In 1997, a group of college students celebrate New Year while upstairs, a forlorn lad slits his wrists. Ten years later, troubled student Rain (Gillian Chung, one half of Cantopop phenomenon Twins) and her three friends move into the haunted dorm where psychic scars run deep. Each receives a text message on their mobile phone inviting them to play a twisted role-playing game where they must traverse the eighteen levels of Hell in order to reach the fabled ‘Naraka 19’. But the price for failing to pass each level is madness and death.
Eva (Maggie Li Man-kwan) grows addicted to the game and slowly morphs into a pale zombie before she gruesomely cuts off her tongue. Violet (Vincy Chan) and Rain are sucked into a dark fantasy world of spooky forests, nightmare birds and phantom ferrymen where the former drowns in a river haunted by her own secrets. Mandy (Seli Xian) is tortured by guilty feelings over the deaths of her classmates on a school trip. Elsewhere, dogged Inspector Yip (Shaun Tam) suspects a very real murderer is at work. Could it be hunky art student Gao Yuan (Jones Xu) who wanders the hallways whistling an eerie tune and wants Rain to model for him, or creepy psychologist Dr. Yan (Patrick Tam) who is slowly picking her brain apart? To solve the mystery, Rain keeps playing the game and enters a nightmare world full of outlandish creatures, with only her wits and a surprisingly handy mobile phone to point the way home.
A Hong Kong horror aimed at the youth market, this has a hip young cast of pop stars and teen idols and is based on a popular internet novel. Mobile phones, text messaging and role-playing games play a large part of the plot, which harks back to haunted technology J-horror flicks like One Missed Call (2003). However, director Carol Lai Miu-Suet (who made the excellent drama Glass Tears (2001) and underappreciated horror The Third Eye (2003)) leavens the familiarity of this concept with debates on the nature of reality and our urge to escape from personal problems.
The back-story works in a 19th century devil worshipper, a villain able to induce hallucinations and a videogame project created by three psychology students to probe the recesses of the human mind, in a higgledy-piggledy manner that doesn’t entirely fit, but neatly contrasts the Chinese concept of different hells, each with a punishment to fit the crime, with the psychological idea that hell is a state of mind. Stray elements reek of teen soap opera melodramatics, but the debate on whether life is pain or whether psychological weakness is part of the human condition proves affecting.
Carol Lai Miu-Suet uses offbeat camera angles and disorientating close-ups to ably convey Rain’s deteriorating state of mind, and ingeniously twists time and space like a pretzel. The computer generated fantasy worlds Rain finds herself in are both wondrous and grim: a hellish junkyard where it rains knives; a grimy dungeon where walls breathe; a frozen apartment where a hideous ghoul chains himself to our heroine for a deadly tug of war. However, unlike the superior Re-cycle (2006), tension dissipates by having Rain constantly jump in and out of the game. While the climax is admittedly somewhat vague, it is well-staged and involving, with Gillian Chung once again proving an engaging lead plus a small cameo from her Twins band-mate Charlene Choi.