I generally include spoilers under certain circumstances: for instance, if a movie has been around for ages and its "secrets" are reasonably well known; or if I really, really hate the movie and have no respect for its narrative tricks; or if I don't feel the details I reveal would seriously compromise enjoyment of the film.
However, there are all too many instances where I want to comment on a particular aspect of a film, and the only way I can do so is to ruin the surprise for people who haven't seen it yet. To get to the points I want to make about this particular movie, I have to reveal some rather important details that some people — maybe even most people — will consider serious spoilers.
I bought my copy of Inner Senses principally because I knew it was Leslie Cheung's last film. The talented Chinese actor/singer, a favorite of mine, had committed suicide in April 2004; not more than a few weeks later, I came across Inner Senses, and in spite of the fact I'd never heard of it before, I knew I had to see it.
I had thought, from its title and the description on the jacket, that the movie would be a retread of The Sixth Sense. It is, after all, the story of a girl who "sees dead people" and turns for help to a psychologist... who turns out to have ghostly issues of his own. When I actually sat down to watch the movie, I was stunned at how wrong my original assessment had been. Rather than simply looking at Shyamalan's film and thinking, "Oh, yeah; we can do that!", the makers of Inner Senses seem to have said to themselves, "No, no; this will never do. We can come up with something much better!" And they did.
Now, I do appreciate Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense as an attempt at filming a serious ghost story, and I am grateful for its success, since it helped to prove there was an American market for relatively understated horror films. But I found that film to be overly sentimental, a feeling intensified by the "Deleted Scenes" on the Special Edition DVD. I can forgive sentimentality in a ghost story; I've been inured to it by saccharine movies like Ghost or Always, and those movies' romantic predecessors going back to the 1940's. But after Shyamalan released his shamelessly manipulative film Signs, which I loathed, I found myself looking back on his earlier achievement with a jaundiced eye.
Thus I had a mild sense of trepidation as Inner Senses began, and I was introduced to the film's principal character, a brilliant psychiatrist named Jim. When first we see him, Jim is explaining to a hall full of students and faculty the origin and purpose of man's belief in the supernatural. Jim is skeptical of the existence of ghosts, angels, gods and afterlives. After his lecture, a distressed member of the faculty upbraids him: what about God? he asks. Has Jim left no place for God in his world-view? Jim tries tactfully to calm the older man down, to no avail.
So right away we have a thesis of sorts for the progress of the film: ghosts, say Jim and the movie, are illusions, created by the human mind when it's faced with more than it can deal with. If this were a Hollywood movie or a literal Shyamalan rip-off, we'd know that by the end of the movie Jim would be eating his words. He would be convinced that ghosts and spirits were real — because after all, that would have been the movie's point of view. But Inner Senses is not a Hollywood movie. Before the movie is over, Jim will indeed change his mind about the existence of ghosts, but the movie — and how rare, how sweet it is to be able to write this; I have to pause to savor the moment — the movie never does.
I should make an important distinction here. In Inner Senses the ghosts are real — they're just not supernatural. I suspect this is one reason why many reviewers found the movie puzzling: obviously, scary movies usually take the side of the ghosts on the debate over the existence of the paranormal1. Here we have a film that takes the opposite point of view, and is completely unambiguous about the subject. Yes, admits the film, people see ghosts and react to them — often badly — but that doesn't mean that ghosts exist independently. The human mind under stress begins to create its own reality, a ghost-ridden world that is completely indistinguishable from the "real" world — a possibility that is even more terrifying to me than the thought of genuine ghosts.
Hong Kong films are notorious for shifting tone at almost any point, and there are those who think that Inner Senses is marred by the sudden change in focus away from the Sixth Sense template that occurs in the middle of the action. I don't agree with this assessment at all. In fact, I think Inner Senses is remarkable for its consistency. I think the real conflict comes from people's expectations and past experience: when they encounter the rational, largely unsentimental viewpoint expressed by the movie, it's not what they're prepared for. They look for ambiguities, as though it were still important for the movie to leave some doubt as to whether the ghosts were more than psychological phenomena... but the ambiguities are no longer there after the first half of the movie.
The girl who sees dead people is Yan, an attractive young translator who has fallen into a cycle of bad relationships, suicide attempts and ghostly visitations (nothing would make me reveal the forms these hauntings take — let me just say that although the ghost effects are realized using very simple techniques, they are absolutely terrifying!). Yan is referred to Jim by her sister, who is married to one of Jim's colleagues. Even though he's already overworked, Jim agrees to see Yan when he finds out the unusual nature of her problem.
