Shiver (2003)

Directed by: Billy Chung
Written by: Chung Shing Yuen
Producer: Daneil Lam
Starring: Francis Ng, Athena Chu, Nick Cheung & Tiffany Lee

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Part of the horror genre, Shiver was plagued with production problems such as buildings in which the shooting took place loosing power and the ever so supernatural Hong Kong people do not brush such events off easily. When it came time to promote the film, the initial poster was banned due to graphic content (a similar thing occurred with Ann Hui's Visible Secret) and the film disappeared quickly from cinemas. Hell, few people actually had heard of Shiver prior to the dvd announcement by Universe. But was it a film that suffered from bad luck and unfair treatment by audiences? Directing is Billy Chung, the man behind the acclaimed Kirk Wong produced Cat III thriller Love To Kill and the low-budget but generally appreciated Last Ghost Standing.

Cop Chan Kwok-Ming (Francis Ng) and his wife Yee (Athena Chu) are on the brink of divorce. While stuck in rush hour Hong Kong traffic, Chan goes into the line of duty to stop an ongoing robbery. In the ensuing shoot-out, Yee is hit and ends up in a coma. 3 weeks later she wakes up but to no changes between her and Chan. However, visions of murders and the ghost of a young woman start to appear around her. Visions that intensifies with every passing day...

For filmmakers wanting to venture into horror today, even outside of Hong Kong, you have the challenge or choice of not repeating someone else's work, avoiding clichés or make something fresh. Either of the choices made produces different results and Hong Kong cinema certainly has only come up with a handful of good ones during the last few years. Essentially a horror-drama, Shiver stands firmly in the middle quality scale when it comes to both genres. Director Billy Chung presents basically a story of marriage long lost and under what circumstances a reconnection can happen. In between he throws in familiar horror devices inspired by the likes of Hideo Nakata (Ring) which results in 90 minutes of fairly engaging viewing.

No aspects of Shiver really stand out as original, classy or superbly fine-tuned but it has to be said that Chung directs a competent piece of work. Not box office magic but not an effort that should be buried forever either. From the getgo, after the extremely simplistic credits sequence (kind of a throwback to the 80s to me), there's quick but effective establishment of character relationships. We see Chan & Yee as a couple, stuck on the highway, and in the final tense phases of their relationship. Billy establish Chan as someone with equal parts arrogance and ignorance. It's the classic ''caught up in the work and forgotten about what truly means something in life" that's on display here but it will all become worth following throughout. Chan is an unsympathetic character for sure and there's no real excuse for his negligence of his wife. However there's redemption for even the worst of persons at times but the reconnection sadly happen during her descent into insanity.

That triggers the horror elements of the film and Chung, at best, achieves a fairly tense aura of unease. He's kind of let down by the thin soundtrack but on the other hand horror should come from the actual imagery and sound equally. His images aren't what takes Shiver to a better level horror-wise. It's the fine performance by Athena Chu. Shiver is a movie that knows its limits and with that in mind, her performance is good for this film (but maybe not for a 10 times more clever and classier horror film). It's a panic in her, a genuine fright and longing for support in the hardest of times that comes off so well through Athena. She carries us through these sections of the movie nicely and her more tender scenes with Francis are the strongest in the film. A twist that strays from the expectations of the script is that nothing really changes between the two after the accident. He's still caught up in an ongoing murder case and even at critical points Chan doesn't pick up on the fact that he should be somewhere else. It makes Francis character quite intriguing to follow because we're not sure if he will earn the right to switch gears in life and be given his chance. There's a nicely played scene where she is putting together torn photographs of their happiness only to later realize that he's still a lost cause at that point in the story. It's also a good example of touching drama coming almost purely from the actress in this case since the score is really minimal here.

Chung's direction is what I call straightforward and the quick cut horror imagery is the only notable stylistic choice throughout the film. That particular aspect works well but the cinematography by Choo Shung-Fai comes off as very flat, making almost the whole production look like something you would see on TV. Therefore, it's competent but for a movie, even one with a low-budget, the look ranks below standard. Going back to the horror, since it treads familiar ground in terms of images, no scene is really scaring, save for a few quiet sequences with Athena Chu's character but I think because of the limits Shiver had, this turned out ok.

The strengths mentioned that the script by Chung Shing Yuen does have is the relationship between the couple but the plot twists towards the end of the film doesn't feel fully thought out. Without discussing it in details (spoiler free reviews motto and everything), part of the twist works reasonably well while others doesn't due to casting and a cliché motivation of great proportions. Chung manages to stumble his way through the ending climax nicely since he has built up a caring from the viewer towards Francis and Athena's characters but what we're seeing is unfocused filmmaking. Trying to wrap things up nicely but ending up not going much fresh places.

Francis Ng chooses projects just to actually work, which is a school of acting guys like Chow Yun-Fat, Simon Yam and Anthony Wong also went to. That means that there's bound to be a good amount of bad films from such a marvelous actor but whatever job you can find, take it, that was Chow Yun-Fat's reasoning. Francis appearing in Shiver feels like a little of both. He brings the professional acting experience to have audiences guessing whether he's actually caring or faking that aspect of his character, which is one of the best traits to this performance. Basically, there's enough effort here and good emotional weight comes through in this performance by Ng. He took some off his charisma to work and it pays off pretty well for this kind of film. I expect Infernal Affairs II to contain much more of that magic Ng can bring but Shiver deserves a watch for the fans definitely. I don't know if fans are going to reconcile with the choosen hairstyle for Ng in this film though....

For what it's worth, Shiver stands as a decent horror-drama thanks to good performances and chemistry from the leads. You could do better, you could do worse and I think there lies merit in that. Was it unfairly treated by audiences? Maybe but it's not a film that deserves to make as much as Infernal Affairs if you get my drift.

The DVD:

It's a recent film but Universe's presentation is a bit of a mixed bag. It's a clean print but sharpness and colours only seems decent. The 1.85:1 transfer is also non-anamorphic which is a shame. Universe tends to only let the big titles receive that kind of treatment though.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track rarely even challenges the front stage and sounds a bit thin overall which hurts the horror atmosphere a little. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles however are very pleasing with only a few spelling errors. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

At 7 minutes and 18 seconds, the unsubbed making of becomes enjoyable thanks to the behind the scenes footage. There's a brief look at the creation of the highway chase and the movie clips from that sequence have yet to have wire removal on them which makes for an amusing sight. The cast & crew gives some quick interview bites but it's the goofing around on set that is the best thing about this program. Francis always tends to get giddy whenever the documentary crew is around and he even intrudes on the scene where Nick Cheung is having a tender moment with a loved one of his. Nothing substantial but at least it was fun for the moment.

The NG Footage (7 minutes, 26 seconds) is a series of multiple takes for a few scenes and provides a good look at the filmmaking process because of it. The Photo Gallery holds 19 production photographs and the star's files for Francis Ng, Athena Chu and Nick Cheung disappointingly only lists movies the actors appeared in.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson