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January 31, 2020

NHE Modern Horror Classics: Gozu (2003)

Gozu-2003

Takashi Miike is one of the most insanely prolific directors of recent times having made over 100 features since his debut back in 1991. Miike is has worked in many different genres but is most renowned for his horror and yakuza films. He also has a reputation for making films that are extremely violent and bizarre although this as he also made period pieces and even family-friendly fare like “Zebraman.”

When it came down to pick what Miike film to include here, it was a tough choice. First, there is “Audition” the film that still stands as his finest. However, that could not be included as although it got its Western release in 2001, it is a 90s film coming out in 1999. Next, there was “Ichi the Killer” again a great film, but the question became, is it a horror? In the end, though despite all that films gore it just does not feel like a horror movie but just a grotesquely violent action film. Removing those two left your writer here with three options “Visitor Q,” “The Happiness of the Katkuris” (both made in the same year as Ichi the Killer) and this film. All three are great, and all three are almost equally bonkers; however “Gozu” is possibly the most bonkers. And this is certainly saying something considering “The Happiness of the Katukuris” is a comedy-musical-horror which features Claymation zombies and zaps from farcical comedy to bloody murders to song and dance numbers. The other reason I landed on this film is it is one of my personal Miike favourites and I feel it does get the recognition of the others mentioned.

Granted the movie is not precisely audience friendly. You will also have a good idea of whether this is the kind of picture in the opening ten minutes as the first scene is demented. The film opens with a fuzzy TV screen then we get a series of unsettling hard-to-make-out images and garbled conversation. Panning out we see a restaurant filled with Yakuza members waiting for their boss in a restaurant while the garbled conversation from the TV continues to underscore the scene to discombobulating effect. The next thing we know one of the gangsters Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) is informing the boss (Renji Ishibashi) that a Chihuahua he sees outside the restaurant window is a “Yakuza attack dog.” Ozaki then proceeds to beat this poor pooch to a bloody pulp including swinging it around his head and smashing it against the window.

In terms of opening gambits it is a startling one and sets the surreal and unsettling tone for the rest of the movie through most of the rest is neither as frantic nor wacky as this beginning. In fact, one of the criticisms frequently levelled at the film comes down to the languid pacing over its 129 minutes. The running time is another beef some had with it. In fairness, there are periods where the plot stalls a little and the running time does feel overstretched. The languid pacing it could be argued suits the mysterious and unnerving atmosphere Miike creates. For those willing to take the ride, “Gozu” is the kind of the film you truly inhabit the journey it takes you on rather than just let wash over you. It is a film packed with symbolism and metaphor which can be debated long after viewing.

The journey we go on focuses on Minami (Yûta Sone) who is assigned to take Ozaki to Nagoya to have him taken out after his mental breakdown. Minami reluctantly accepts this assignment as he sees Ozaki as a mentor figure plus he once saved his life. Things are made easier after a situation goes down where Minami accidentally kills Ozaki. Or not, as the case may be as upon stopping at a café in Nagoya Minami returns to find Ozaki gone. The majority of the rest of the plot concerns Minami’s search for Ozaki.

The above synopsis makes the remainder of proceedings sound like a fairly straightforward mystery. As you will have gathered that is not the case. At this juncture, we come to another of the movies perceived failings its disjointed nature. Now disjointed it most certainly is oft resembling a series of bizarre vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative. However, these weird snapshots are eminently engaging, and the wacko grotesques who seem to populate Nagoya and torment Minami are strikingly memorable. From the Innkeeper who lactates industrial quantities of the milk to the Yazuka who has a half white face to a guy who obsessively says the same thing about the weather in any scene, he appears. And frankly, that is the tip the iceberg of all the weird goings on here.

In many ways, the film is like nothing you have seen being its own very strange beast. That said it is not entirely without reference point as there is a clear Lynchian feel to proceedings with the likes of “Twin Peaks” and “Lost Highway” particularly coming to mind. The latter mainly coming to mind due to a similar dark, oppressive atmosphere and also just like in that movie one character inexplicably returns having switched genders. You never feel that Miike is trying to ape Lynch though.

In the end, while there is plenty of schizoid moments, there is the question of whether or not it is a real horror being more of a strange hybrid of different genres. Plus there is little in the way of gore or jumps. There is no question though that it sets out to disturb and there are several scenes that are bound to leave viewers icky and uncomfortable. Such as the dream sequence where Minami has a queasy encounter with a man with a cow’s head (Gozu translates as cow head) wearing nothing but pants or the truly messed-up ending that needs to be seen to be believed.

