Ghost stories with no other purpose but to scare people have their place in horror cinema and are often loads of fun to watch. But I find myself preferring those tales of the supernatural that serve as backdrops to more tragic turns of events, substituting elegant storytelling for a few cheap, tired thrills. It’s films like The Sixth Sense and The Changeling that get under your skin the most, thanks to an intimate atmosphere that allows viewers to get to know the characters beyond stock genre archetypes. The Hong Kong chiller Inner Senses may not be as polished or classy as those films, but like them, humanity remains the focus of the story, setting the characters up to be people we sympathize with instead of those we can’t wait to see bite the big one.
Dr. Jim Law (Leslie Cheung) is a seasoned psychologist with a very grounded approach to life. When approached with the idea of ghosts, he claims that they exist only if people believe in them, attributing such sightings to the inner workings of our complex minds. As a favor to a colleague, Law takes on the case of Yan (Karena Lam), a young woman who claims to see spirits on a regular basis. While Yan is convinced that her visions are the real deal, Law remains skeptical, assured that the key to putting an end to her so-called encounters lies within unlocking her repressed memories. But as his attempts to cure Yan progress, Law becomes stalked by a ghostly woman himself. Is it all in Law’s head, or will he be forced to compromise his values and admit that life may in fact exist beyond the grave?
If you’re sitting there thinking, “Gee, this sure sounds a lot like The Sixth Sense,” you’re not alone. But while Inner Senses does share a similar, “I see dead people” premise, their respective intentions couldn’t be more different. Whereas it was apparent in M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout film that the ghosts were real, Inner Senses casts a shadow of doubt upon the presence of its resident spirits; are they real, or are they nothing more than a product of the mind? Director Lo Chi Leung (who also helmed star Karena Lam in the misguided thriller Koma) takes a clinical approach to the supernatural, with Cheung’s character determined to prove that the monsters we’re most afraid of are the ones we create ourselves. Thus, the focus is shifted away from trotting out a series of scare tactics and more towards Law’s race to save Yan from being pushed to the brink of madness by her visions. But just when it seems that her story is coming to a close, Law’s story begins, and it’s at this point that Inner Senses serves up a plate of drama worth biting into.
Inner Senses does an admirable job of keeping viewers guessing, never allowing them enough time to precisely pin down where the plot is going to take them next, although it suffers its share of bumps along the way. The suspenseful atmosphere, designed as such whether or not there actually are ghosts to pose a threat, is hindered by how flat-out cheap the flick looks (although this could be due to a bad DVD transfer). The story itself is afflicted with a bit of clunkiness, switching from centering on Yan to Law fairly abruptly and shoehorning in a romantic subplot that never sits all that well. But Inner Senses works well enough on the whole that these come across as mere quibbles that can easily be swept under the rug. Such flaws especially pale in comparison to the terrific leading performances. Lam does well as the emotionally fragile Yan, but it’s Cheung’s performance that truly takes center stage here. He handles himself very well as a creature of logic who finds himself facing a situation where everything he knows is in danger of being thrown out the window. Cheung’s transformation from a hardened skeptic to a desperate and frightened man is executed convincingly, with Law’s personal crisis inadvertently enhanced by Cheung’s own suicide the year after this film was released.
The bottom line is that while Inner Senses may not freak the bejeesus out of you, it remains fairly spooky and manages to engage you on a deeper level than the likes of House on Haunted Hill. The performances are solid, and the overall attitude is refreshingly pretension-free, enough so that even those frightened by the prospect of reading subtitles for a couple of hours will dig what this flick has to offer.