Saturday, May 31, 2008

J-Horror at its finest: Exte Hair Extensions

C'mon, a horror movie about hair extensions? I've seen some dreadful J-horror in the years following the massive successes of Ringu and Ju-On, most notably The Locker, an abysmal horror flick about evil ghosts that haunt a particular high school locker, and the kids who die if they are assigned it. It even had a sequel. But Exte: Hair Extensions has one thing in its favor, the main reason that drew me to this film: it is directed by Sion Son, the man responsible for two of the most uncompromisingly disturbing and beautifully shot films of this decade, Suicide Circle and Strange Circus. So I took a chance on it, and I am glad I did. This is one of the best horror films I've seen in a long while. Chiaki Kuriyama (actress known best for the vicious schoolgirl roles in Battle Royale and Kill Bill) stars as Yuko Mizushima, an aspiring young hair stylist who is working at a local salon. She has an older sister, Tsugumi, a terrible and abusive mother to her daughter Miku, and spends her time drinking and making love to a local pimp. Tsugumi arrives unexpectedly one day to drop her daughter off while she goes out for a night of binging and trysts. Yuko doesn't know what to do with Miku, especially since she has to go to work. She is disturbed to find bruises covering Miku's body, and the young girl's subservience and manner are hallmarks of an abused child. Yuko tries to connect to her and break through that barrier, but it is slow going -- Miku accidentally breaks one of Yuko's mannequins, and spends the rest of the day cowering in the corner, afraid of what her aunt might do to her. In the meantime, a female body is discovered in a freight crate, covered in hair. An autopsy is done, and she is listed as a Jane Doe. The coroner, however, has a hair fetish, and develops a disturbingly close relationship with the corpse, eventually stealing her from the morgue and taking her home. The corpse continues to grow hair at a super fast pace. The coroner decides that he can make some money by selling the hair as extensions, and he goes off to sell them at the local salons. At one place, the owner purchases some and goes to apply them on a customer. Touching the hair causes a telepathic flashback to the corpse, and how the woman dies. She was kidnapped, raped, and stripped of her hair, eventually left to die. This connection causes the barber to go psychotic, and she kills her customer and herself. The police find a connection between this and the corpse because of the hair. The coroner sells the hair to the salon where Yuko is working. One of her coworkers likes the hair so much she tries it on herself at home, and is killed. Yuko brings some home to practice on. She has also bonded with Miku, despite the girl's accident, by getting her interested in hair cutting. Tsugumi barges into her place one day and over Miku's objections, steals some of her younger sister's clothes and the hair extensions. Tsugumi and her lover are killed by the extensions. The police interview everyone at Yuko's place, and Yuko herself is a person of interest, especially since her sister's death. But it is the coroner they are after, and the police begin a manhunt for him. Yuko realizes that she has left Miku alone with the extensions, and rushes home. Opening the door, she is confronted with a pile of hair which has filled up every square inch of the apartment. Diving in, she rescues Miku, but both are overwhelmed by the hair, and she fall unconscious. Waking up, they find themselves at the coroner's place, but before they are killed, the police come storming in, and in the ensuing chaos the coroner is killed, and the corpse's vengeful spirit laid to rest.

Like I said, this film is nuts! But the inventiveness and direction by Sion Son makes this a classic horror film, taking all the cliche elements of J-horror and putting such a spin on it that it becomes something original. Highly recommended!

Heavenly Forest

Heavenly Forest is another in a long line of Love Story derivatives -- the pure love of a couple undermined by the terminal illness of one of the partners. Makoto (Hiroshi Tamaki) is a loner teen freshman who meets Shizuru (Aoi Miyazaki) on a street corner on the way to class. Shizuru comes across as very young and immature for a freshman, but the two of them strike up a friendship. Shizuru develops a crush on Makoto who is content to find a pal whom they can explore the park beyond a no trespassing sign and take pictures. This friendship is disrupted by a third person, a gorgeous young woman named Miyuki. Makoto falls for her, and Shizuru is heartbroken, but all three form a little clique, friends one and all. Shizuru makes things more interesting when Makoto finds out that she is no longer living at home, and offers her a place to stay at his house. Overwhelmed with joy, she accepts, but when she offers herself to him, he is embarrassed, and nothing happens. She begins to drop hints about the fleetness of life, and how people should embrace the here and now. She manages to get a picture of her and Makoto kissing, and soon after, she vanishes. Makoto grieves for her disappearance, but it is several years before he hears from her again. He has become a freelance photographer, and one day he receives a letter from Shizuru. She is living in New York, and they make arrangements to meet there. Flying over, he reminisces about their past, and concludes that he is truly in love with her. But she does not meet at the arranged meeting spot. Miyuki does, and a puzzled Makoto goes to her place, where apparently the two women were roommates. Makoto discovers that Shizuru had died of an incurable genetic disease. Makoto goes to a group photo exhibition where Shizuru has her works shown, and finds that she had matured into a beautiful woman, and sees all the pictures of their past. Before returning home to Japan, he makes Miyuki promise to send the rest of her letters (she wrote a whole bunch) to him.

