Written and directed by Gilbert Chan, 2011's 23:59 takes place in 1983 where many of the soldiers stationed in Malaysia, where the film is set, are becoming concerned about a ghost story that's been going around. The story has it that a woman living on the island where they are stationed went insane and died at 23:59, one minute before midnight. Since her passing, her ghost has been known to appear at that time and haunt the soldiers as they man their posts and when they die, they too haunt the area. From here we meet a young soldier named Tan (Tedd Chan). He's new to his platoon and constantly bullied by a tough guy named Dragon (Lawrence Koh). Tan isn't fitting in very well with the rest of the men, and this obviously bothers him some. After learning of the story, Tan becomes very concerned and assumes that he will be the ghost's next victim.
Tan's only real friend is Jeremy (Henley Hii) and Tan tells him that he's seen the spirit, the dead woman keeps appearing to him night after night. Understandably, Jeremy doesn't take Tan's claims particularly seriously, he doesn't believe in ghosts and he just chalks it all up to Tan's imagination. Jeremy has a serious change of heart when, after a march, Tan's corpse is found alongside the river, his arms and legs twisted in an unearthly manner. Jeremy takes it upon himself to look into the strange events surrounding his friend's death. Though his commanding officers officially declare Tan's death to be an accident, Jeremy knows that there's more to it than that. After a solider named Chester (Josh Lai) seemingly gets possessed and Jeremy himself sees what he believes to be the ghost of the woman behind all of this, it soon becomes obvious that all is not as it seems.
There are some interesting elements at work here that are both creative and effective and which make for some entertaining and spooky moments, but Chan crams an awful lot into his relatively short film (it's less than eighty minutes long). The idea of the men in the platoon sharing ghost stories with one another at night in the barracks they share simply because they need something to do is an interesting one and of course it makes sense to introduce a â€˜reality' to one of those stories in order to set up the storyline, but once that's done, the after effects get messy in terms of structure and storytelling. This comes at the expense of character development and that hurts the movie. We're given some background information on the â€˜main ghost' but not enough to really feel for her plight as we are in something like Mama, where antagonistic motivations are made clear and make sense. Tan and Jeremy suffer a similar fate. We know that Jeremy's father was a con man and that it's for that reason that he doesn't believe in the supernatural, but that's about it. Tan is more or less just scared from the get go while Dragon is the same sort of tough guy soldier clichÃ© we've seen over and over again. No one here really stands out as interesting, they're more like plot devices than actual characters.
Yet the movie is not without its merits. Some really nice atmosphere works in its favor and a few of the jump scares are, if superficial, at least effective. Many of the dark, shadowy scenes are over lit and less mysterious or ominous than they could have been if they'd left a bit more to our imagination, but the location photography is great. There are also some interesting cultural oddities that help to make this foreign ghost story more interesting than it would be otherwise, adding a bit of exotic flair to the proceedings to the movie's benefit. Ultimately, however, Chan has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink here and that's not a positive. The acting and the concepts combined with the locations and the ideas that do work make this worth a watch, but ultimately it's too hectic and frenzied for its own good.
23:59 is presented in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition 1.79.1 widescreen transfer that is perfectly watchable if far from perfect. There's some smearing in some scenes and a few of the darker moments lose detail and show some compression artifacts. On top of that, there's contrast boosting in some of those darker scenes, an attempt to bring out detail that instead muddies up the picture a bit. There isn't much in the way of print damage to note and colors look alright, if at times intentionally muted. Everything's watchable enough but a few authoring quirks prevent this one from scoring top marks in the visuals department. On the plus side, skin tones look good and detail can be pretty impressive at times. Some banding is noticeable but there aren't any noise reduction or edge enhancement problems.
A Mandarin Chinese language audio option is provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio as is an English language dubbed version. Optional subtitles available in English, English SDH and Spanish. This isn't an overly aggressive mix, which is kind of surprising, but the surrounds do kick in nicely during some of the more action intensive/horror scenes that occur throughout the movie. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to follow and the levels are properly balanced. Some strong bass response helps to add some kick to a few jump scares and the score sounds good. This won't blow your socks off but there are no problems here at all and the mix is atmospheric enough when it counts to work.
Aside from two trailers for the feature and promos for a few other Magnolia properties, we get a twenty-four minute long Making Of Featurette that is comprised of cast and crew interviews and footage shot on the set during the production. Although it uses too many clips from the movie and winds up feeling superfluous for this reason, the input from the filmmakers helps to explain why things happen the way that they do in the movie and also to provide some decent background information on the production. Not an essential watch but interesting enough. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
23:59 is an interesting film, if a fairly flawed on. There are great ideas here, the passing along of folk stories by those who have bonded in combat being one, but the lack of character development makes many of the scares little more than superficial. Some nice style keeps the visuals decent, but the brightening of some of the darker scenes eliminates much of their mystery. Not a bad movie, one worth seeing actually, but far from perfect. Magnolia's disc is alright, offering up a good presentation if not an amazing one, and one extra of note. Rent it.
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.