One last questions remain though, and that is what's it all about? Well like any film packed with metaphor it can be interpreted in many different ways. Some people think it is all about the rebirth of Ozaki from a violent man to a more enlightened. Some think it is about Minami’s sexual awakening (he is a virgin) while others argue it is about coming to terms with the homosexual desire he has for Ozaki. As Miike has not commented on what his intentions were, it could be all these or something else entirely. Whatever the truth it is a weird odyssey that this writer recommends more horror fans take.

Not, as mentioned, a view a lot of people take as “Gozu” received mixed reviews on release and in subsequent years seems to be generally viewed as a middling work in his extensive canon. That said as with many Miike works it does have a cult following even if one not as extensive as the likes of “Audition” or “Ichi, the Killer.”

January 17, 2020

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

A-Tale-Of-Two-Sisters

We return once again to Asian horror with this one, but instead of another J-horror outing we have our first South Korean or K-horror, as it is referred to, effort in “Tale of Two Sisters.” There are some superficial similarities to the previous Japanese works talked about previously. For instance, there are more lank hair vengeful spirits, and it does feature one scene with a twitchy pale-faced spectre. Overall though the story and feel here is entirely different.

The plot of the movie is inspired by a Jongeon dynasty era (14th-19th Century) Korean folk tale “Janghwa Hongryeon jeon” which has been adapted for the screen five times before this was made although those were direct adaptations which this feature is not. Director Kim-Jee Woon using that tale as the basis of the plot before leaping off in his own direction. A direction which curiously mixes psychological thriller, supernatural horror, and family melodrama.

Like the previous Asian horror entries, this film moves at its own pace, in no rush to speed to its denouement. Unlike the J-horror entries discussed there is more familiarity here for a western audience. There are a few examples of this one of which is the fairy tale trope of the evil stepmother (even if this not quite what it first appears, more of which later). Also, there is a distinct Hitchcockian flavour to proceedings.

The central focus of the tale is the eponymous two sisters Soo Mi (Lim Soo-Jung) and Su-Yeun (Moon Geun-Young) who are settling in again to their family home with their father Moo-Hyeon (Kim Kap-Soo) and stepmother Eun-Yoo (Yun Jung-ah). From the off it is unclear what is going on as the story open with Soo Mi in a mental hospital so when it cuts to the sisters arriving at the family home the viewer is left unsure whether she is coming back from that mental hospital or the tale is being told in flashback. The only any genre-savvy audience will be aware of is that we cannot fully trust what we see as we are viewing what is happening via Soo-Mi, who is cut in the archetypal unreliable narrator. At this point, some of you may be rolling your eyes. Yes, it would be to the say the unreliable narrator is an overused trope but it can still be effective when used well, and here it is.

Genre-savvy audiences will also sense that there will be a twist in this tale although it is a fair bet most will not guess it (kudos to anyone who does). Coincidentally the twist here and the twist in “Switchblade Romance” are similar as both involve characters with a dissociative identity disorder who are menaced by characters who turn out to be themselves. In this case, it is the version of the stepmother Eun-Yoo we have seen for most of the movie who turns not to be real, but a manifestation of Soo-Mi’s disorder and she has been switching between personalities throughout hurting herself. That is not the only twist though as we also realise that Soo-Mi has been hallucinating Su-Yeun all this time, unable to accept her death. If that was not enough, we also get a bit of another twist about the stepmother too, the real one that is. No wonder many viewers were left confused.

In all fairness, though these twists do not open up the same sort of plot holes, it does in “Switchblade Romance.” Also, the reveal does not affect the re-watch value in quite the same way as it does with that film. As the twist is cleverly seeded throughout and there is much fun to be had in spotting the clues to the reality here that you might miss upon first viewing of the movie such as the shifts in colour scheme which suggests we are moving between Soo-Mi’s reality and actual reality. Finally, while this use of mental illness as a narrative device is naturally problematic, there is obvious care been put into making Soo-Mi seem like a believable and empathetic character which means it never feels as cheap and hackneyed as it does in many films that employ similar twists.

As much as I have discussed the twist, unlike some films with a big plot reveal at the end, this movie is much more than its twist. First, off it is a beautiful film to look, and this look and design play off wonderfully with the gothic melodrama atmosphere which Kim-Jee Woon tries to and succeeds in creating.

