Naraka 19 (2007)

Directed by: Carol Lai
Written by: Carol Lai & Thirteen Chan
Producer: Li Kuo-Hsing
Starring: Gillian Chung, Shaun Tam, Patrick Tam, Bonnie Sin, Vincy Chan, Maggie Li & Jones Xu

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After heavy flirts with arthouse but also glossy Mainland drama (Glass Tears and The Floating Landscape respectively), Carol Lai's name got attached to this youth oriented horror film and with a bonafide idol (the year before the unfortunate sex photo scandal she was a victim of) and arguably talented Gillian Chung (one half of The Twins), it's no wonder you want to judge but not based on the presence of our lead actress. Because at heart here we also have flirts with way familiar horror tactics during the decade of Ring. Scary cell phones, text messages ghostly sightings, stuff of nightmares etc, no wonder you want to judge AND will have trouble selling the flick to an overcrowded market. Naraka 19 doesn't suffer so much from the familiarity syndrome as it does manages to not say Ring every time it startles. Carol Lai's problem instead stems from quite intriguing concept never able to build itself up properly and therefore doesn't delivery in key areas subsequently. It's merely an average ride with well realized imagery. For horror, I look for something more especially when more was intended.

Students Rain (Gillian Chung), Mandy (Bonnie Sin), Violet (Vincy Chan) and Eva (Maggie Li) move into a new dormitory to continue studies. Eva is the outcast somewhat and is often busy sending text messages or taking pictures. Her mood drastically changes too and when Rain witnesses Eva's suicide, soon there's evidence of Eva having played a mobile phone game that's about advancing through the 19th levels of hell. Getting counseling from the school psychologist (Patrick Tam), Rain wants to find out what happened to Eva and enters the game. Inspector Yip (Shaun Tam) is the officer assigned to the suicide case and starts to look into the history of the game and it tracks back 10 years to an art student called Gao Yuen (Jones Xu) who Rain has befriended roundabout the start of the game...

You shouldn't judge on another level either and that is when smaller directors are exploring new and bigger territory so therefore Carol Lai's venture into horror is welcome. Based on the novel The 19th Gates Of Hell by Cai Ju, the deeper content about the players witnessing their past sins and are in need of conquering fears is intriguing and Lai pushes a lot correctly within the frame of Naraka 19. But the rather big failure of failing at nailing key story beats is nothing she rebounds from.

The essential reasoning and meaning behind Rain entering the game is never explained convincingly nor can you attack it from the angle of a distraught young woman having been shocked and behaving irrationally. So there's no emotional connection to the character or others, something that again was intended as Lai visits the past sins and hurt the students have gone through. The best horror from the Ring-decade if you will was about connection to characters, feeling hurt and fear through them (best example being The Eye) but Naraka 19 manages to register very, very low here instead.

We're left to admire a very well produced effort with especially the use of CGI being a decently budgeted for once. Often Gillian Chung is blended very well into the hell-ish surroundings and the imagination on display is admirable. Not so much scary or felt because of the lack of execution as mentioned. The actresses emote, scream, appear scared but sufficient work doesn't cut it. It would've been nice if Naraka 19 could've been the curveball everyone judged beforehand and it had the chances. Somehow Carol Lai missed ONE beat. That was her sin but I don't wish hell upon a still promising talent.

The DVD (Mei Ah):

Video: 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.

Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1, Cantonese DTS 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1.

Subtitles: English, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.

Extras: Making Of (17 minutes, 20 seconds, Chinese subtitles only), trailer and the useless Databank.


reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson