A11y LIfe

The Eye vs. The Eye

Last week I watched “The Eye”, the 2002 Chinese thriller directed by the Pang Brothers and starring Angelica Lee (aka Lee Sin-Jee) as Mun, a young blind woman who receives a corneal transplant, and discovers that she can see ghosts. I was mesmerized by this film. The suspense was great, the soundtrack was interesting and superbly mixed for maximum dramatic effect, and Lee’s acting was convincing and superb (and resulted in her winning several best actress awards in Asia). I was so impressed with this movie that I immediately added the Hollywood remake (2007, starring Jessica Alba) to my Netflix queue.

Having now seen both versions, I feel compelled to compare them. I don’t claim to be a cinematic critic, so I’ll compare them from the standpoint of an access technologist. I have a long interest in how disability is portrayed in the media, and The Eye is especially interesting since the two versions of the film come from different cultures.

People with disabilities, like people from other minority groups, have a long history of being stereotyped and ridiculed in cinema. However, I think both versions of The Eye portray the lead character as a person with dignity, strength, intelligence, and a solid ability to live independently. Both films open with the character striding confidently down a crowded urban sidewalk. In the Chinese version she’s using a red umbrella, while in the U.S. version she’s using a white cane (she does use a white cane later in the Chinese version, so I’m not entirely clear on the symbolic function of the umbrella, but that’s why I’m not a film critic). In both versions the character encounters an accessible crosswalk (in China it’s clicking, in the U.S. it’s chirping). In the U.S. version she saves the life of an iPod-wearing skateboarder who almost enters the crosswalk into the path of a speeding bus. OK, so maybe that’s over the top, but it does show how incredibly capable this blind woman is!

When the character gets home after her pedestrian commute, we see in both versions that her home is well-organized, and that she lives alone and is able to live a fully independent life. In the Chinese version the character’s portrayal prior to the corneal transplant is very brief. What I just described is pretty much the extent of it. She changes into her PJ’s, climbs into bed, then after the opening credits she wakes up in the hospital following her surgery. In the U.S. version, the pre-surgery character development is a bit longer. She’s an accomplished violinist, and spends her days practicing with the orchestra. In the Chinese version, she plays the violin but her skills are comparatively rough, at least in the beginning, and she plays in an all-blind chamber orchestra. Interestingly, she is told after her corneal transplant (despite still having extremely blurry vision) that she will no longer be allowed to perform with the group, since she is no longer disabled. I found this to be interestingly reminiscent of the debate in the U.S. over whether a person with a disability continues to have a disability if their disability is offset by mitigating measures such as medicine (or a corneal transplant). This debate was fueled in the U.S. by multiple Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of disability covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). These decisions were finally overturned this past Thursday when President Bush signed the ADA Amendments Act. So, it’s interesting that this issue should come up in the Chinese version of the film.

Following the lead character’s corneal transplant, the story becomes the thriller it was intended to be, as the character begins to see things that others can’t, but since eyesight is new to her it’s difficult for her to distinguish the ordinary from the supernatural. There’s a minor subtext throughout the film of the character wishing she had not had the surgery, and appreciating how good she had it when she was blind. This is particularly drawn out in the U.S. version, including one dramatic scene in which she puzzles over the complexities of a printed musical score, then ultimately tosses it aside and returns to her Braille score.

There’s also a considerable amount of assistive technology in the U.S. version, not true of the Chinese version. The U.S. character has a talking alarm clock, and uses a computer equipped with some sort of highlight-and-read application, like Kurzweil 3000. I didn’t recognize the product, and I found it curious that a life-long blind person would be using a product with visual features rather than a screen reader developed specifically for people with no sight. Similarly, I found it curious that she had her speech output set to a very slow speed, even slower than the default setting on most products. Perhaps this is a new product that she acquired post-surgery, and she hasn’t yet figured out how to use it effectively. I should check the deleted scenes for more clues.

She also has an Enabling Technologies Juliet Braille embosser, featured prominently in a climactic scene in which she discovers “Cellular Memory” on a Medical Dictionary website. This is actually a curious scene: She’s reading the page with highlight and speech, yet typing frantically at the same time, while her Juliet prints pages upon pages of Braille content which accumulate in a large pile on the floor. I guess all this I/O activity was designed to maximize the tension of the scene, and it works for me, but only because I feel like all her technology is freaking out at once, and I can relate to that. As a footnote to this paragraph, the Medical Dictionary website seems visibly to be quite accessible. It mostly contains text, and seems to have good heading structure. I watched this scene closely for signs of alternate text on images, but the director apparently decided to leave this detail for audiences to ponder.

I should also mention accessibility of the medium. The U.S. DVD includes TheatreVision audio description, superbly acted by Danny Mora. I actually watched the U.S. version entirely through a second time with audio description because it brought so much more excitement to the production. The Chinese version, at least the release that I received from Netflix, has English subtitles but no audio description. It does, however, feature opening credits in Braille. Not that this would do blind viewers any good, but it’s a cool visual effect.

Final impressions: Both The Eye and The Eye are good, entertaining flicks. It’s rare these days for a scary movie to approach scariness without resorting to graphic gore, and I appreciate both versions for accomplishing that. I came away with a slight preference overall for the Chinese version – it’s darker, tighter, better acted, better directed, and more believable. However, if it’s assistive technology you’re after, or if you require or prefer a film with audio description, the U.S. version is the one for you. Both films treat blindness with respect and realism, and I think they both provide a positive portrayal of people with blindness in their respective cultures.

Next up in my Netflix queue: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.