings in the old building and the presence of not one but many ghosts, any explanations are given up in place of dramatic effect. For example, after having “explained” Ying’s presence - interestingly, it is not specifically a haunted house story as the ghosts also appear in the vicinity of the “kampong” or “village” - why doesn’t she leave this earthly plane?

What had initally held Ying back was not her anger at being raped when she was alive but the lie she told herself that she was waiting for her beloved to return. But now that that has been resolved… Similarly, why are the rest of the ghosts still in the old building when their respective kinsmen are already bringing their remains away? Shouldn’t they have found/earned their perpetual rest by then?

The returning in Ryon Lee’s Seventh should leave a bittersweet note - it is after all, a sad story of passings - but all it does is elicit disappointment (and even contempt?) because the viewer will feel that it could have been so much better… and scarier… and creepier…

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