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Ghost Writer: Tuan Cuong is drawn into a mysterious house in 'Spirits.'

After Life

The Vietnamese-American ghost story 'Spirits' outscares 'The Village'

By Richard von Busack

THE CINEMATIC ghost story is rapidly becoming an Asian specialty—not just because the nations there are so ancient but because of the terror of filial duty undone, of ancestors not given their due, of the dead who won't be soothed by the burning of paper money and incense. And Spirits, by a Vietnamese-American filmmaker from Southern California, Victor Vu, demonstrates just how shuddery a ghost story can be.

A "Mystery Voice"—that's how the narrator is credited—sets the theme: "The world of a writer is the world of his imagination, but when reality is more fantastic than imagination, isn't that what he's always dreamed of?" In a series of three interlocking stories, we learn of the fate of a young writer named Loc (Tuan Cuong). In the first episode, "The Visitor" Loc comes to reside in a remote bungalow on the edge of a cane field. As in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, the fault is not in the people who lived there but in the house itself. Its feng shui is bad; it draws ghosts like some houses draw mold. At first, Loc is tended by a mysterious, otherworldly woman named Hoa (Kathy Nguyen). The narrator says that this is the kind of woman Loc loved to write about. So there's a sense of justice when Loc is enchanted for life by the ghost-woman.

In the following stories—"Only Child" and "The Diviner"—Vu follows up Loc's story—telling us how he wrote a well-known novel about the ghost he met and how he tried to commit suicide to be with her. After he's well again, the house has its vengeance on Loc's new wife, Linh (Kathleen Luong), a nurse with an unsavory past. Some might look at Linh's story as anti-abortion mythologizing, fit for a convention of Baptists. However, the way the story unfolds, it doesn't exactly look at every baby as a gift from heaven, does it?

The third episode, "The Diviner," is where the ghosts take final possession of Loc and the house. An exorcist, a mild-mannered woman in her middle years, comes in to rid the house of its spirits. Her no-good son tags along. The son is a hustling writer with literary ambitions, and he tries to draw Loc out—even though the author is now old, solitary and half-mad.

Sadness and pity run through Spirits, sharpening its horror. The naturalistic, low-key performances compliment the intelligent subtext about what, exactly, a writer's duties are. Should an artist create a world of fantasy, or should an artist deal, without adornment, with the suffering of the world? Vu uses a minimum of gore, special effects and makeup; the good-looking film's three-part structure has shape and balance as well as uncanniness. The horror here isn't about being chopped to pieces; it's about spending a life gazing into a mirror for fear of what might be seen out of the corner of the eye. And the ghosts themselves are as complex as the living. Like the living they need warmth, companionship and peace, but (like the living) they'll use every ruthless method they can to get what they want.

Spirits (Unrated; 120 min.), directed by Victor Vu, written by Nguyen Hoang Nam, photographed by Cooper Donaldson and starring Tuan Cuong and Kathleen Luong, opens Friday at Camera 12 in San Jose.

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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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