United States. Directed by H.P. Mendoza, 2012. Starring Anna Ishida, Jeannie Barroga, Rick Burkhardt. 76 minutes.
What is it like to be a ghost, and to haunt a place? Not exactly a novel notion for a ghost story: even if you take The Sixth Sense out of the mix, I’ll wager most of the people reading this review can name at least two or three films whose protagonists are ghosts. But most of the time, the spectral nature of the lead character is a twist, not something you’re supposed to know at the story’s start. I Am a Ghost is unique, at least in my memory, in that you know up-front that its heroine is no longer among the living. If you somehow manage to miss the title, the actual revelation comes about three or four minutes into the film.
Anna Ishida plays Emily, a young woman living a simple life alone in an old rambling house. Her existence is routine: wake up, eat breakfast, wash the floor, bandage a strange hand wound in the bathroom, leave to shop for groceries. She doesn’t realize that she tends to do the exact same things in the exact same order every single day–until, one day, she makes a trip to clean a room she rarely visits. There she hears the voice of a woman she cannot see, who calls herself Sylvia (Jeannie Barroga). Sylvia claims to be a medium hired to cleanse the house of the spirit that haunts it–that spirit being Emily. And she also claims that she has spoken to Emily before, although she won’t remember it.
This unusual premise intrigues but isn’t enough to carry the entire picture; luckily, it doesn’t have to. Writer/director H.P. Mendoza develops Emily into a fascinating character, and Ishida is a skilled enough actress to keep the audience engaged throughout, even when the dialogue gets awkward. That’s a good thing, because there’s only three real characters in the entire film. Barroga’s performances are entirely vocal, and the third character isn’t introduced until the story’s final act.
Visually, the film is a treat for most of its running time (we’ll get to the exception). I’m assuming that Mendoza shot the film in one or more real houses instead of sets on a soundstage. The design of these locations is lush and beautiful, evocative and baroque, and his photography and editing helps establish a wonderfully dreamlike atmosphere. Even the title card is awesome.
Unfortunately, there are two big flaws in the film that kept me from liking it at much as I’d wanted. The first problem is that the mise en scène falls apart almost entirely about fifteen to twenty minutes before the film’s end. Embarrassingly cheap-looking CGI combines with cheesy design and camera work to create something that’s more funny than intense. I had a hard time taking it seriously, particularly when that vocal effect came into play. You’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens.
The other problem with the film is more ephemeral. Mendoza works too hard to keep the puzzle-pieces from fitting together just so. I don’t have a problem with ambiguities, unanswered questions and deliberate inconsistencies; nor do I mind a film asking me to work issues out for myself instead of spelling everything out for me. But Mendoza seems to do this in a particularly conspicuous way that doesn’t feel organic and doesn’t sit quite right with me.
Neither of these flaws mar I Am a Ghost to the point where my experience was a net negative, but they were nonetheless disappointments. That aside, it’s a worthy effort, and Mendoza will surely be a talent to watch in years to come.