Touted on the packaging as 'Singapore's first homegrown horror movie' The Maid, on the surface at least, appears to be yet another Asian horror movie about a long haired ghost with dark hair and black eyes – and it is – but it manages to provide some interesting and unique spins that set it above the crowd of Ring and Ju-On knock-offs like The Phone or Ju-Re – The Uncanny. Part of this is the location shooting, part of it is the story, and part of it is the performance from the female lead.
The opening scene tells us that during the Seventh month of the Chinese calendar the gates of hell will open for thirty days and during this time the dead will walk the Earth. At any rate, during this month, if you don't want the ghosts to mess with you, there are a few rules that you'll have to follow. The first, and most important, is that if you're out walking after sundown and hear someone call to you, do not look back. The second is a little easier to follow, and that's to not go swimming. The third is more or less common sense but regardless, it dictates that you don't talk to strangers if you see them while out traveling in rural or deserted areas.
From there we're introduced to Rosa (Alessandra De Rossi), a Filipino woman who has come to Singapore to work as a maid for a Mr. and Mrs. Teo (Shucheng Chen and Huifang Hong), married couple and their son, Ah Soon, who is mentally handicapped. Not having grown up in Singapore, Rosa doesn't understand or even really believe in the supernatural that the citizens in Singapore take so seriously and she is scorned by her boss when she sweeps up the ashes of some money that was burnt as an offering to the dead.
As Rosa settles in, things start to get a little strange for her. She's unaccustomed to the way that things are done in this new country and there's obviously going to be a period of adjustment for her. As she goes through this period of adjustment, wouldn't you know it, she just happens to break the three big rules and before you know it she's being tormented by the 'hungry ghosts' that are currently roaming the area.
If you've seen any of the recent crop of Asian horror films than you'll soon realize that the basic plot of The Maid doesn't stray too far from the herd. That being said, it works not because of the originality of the actual plot but because of the way that Rosa's character is fleshed out and the way that writer/director Kelvin Tong allows us to get to know her. Little details, such as how we learn of her sick brother who the family is having trouble supporting, build a bigger picture for us and it doesn't take too long before we understand her homesickness and her alienation in this new world she's chosen for herself. The strange behavior of her host family/employers doesn't help things and while they're understanding enough and they do honestly seem to care about her, their actions some strange to her, frightening even.
With the film set in Singapore it also has the perk of being able to use the interesting locations that the country can call its own. You know from the start that you're not in Japan or in Hong Kong, things look different even if there are some similarities in architecture and dress. This allows The Maid to stand out a bit and it gives it a fairly distinct look. Tong allows the camera to linger on certain details, such as the fleeting ashes of burnt offerings as they scatter in the wind or the destitute emptiness of the city at times while families are spending as much time indoors as possible in keeping with the traditions of the month. The movie is very well shot with nice cinematography, great color schemes and a look that really helps to emphasize how lonely Rosa is at times.
Throughout all of this, there are some great scares. The movie builds slowly but rather deliberately and while the pale-faced ghosts that show up from time to time might look a little familiar there's still gobs of atmosphere in the film, which makes their appearances and actions scarier than they might be otherwise. When we're pulled into Rosa's plight as we are in here it's easy to get into the movie and in turn the scares have more impact than the simple 'boo' jump scares that a lot of filmmakers depend on.
The non-anamorphic 1.85.1 transfer looks a little squished on the top and the bottom of the image for some reason but aside from that it doesn't look bad. The color reproduction is fine and the blacks stay pretty deep. There's a bit of grain and the odd speck of print damage present but otherwise this is a clean image that doesn't suffer from any heavy edge enhancement or serious compression artifacts.
You've got your choice of watching the film in either DTS or Dolby Digital flavored 5.1 Surround Sound mixes, in the film's original language and with optional English subtitles. The effects and score sound really good regardless of which option you go with, though unfortunately the dialogue isn't quite as strong and there are spots where you'll be straining to understand what's being said, particularly for a few scenes that are spoken in English and appear unsubtitled. Aside from those scenes, however, the audio here is fine with nice channel separation and some seriously spooky ambient and directional effects that hit you in a few key scenes. A less impressive Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also included.
Though there aren't a ton of supplements on here Tartan has included a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few of their other Asia Extreme DVD releases, an Asia Extreme promo reel (which plays before you get to the menu and which won't allow you to bypass it) and a 'making of' documentary that runs just over twenty-two minutes in length is primarily some talking head footage and some behind the scenes clips though the insight from the director and a few of the key cast members make it worth a look. One has to assume, given that inserts with the words 'commercial break 1' and 'commercial break 2' appear, that this was made for TV. It appears here with burned in English and Chinese subtitles. Animated menus and chapter stops for the feature round out the package. As is the norm with Tartan's Asia Extreme releases there's slip cover that fits over top of the keepcase reproducing the same cover art.
While the transfer and audio aren't perfect, they'll do and while the extras aren't going to blow your mind, they're acceptable – the movie is good enough on its own that despite the less than perfect DVD presentation it still warrants a recommendation. The Maid is an interesting and spooky horror movie that provides some unique cultural insight into the whole 'long haired ghost' genre.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.