Jim realizes that Yan is subconsciously inviting rejection for some reason, and that the ghosts she sees are yet another way that her own mind is punishing her. He gradually tries to force her to confront the long-hidden problems in her life that are causing the abnormal visions. Using videotape, he forces Yan to see that what she seems to be experiencing so vividly is not actually happening. However (thinking of self-delusion), we also get the feeling that Jim has been immediately attracted to his patient, in violation of medical ethics. When Jim goes out of his way to explain how he is not becoming attached to Yan, our suspicions grow deeper. His behavior and his method of therapy eventually arouse distrust with Yan's sister and brother-in-law; but shortly thereafter Jim achieves a stunning breakthrough, and Yan is seemingly cured.
I have to point out here that Jim's brilliance as a psychiatrist is what is often referred to as an "Implied Attribute"... that is, it's a personality trait on which the plot depends, but which is beyond the capability of the writer, or the actor, or the director, or the budget, or any combination of the above to bring to the screen. We have to take it on faith that the attribute is there, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, or the whole story falls apart. Typical examples of Implied Attributes include a B-movie ingenue's "legendary beauty" (when in fact she's merely the least hideous actress they could get for the price)... or a hero's moral courage (as he shoots first and fails to ask questions later)... or a mad supervillain's intelligence (as he reveals his master plan and turns his back yet again on the "helpless" hero)... or Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (no further comment). The technique Jim uses to cure Yan seems more than a little trite; but then again, I'm not a psychiatrist, and neither is the movie's writer, so we'll just have to accept that Jim's approach really is brilliant. See? I don't mind using a little blind faith now and again! I just want to be a bit judicious about it.
All through Yan's therapy, we've had brief glimpses of flashbacks to a girl who resembles a younger Yan. Gradually, though, we begin to realize there's something wrong with these flashbacks, which usually revolve around the girl's relationship with a boy she idolizes. The trouble is this: we always see the girl clearly, but we never get a good look at the boy she's with... which is the opposite view we'd expect from the girl's own memory. After all, we usually remember the things around us, but we don't have memories from outside ourselves -- we don't remember our own expressions, or the way we wore our hair... We start to realize that these flashbacks are Jim's memories, sparked perhaps by Yan's resemblance to the girl from his past. Just as we begin to realize this, the flashbacks begin to take a very dark turn.
It turns out that Jim has even more dangerously-repressed memories than Yan. As Yan starts to live a normal life again, and Jim, no longer bound by doctor-patient ethical considerations, has started to become romatically involved with the girl, Jim's world begins to fall apart. Some of the stress comes from outside: for instance, an old woman catches sight of him through a restaurant window and rushes in to attack him, physically assaulting him and showering him with abuse. Jim also faces attacks from within: soon the already-exhausted psychiatrist begins to sleepwalk. He performs some sort of compulsive search through his apartment until dawn, when he wakes up with no memory of what he's been doing. When Yan attempts to use some of the same therapeutic techniques on Jim that he used to bring her back to health, Jim turns on her violently: the doctor can't tolerate his own medicine.
Most horrifying of all... Jim is now being stalked by a ghost of his own.
If Jim's haunting is slightly — very slightly — less frightening than Yan's experience, that's to be expected. By now, we know that the ghosts are a product of Jim's fevered mind. What Jim's ghost lacks in sheer gibbering horror, it more than makes up for in poignance. Actually, the movie's ghastliest moment isn't part of the hauntings at all: it occurs when we finally get to see the climax of the flashbacks. It's particularly harrowing when you think of what really happened to Leslie Cheung.
If there's one thing I found disappointing about Inner Senses, it was the ending. Thinking about it afterwards, I realized there were really only three ways the movie could have ended (and I won't reveal which one they actually used): there could have been a pat happy ending, in which Yan's love brought Jim back from the edge of the abyss; or the hopeless, tragic ending, in which Jim's ghost drove him to suicide; or the even worse tragic ending, in which not only couldn't Yan save Jim's sanity, but they both end up alone again, surrounded by their ghosts. Which ending would you choose? Each possibility has its strengths and weaknesses, and I suspect I would have been equally unsatisfied no matter which option they chose. Oddly enough, I believe Inner Senses to be one of the few movies where the actual resolution is much less important than the path the film has taken to arrive there.
1. Thinking of which, here's an issue which has been bothering me for a while. Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist has become the whipping-boy of skeptics, mostly because of its sugary, Spielberg-inspired interludes in which the characters get all teary-eyed about psychic powers and the afterlife. What most people fail to realize about Poltergeist is that its true climax invalidates all the bathos and New Age babble that came before it: everybody from the Freelings to the parapsychologists to the enigmatic psychic Tangina were completely wrong about the source of the haunting, which turns out to be the result of plain human stupidity and short-sightedness. Most of all, Poltergeist is a satire, although its overwhelming special-effects assault tends to obscure this -- read Pauline Kael's review for a good example of how otherwise-astute critics failed to pick up on the movie's subtext. Watch it again, and note (for instance) how the aimless, mindless dead live in a television... or how a mother, concerned that her child's staring at TV static will ruin her eyes, thoughtlessly flips the channel to a war movie.