(The Eye, dir. Pang & Pang, 2008)

Angelica Lee as Wong Kar Mun in The Eye (2008) Photo: IMDB. com

Traumas and wounds become embodied indexes of a nation’s technological and cultural transformation in the film, The Eye (2008). The horror story centers on 20-year old Wong Kar Mun, a Hong kong classical violinist who undergoes an eye cornea transplant. Regaining her sense of sight should be a blessing for Wong, but it becomes more of a curse as she starts seeing ghostly apparitions that foretell violent deaths of people in her city.

The idea of memories that are transferable and portable through body parts is a theme that was pioneered by the Vitagraph film, The Thieving Hand (1906), in which the prosthetic limb takes a life of its own and causes trouble for its new owner, a beggar who is wrongly accused of crimes done by its original body. Allison Landsberg analyzes this trope in terms of the commodification of culture at the turn of the century, the period when cinema became a mass medium.[1] In the stage of modernity ushered in by the camera, memory is no longer grounded in an individual or a cultural group. Racist conservative groups perceived this as the possibility that both vice and virtue can be transplanted or supplant each other vicariously, thereby endangering the integrity of their social prestige.

When we think about it, film itself is a prosthetic from which we view and imagine our own society. Walter Benjamin famously wrote that the camera “introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.”[2] In some translations of Thesis on the Philosophy of History, the camera is described as a prosthetic of the eye that has historically pushed people to reflect on the nature of memory and history, as blind people might have continued visions based on a configuration of their past or how the phantom limb occasionally tricks the amputee into feeling pain. The shocking speed of the economic fall of Southeast Asia at the turn of the millennium has left parts of the city abandoned and the allegory of Hongkong as a city in transition from British rule to Chinese integration, hangs heavily in the background. Photography and cinema—the optics—of this transition, shaped the changing physical interface of Hongkong’s institutions as a kind of severance or dismemberment; it is a city of people that sees its future of reintegration as an inevitable regression.

 Wong Kar Mun embodies this aspect of Hongkong. After the eye operation, she has been disqualified to play in a blind orchestra, one of the few things that gave her a sense of identity and a sense of belonging in the city. For someone who had to feel her way through the streets, Wong Kar Mun cannot even identify her own face; her grown body haunted her as much as the ghostly apparitions. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, Wong Kar Mun is eating lunch at the only restaurant left in an abandoned building, where the owner refuses to close the shop because he believes he is being visited by his wife and child whom he lost in an accident despite not being able to sense them. This sentimental attachment, too, can be a form of haunting.

The idea that improved technology can expand our sense perception and make the unconscious visible counts as one of the core ideas behind The Eye. And the idea is not entirely insane since lenses did become sophisticated enough to see the universe and viruses. With a little stretch of imagination, perhaps they can be innovated upon to see ghosts?

As it is, there is no other thing that manifests memory more clearly in material form than the photograph or film and it often goes beyond information we can hold from unmediated remembrance. A movie camera can move with a locomotive, placed in various angles, stare much longer (as in surveillance), and can even be inserted microscopically inside the body. As photographic and cinematographic technologies improve, the spectrum of visual experience also widen. As Benjamin said, the camera reveals aspects of reality that register in our senses but never quite get processed consciously. Film changed how we view the least significant minutiae of reality just as  Freud’s introduction of incidental phenomenon like slips of the tongue (It is no accident that Wong starts dating her therapist!). On a national scale, film captures the slips of culture and collective memory; the walking stick by which our self-identities navigate the world and direct our thought and movement.


[1] Allison Landsberg, ​​Prosthetic Memory : The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press, 2004), p 26.

[2] Walter Benjamin (1968), Illuminations (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1968), p. 247.