White Lady (Jeff Tan, 2006)
Tales of female ghosts garbed in white flowing dresses haunting the darkened streets of Manila aren't exactly new. I thought such tales are mere results of poor public works programs of the Philippine government, neglecting the necessities of installing street lamps to dissuade these female ghosts (and also the rapists and killers who, in those ghost stories, were always the cause for those violent hauntings). Regal Entertainment, one of the few big-sized commercial film outfits in the Philippines which is currently milking the horror film craze of all its worth, decided to come up with a film to first, tackle the decades-old urban legend; second, give the products of local reality-based talent competitions a chance to slug it out on the big screen; and third, provide commercial (or brainless) entertainment while preparing for its large scale epics for the upcoming Metro Manila Filmfest (a two-week bonus period for local producers where foreign films are banned from screening in Metro Manila).
The result isn't exactly topnotch entertainment, but it's a pretty much decent way to spend an hour and a half of your life, especially, if there's nothing else to do. Writers Don Michael Perez and Joel Nuñez situate the typically Manila-based urban legend within the confines of a university. Instead of innocent cab drivers, sexually-deprived rapists or cruel murderers, the white lady terrorizes the university's students, more specifically a group of obnoxious students who'd do anything to get what they want. The leader of the group is Mimi (Iwa Moto), a snotty rich girl, who takes an interest on the new girl in town, Pearl (Pauleen Luna). Pearl just arrived from the province of Iloilo with her best friend Jonathan (Gian Carlos). Gifted with a pleasant singing voice, she outdoes the jealous Mimi of almost everything, including campus hunk Robbie (J. C. de Vera).
One by one, the members of the group meet a violent fate, usually caused by a phobia (which they unabashedly share during one of the university's group discussions). They start to blame Christina (Angelica Panganiban), who suddenly disappeared after being bullied and terrorized by Mimi's group. Christina lives with her grandmother Tasya (Boots Anson-Roa), a reclusive yet kindly old woman who lives in the outskirts of the university and is rumored to be a lunatic witch.
Newbie director Jeff Tan directs the feature with an attitude that fits a young toddler who's excited to show off everything he's got. The film is a visual mess. While the cinematography is sometimes appealing, Tan doesn't maintain a coherent visual look for the entire film. I get the fact that he wants different looks if scenes call for flashbacks, or present time scenarios. However, it doesn't really work and the differences (Tan uses washed out colors for flashbacks) suggest a lack of trust of the director for the audience to understand what seems to be a straightforward (and near idiotic) flow of the story. It also doesn't help that Tan makes a gratuitous use of CGI effects to supposedly enhance his film. While the CGI effects look cleaner than most other Filipino movies, the results are quite abysmal. Tan drapes the ghost with a CGI enhancement that devalues whatever artistic contribution was put into the conceptualization of the white lady; and the white lady isn't exactly a scary thing (it pales in comparison to the now-classic Sadako of Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1999) or even the cat-kid in Ju-On (Takashi Shimizu, 2000); all of which did not use CGI in enhancing the delirious yet simple make-up designs).
Yet despite the atrocious direction and the displacement of the urban legend from the more horrifying lamp-less streets of Manila to the rather safe and boring university campus, White Lady doesn't offend me as much as I thought it should. I thought Iwa Moto (who looks curiously like a young Maggie Cheung, without a fragment of the acting talent) is a lovely find since the camera loves her facial features so much. The rest of the cast performed relatively well (which isn't much of a compliment since all they had to do was scream, look mean or scared, or run for their lives). Boots Anson-Roa gives the film an emotional core that despite its shallowness is shown with an effortless ease that makes everything else forgivable. There's so much to dislike about White Lady; the silly vendetta plot, the degeneration of the commentaries that could attach to the urban legend into a teenage romp of shallow jealousies and cutesy romanticism, the horrible effects work and Tan's visual spoon feeding. Yet almost mysteriously, I just can't hate it.