I was all prepared to hate this film, but what saves it is the acting of Aoi Miyazaki and some beautiful cinematography and tight direction by Takehiko Shinjo. Aoi carries this film with her disarming charm and vivaciousness. Watching the relationship grow was what kept my interest, until the usual 2/3 mark where that twist kicks in that undermines the film. I knew that she was going to die, but to have that expectation fulfilled was disappointing -- I wanted something different to happen. I would have preferred that he came to New York and not met her or Miyuki, and have some sort of existential conclusion, with a scene revealing to the viewer that only Miyuki knows what happened to their friend. Ah well. Otherwise, an above average romance film, which is saying a lot from me.

Romance, Johnny To Style: Linger

After a string of high quality crime films (Election, Exiled), director Johnny To has moved in a different direction with the film Linger. Vic Zhou stars as Dong, an athletic student who at he beginning of the film is seen making love to his girlfriend. Later he arrives at class with another young woman Yan (Li Bing Bing), who teases the girlfriend with their secret relationship, to Dong's annoyance. Dong and Yan have an argument -- where is this all leading to? , with Yan storming off. Dong pursues her on his motorcycle, and in one of the most reckless acts of romance ever, tries to get her to declare her love for him - her in a bus, both moving side by side down the road. Of course, Dong is killed. Move forward several years, and Yan has graduated, and is working as a clerk in a law firm. Dong's death haunts her, to the point where she can no longer sleep without taking drugs. She regularly sees a shrink, who tries to help her move on. The moment she feels strong enough to not take the pills, she has visions of Dong and the accident. Until one day, Dong appears to her, his spirit still lingering on the earth, waiting for her to confront and resolve her past. Their "relationship" becomes a journey of self discovery for Yan, as she meets a client who shows interest in her. He's an ex gang member who is on trial for withholding evidence regarding his boss; a young man who is also at odds with his past, especially when he falls for Yan. The rest of the film finds Yan accepting that she loved Dong, helping Dong's father reconcile with his son, and starting a new path with the young man. Dong is thus able to move to the spirital world, as seen by Yan, drifting off into the ocean on a small sailboat.

I admire Johnnie To for a change of pace. However, this is one weak story, with very unmemorable characters. Even Li Bing bing, one of the major actresses from Asia, struggles to make her character convincing, and it shows. A lesser effort by To.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Mastery of Miike - Scars of the Sun

Takashi Miike continues to produce astonishing films. His latest, Scars of the Sun, is part crime drama, part social commentary, with moments of brutal violence that hits the viewer in the gut by being frankly realistic. Katayama is an architect, who, coming home from work one day, stumbles across a mugging of a street person by three teenage kids. Actually, they are beating him to death, and Katayama decides to take things into his own hands and beats up the three teens. This seemingly random act of kindness leads to trouble for Katayama, as his daughter is kidnapped by one of the teenagers (the leader, Kamiki) and murdered. His attempts to seek justice are thwarted by a police force and legal system that protects the youth, and Katayama, by taking the initiative, is seen as a troublemaker, and is blamed for causing his daughter's death. His wife later commits suicide. Kamiki is found, sentenced, and serves three years at a juvenile detention center. He is released on good behavior, and works at a surfboard manufacturing place, taken in by the owner who looks after troubled youth. Katayama learns of Kamiki's release through a probation officer, who asks him to let things be. But Katayama wants justice. His previous attempts, plus his being vocal about killing Kamiki has placed the local cops on alert. He misleads the probation officer by stating that he only wants to see Kamiki, if only to confirm that he is a reformed man. He had been looking for him, but Kamiki, is now under another name. The probation officer takes him to the surfboard place. Katayama sees, him, and runs out from the car and confronts him. The cops have to break it up, and deliver Katayama a stern waning. Kamiki, however, seems to revert to old form, calling on his old chums to monitor Katayama. One of his friends, however, now has a wife and child, and is reluctant to do his bidding. He also had ran into Katayama earlier in his search for Kamiki. But Kamiki threatens his daughter's life, and makes arrangements for a meeting between him, Kamiki, and Katayama. Kamiki in the meantime, purchases guns and ammo online, delivering them to some kids from the old neighborhood, who are enthralled with the weapons. They beat up and shoot the convenience store owner, where at the beginning of the film the initial incident took place. The probation officer is kidnapped by Kamiki, and is used to draw Katayama to the meeting place. He finds Kamiki's friend, dead, and is ambushed by Kamiki's gang. Katayama dispatches the kids one by one, and has it out with Kamiki, and kills the teen. The film ends with Katayama, dying, on top of the building, as the sun rises above.

