The Pang Brothers quickly established themselves as horror directors in the West, but when you spare some effort to take a closer look at their oeuvre, you'll quickly notice that horror is only a moderate portion of what they do. Re-cycle [Gwai Wik] is one of those films that contains enough horror tropes to lure in unsuspecting viewers, but it is certain to disappoint people who were hoping to see a real horror flick. Even though I held positive memories of the first time I watched Re-cycle, that was ages ago. Time to give it another spin and see how and if it held up after all this time.
No doubt the horror genre played a big part in the career uptake of Oxide and Danny Pang, but they only directed a handful of films that would qualify as bona fide horror films. The Eye is the one that cemented their image of horror-minded folk, some smartly edited trailers (Ab-normal Beauty and Diary spring to mind) did the rest. Re-cycle too could easily be made to look like a horror film, as it contains lots of imagery and triggers that are trademark indicators of the genre, but ultimately very few scenes are played out for their horror appeal.
Instead, Re-cycle is a film that plays more like a fantasy/drama, though definitely a darker one that isn't too suited for younger children. Like many Asian horror films, there's a heavy dramatic core that sits behind the genre elements. Instead of going full horror though the Pangs created a fantastical world that forms the main attraction of the film. The horror in its turn is mostly there to dress up the fantastical world and make it a dark and uninviting place. It's a somewhat messy mix of genres, but one that sets it apart from similar films.
The story revolves around Ting-Yin, a writer who garnered a lot of success with her best-selling romance trilogy. Her publisher, eager to cash in on the current success, reveals the name and concept behind her new book without Ting-Yin's approval. Uncertain of what direction to take next, Ting-Yin digs deep within her own self. By doing so, she ends up trapping herself inside her own memories. The only way to get out is to confront her fears and traumas directly, some of which have been locked down and ignored for years.
One thing you can be sure of when watching a Pang Brothers film is that they'll try to do something extra with the visuals. The cinematography is stylish as always, with superb camera work, strong lightning and very expressive use of colors. The editing feels tight and snappy, giving the film a pleasantly modern touch. A bit more divisive is the amount of CG used, especially because the CG isn't technically immaculate. That said, it's both functional and aesthetically pleasing, which, at least in my book, is more important when it comes to extending the expiry date of the visuals. Overall the film still looked amazing, not really a surprise though as it's what I've come to expect from the Pangs.
The score is no doubt trickier. It's pretty bold and bombastic in tone, but done in such a way that I can stomach it just fine. I'm generally not a fan of big, sentimental soundtracks, but some way or another the Pangs have managed to slide it past my defenses. Maybe because there are some stronger ambient influences present, maybe because these moments of bombast are confined to very particular scenes (with the rest of the soundtrack being more standard dark and murky horror fare). Whatever the case, I ended up liking the soundtrack a lot.
The cast doesn't hold too many surprises. Angelica Lee was given the lead role and does a solid job, as expected. Qi Qi Zeng's performance is impressive considering her young age, Siu-Ming Lau makes the most of his small part. There's also a nice cameo by Pou-Soi Cheang, though that's only noteworthy if you're familiar with the work of the man. The only actor who disappoints is Lawrence Chou, looking more than a bit lost as Lee's former lover. He's a Pang regular though, so it's a bit surprising that he never seemed to find his footing with his character.
Re-cycle starts off as a more traditional mix of mystery and horror, briskly switching to fantasy about halfway through. That switch is crucial, as it shifts the focus towards the main themes of the film. People expecting a core horror film will no doubt be a little disappointed, as the film stops being overtly creepy and ventures in more fantasy-based territory. The Pangs showcase different worlds and creatures, all with their own peculiarities, linked to the memories and traumas of the main character. I personally liked this approach a lot, but you do have to be willing to go along for the ride.
Despite its rather strong reliance on CG, it doesn't feel like Re-cycle has aged all that much. Superb cinematography, sharp editing, a very moody score and some truly creative world building all help to keep the film fresh, attractive and most importantly, original. People may remember the Pang bros for their horror films, but their talent clearly stretches beyond a single genre. Re-cycle is a film that hardly lost any of its shine since its original release and should be on the watch list of everyone who considers himself to be a fan of the Pangs, or genre films in general for that matter.