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The horrors of SMS messaging

Hong Kong and mainland versions of Naraka 19.

Twins fans and afficionados of Hong Kong horror movies will have heard of the recent release of the film Naraka 19 (地狱第19层). The movie is based on the best-selling book The 19th Level of Hell by Cai Jun, a prolific young novelist.

Mainland audiences made the book a best-seller, but they won't be seeing a movie about Hell. Instead, the movie hit mainland screens under the neutered title The 19th Space (第十九层空间). SARFT regulations bar films from propagating feudal superstition; Hell, it seems, isn't suitable for current national conditions.

In an otherwise positive review of the film, blogger Sandbird writes:

The movie that is showing in Hong Kong preserves the original name of the novel, "Nineteenth Level of Hell." But on the mainland, reportedly because of the intervention of SARFT censors, the name was changed to "The 19th Space." Reportedly, censorship rules demand that the word "hell" not appear in movie titles (to suggest a crazy thought, suppose that someone shot a mainstream movie called something like From the Old Society to the New: From Hell to Heaven — would that have to be changed to "From Space to Heaven?")

It's actually a wonder that the movie got made at all. The plot of the book revolves around a mysterious SMS game that starts off with the question, "Do you know what's at the 19th level of Hell?" Players progress through a text-adventure game that becomes more emotionally draining the further they advance.

As a result, the characters in the book spend a lot of their time sitting around reading and responding to text messages on their mobile phones. It's not the sort of material that you'd think would work well on-screen, but the nature of the SMS messages give the filmmakers the opportunity to spin frenetic CGI sequences and place their characters in the sort of mortal danger that one expects out of a horror film. Slip-ups tend to be fatal, with people committing suicide as a "GAME OVER" message flashes on the mobile phone screen.

However, mortal danger in horror films is frowned upon by the mainstream censors. Naraka 19 lost several minutes of footage and had its ending altered when it became The 19th Space. Here are some examples (spoilers follow):

Click here to reveal the spoilers section.

The movie abandons several aspects of Cai Jun's original work. Some of these are wise choices — a Da Vinci Code-like subplot involving the hidden meaning of paintings of Hell done by an Italian artist who came to China around the turn of the century was mostly a red-herring in the original, so the story doesn't suffer from its excision.

However, other cuts strip the film of any relevance beyond what few shocks it provides. In the book, Cai uses the Hell game to comment on the growth of the "thumb tribe" (拇指族) — SMS addicts — and how their increasing involvement in the world on their small screens corresponds to a gradual withdrawal from normal personal interaction and an alienation from the world around them. That theme isn't present at all in the film.

It's an unfortunate omission. It's the basic concept of the SMS game that's actually the most frightening part of the whole story: an evil IT developer creates an SMS game that addicts its users and infects their friends' mobile phones. Imagine the profit that could be made from a SMS game that occupies its users for a half hour each night. And if there were no numerologically significant limit to the number of levels in the game, it could go on forever. Taking over the world, two thumbs at a time. Now that's a horror story.

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There are currently 2 Comments for The horrors of SMS messaging.

Comments on The horrors of SMS messaging

An art form in itself, thanks for this Joel. Can you recommend any books that pick apart SARFT re-arrangements of films? Or let us know if you ever compile such a book yourself.

Man this SARFT crap is really starting to piss me off.

I hope they all pay a visit to 19th space soon. Feudal superstition... WTF LOL.

Thanks for the idea tho... I will get to making this game ASAP.

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