Scars of the Sun is similar to the excellent The Negotiator in tone, look and subject matter -- that there are systemic problems with Japanese law that allows for people to act criminally, and get away with it. Here it is the troubled teen, those kids who have grown up in an age without rules or mores. According to the film a thirteen year old cannot be sentenced to death nor life in prison for murdering someone -- because of their age, they "don't know what they're doing," and it is more important to rehabilitate them so they can return to society. To Kamiki, this gives them a free pass, a license to kill. Katayma is an interesting character: although he seems like a meek architect, he can more than handle his own against the young thugs, in fisticuffs and with a gun. How is that? It's one of the few things I find questionable in a very good film. To me it is part classic Kurosawa and part Battle Royale, without the over the top violence of the latter. While the average Miike fan might be disappointed that this isn't like DOA or Iichi, this is a thoughtful and well made film that shows Miike's diverseness as a director, and the social commentary of the film ought to keep him as one of the top (if not THE man) directors of Japan. Recommended.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Mad Detective

Mad Detective is yet another terrific crime drama from the production house of Johnny To, this time directed by Wai-Ka Fai, who also teamed with him on Running on Karma, which starred Andy Lau in a muscle outfit, which was mildly disturbing. This is also an odd film, but the madness lies in its main character, Bun, played by Lau Ching-Wan, a police inspector who has the unusual ability to see the inner self or spirit of people. This paranormal power has made him a famed detective on the level of Sherlock Holmes, but his deductive ability comes not from logic but from raw emotion. He has to reenact a crime to feel it in the first person, and from there he can put together the pieces of the puzzle to solve a case. It also makes him crazy. He loses his wife -- also an investigator, but recreates her in his mind as a companion. He also loses his job when, during the departure of his long time boss, he offers his ear to him as a retirement present.

A year later, a cop comes to Bun in need of help. Ho Ka-On (Andy On), is involved in a case where a fellow cop has gone missing for many months. However, in a couple of recent crimes, a gun was used and analyzing the bullets, it was found that it belonged to the missing cop. Ho has been on this case for a long time, and is running out of leads. Bun, after arguing with his imaginary spouse, agrees to help. He finds that there were two different people who used the same gun, one being the cop's ex partner and an Indian criminal who was still at large. Bun intuits that the ex partner is the murderer, and after meeting him finds that he is a sick yet complex character, having seven different inner selves. But Bun's involvement in the case makes him more and more unstable -- while working with Ho, who is simulating the burying of the cop's body in a park, Bun steals Ho's badge and gun. He bursts into the local police office where the ex partner works, and rifles through his desk and locker. Bun believes that the ex partner had murdered the cop and had his gun stolen by the Indian crook, and has been after him ever since, to get his gun back. The gun he is currently using is the murdered cop's, and he switched the serial numbers on the computer. Ho doesn't learn any of this until very late in the game. He starts to lose faith in Bun, believing that Bun is stark raving mad, and is scared that this could end up badly for him and his career. After talking to Bun, Ho tries one last time to believe him, and arrests the ex partner, but since his gun's serial number matches the owner, now the ex partner, Ho comes to the conclusion that he made a terrible mistake. The ex partner is let go, and instead of filing charges, tells Ho that they are both after the same thing, to solve the crime and put the Indian behind bars. They head off together in search for the Indian, and on a tip, they find him in a building. Bun has followed them, still trying to convince Ho through the cell phone that the ex partner is the killer. There is a four way standoff in the warehouse, and the ex partner kills the Indian, who stated before he died that it has the ex partner who had killed the cop. Ho shoots Bun, thinking that Bun has lost it completely, and Bun kills the ex partner. But Ho realizes that Bun was right all along, and as Bun dies concocts a scheme to prove his story true and end the case.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Blind Mountain

A selected film for the 2007 Cannes Film festival, Blind Mountain is a disturbing look at a form of marriage in China. A young college graduate is looking for a job, and after several months with no results, is desperate to find work to help support her parents. She befriends a young woman who has a lead on work that would take them to the countryside for several months. But upon arriving at a remote farming village in the mountains, she is drugged and her ID papers and wallet are stolen. She wakes up, alone and in a house where the people there claim that they bought her to be the wife of their son. Horrified, she tries to escape, but everyone -- the family and the villagers, conspire to keep her there, and there is only one way in or out of the town. After a mini hunger strike, refusing to participate with her new family, she is raped by the son, who needs help from his friends to consumate the marriage. She accepts her situation only to be able to move about the town, and meets other young women who have also been abducted. Some have accepted their fate, having born several children; in one case, a woman was crippled to prevent from escaping. She befriends the village teacher, who benefited from only having a high school education, and also wants to leave the village. They have an affair, and plan an escape, but it becomes clear that he was using her sexually, making promises to leave but never doing so. Their affair is discovered, and he is exiled from the village. The young woman sends letters to her family, but they are intercepted and destroyed. She escapes twice, but is captured both times -- once on the mountain road, and the second right out of a bus in a large town many miles away. At no time anyone comes to help her from being abducted. Finally, she becomes pregnant and has the child, a son. If it was to be a daughter, the baby would have been drowned, like another child whose body was discovered in the nearby river. She makes friends with one of the children, who arranges to mail one of her letters. This time it goes through, and her father appears several moths later, with a police escort. But they meet such resistance from the villagers that the officials have to go back to the town to get reinforcements, and the father stays with his daughter. The family tries to steal her away again before the police come back, but while beating up the father, the young woman has had enough, and kills the husband with a knife.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Into the Abyss - Kudo Eiichi's Eleven Samurai

The Eleven Samurai is one of the great samurai films. No question about it. Having watched it, I am amazed that I have never seen this appear on video tape in the U.S., much less on dvd until now. Other than a mention in the year by year film listings in Alain Silver's excellent book The Samurai Film, he does not include this of any other Kudo Eiichi film in his discussions. What gives? This is right up there with Gosha Hideo's Goyokin and Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai.

It is the early 19th century in Japan. Nariatsu, a high ranking official and son of the former Shogun, is engaged in an animal hunt. In his reckless pursuit of the game, he crosses borders to a neighboring fief and kills a peasant who happens to be in his way. The lord of that fief also happens to be nearby, and witnessing the incident, calls him out on his ruthlessness. Nariastu kills him as well. This murder is covered up by the government, and blame is placed on the dead lord and his fief is slated for disbandment, to be incorporated by the shogun. The dead lord's samurai will not accept this fate. Reckless attempts are made against Nariastu, who frequents a local brothel. A semi organized attempt by a group of samurai is thwarted by the dead lord's chamberlain, who through a contrived sentencing of his own men to commit seppoku, is looking for recruits himself. Ten men and one woman are brought together, later, a ronin joins them, and they bide their time until the time to strike is ripe. Plots and counterplots are hatched by both sides, as all are trying to gain the upper hand of the situation. Nariatsu's chamberlain conceives a devious plan to transport Nariatsu back to his own fief using horses instead of the slower moving entourage; also, he works with the shogun's official to convince the dead lord's chamberlain that the shogun is favoring their side in the matter, and that Nariatsu is punished. All this does is halts a well planned ambush in the forest by the samurai. Once the chamberlain discovers that he was deceived, he mortally wounds himself, then rushes back to his men to tell them of the deception. Furious, they rush after Nariatsu in the pouring rain, attempting to cut them off at the river, which if they cross, Nariatsu would be safe. Nariatsu, in his final act of arrogance, refuses to cross in the downpour, electing to stay at a house nearby an let the storm pass. This gives the samurai enough time to reach them, cut the boats free from the shore, and attack the group. A furious battle ensues, and all are killed. Nariatsu is slain fleeing from a riverside shack, crying out to his men for help. The lone survivor is the ronin, who cuts Nariastu's head off and walks away.

This is a gritty, no nonsense film that is filled with tension and intrigue, climaxing in one of the great battle scenes in cinema, lasting almost 30 minutes. The actors are superb -- Natsuyagi Isao, Otomo Ryutaro, Satomi Kotaro, Nishimura Ko, Okawa Keiko, Sato Kei, Miyazono Junko, Nambara Koji are all familiar faces in 60's samurai cinema. Again, the black and white film adds greatly to the dreaded atmosphere of a corrupt world that is in its last dying days. Like in his other film, The Great Killing, Eiichi keeps a quick pace, a documentary like camera style, but Eleven Samurai goes further in the planning and build up of scenes -- first the botched assassination attempt in the brothel, and again in the forest. Not even Kurosawa could have bettered the handling of these very suspenseful moments. Eiichi is also clearly a master of the fight scene. The climactic fight near the river is well staged; the pouring rain, the men fighting in the mud, the amazingly graphic suicide of several of the avenging samurai stage by loading themselves with explosive powder, and throwing themselves into the fire, killing them and several other men. Again, Eiichi's films are a revelation, and hopefully these films will gain greater attention in the States. Go to your trusted internet store for Japanese films and buy this. It's a classic!