Also, while for a horror movie the scares are relatively scarce each of the horror sequences is meticulously constructed and hits home when they do come along. The film also features one of horror’s great weird dinners which as discussed in the “28 Days Later” is a surprisingly common trope. It is in this dinner sequence that Yun Jung-ah as the imagined evil stepmother comes into her own, dialling it up to 11, all maniacal laughter and glaring eyes. The scene builds wonderfully starting as merely an awkward dinner with an over-enthusiastic hostess and then slowly cranking up to one pure hysteria and terror. Amongst several great scenes, it is the stand-out scene of the movie.

“A Tale of Two Sisters” ended being a big hit upon release becoming the first Korean horror cross-over hit as well as the biggest Korean horror of all time. In his next couple of films, Kim-Jee Woon would move away from the horror genre, but he did return to the genre for the outstanding “I Saw the Devil.” A horror movie which would easily rank as one of the best of horrors of the last decade which made the decision on which of them to include incredibly difficult with this only winning out by the narrowest of margins.

Inevitably the movie got a US remake confusingly called “The Uninvited” (2009). I say confusingly as you may assume it is a remake of that other 2003 South Korean horror film actually called “The Uninvited” or for that matter any of the several other movies with that same title. Despite a reasonable cast including the likes of David Strathairn and Elizabeth Banks typically the Hollywood remake could not hold a candle to the original and received lukewarm reviews. Thankfully it has been largely forgotten while the original remains a stellar entry in the 21st Century horror canon.

January 3, 2020

NHE’s Modern Horror Classics: Switchblade Romance (2003)

Switchblade Romance

“Switchblade Romance” is neither the debut feature by Alexandre Aja nor is it the first film to be labelled under the New French Extreme label (a term first derogatorily coined by Artforum critic Jonathan Quandt). However, it was key to the development of both Aja’s career and the New French Extreme. For Aja, it brought him to the attention of an international audience. Regarding the New French Extreme, the movie was one of the first (the first was Claire Denis’s “Trouble Every Day”) purely horror features in this body of films that was at this more associated with the art-house and spearheaded a revival of French horror which would go on to include the likes of “Sheitan”, “Ils”, “Frontier(s)”,  “À l'interieur”, “Martyrs” and “Calvaire” (which is generally put under the same banner despite being Belgian).

The film was not only influential in terms of its impact on French horror, but it also seemed to predict the direction horror was about to take. With audiences both tiring of self-referential slashers and the Asian ghost story market reaching saturation point many horror filmmakers started to look back at the grindhouse era for inspiration. Leading to the “torture porn” craze that would come to dominate horror cinema in the mid-late 2000s for better or worse depending on your perspective and, of which, there will be plenty more discussion of as we go on.

For all the movies significance in the 21st Century horror canon, it is not without its flaws. Chief amongst them is it has one of the silliest twist endings in horror. Now if you have not seen the film and don’t want the twist spoilt for you then stop reading now. So, now that is out the way here it is basically Marie (Cecille de France), whom we assume as viewers, has been hiding from and tracking the nameless serial killer (Phillipe Nahon) who kidnaps her best friend Alex (Maiwenn) as well as brutally butchering Alex’s family is actually the killer herself and the male figure we think to be the killer is merely her mental projection.

Now as previously stated this is a ridiculous twist, but crucially it does not, for this writer at least, completely capsize the movie nor does it completely it rob the work of re-watch value (I shall concede it does make it slightly less interesting though). Also, the twist does not open as many plot holes as you might first imagine when you consider that we the audience have been viewing the events through the deluded memories of Marie. Even with that though certain scenes and events do not make an iota of sense when the twist is revealed as their times where Marie would have had to be in two places at once and others she would not have been there to witness. For example; an early scene where the “killer” is seen in his van next to Alexia’s families’ farmhouse fellating himself with a severed head before Marie and Alexia reach the farmhouse. Plus there is some interactions that make no sense such as when Marie rushes into a gas station to hide from the “killer,” and then the “killer” comes in, and the gas station attendant reacts as if its two separate people.

There are plenty of other head-scratchers you will be sure to be mulling over long after you see the film but if you are a fan of grindhouse your still likely to be a fan as there is an evident affection for those films throughout as the feature wears its influences on its sleeve. Most strongly the influence of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” which is paid homage to both in the opening dream sequence and the chainsaw-wielding finale. Also for all the flaws, a lot of which stem from that ending, there is a lot of good here too as, much like the original title suggests, Aja certainly knows how to crank up the tension in a scene. There is also plenty to enjoy for splatter fans as there are several well-staged gory set-pieces. Again these show Aja’s horror fandom as the gory effects were provided by Giannetto De Rossi who also provided effects for the likes of “Zombie Flesh Eaters.”

Finally, the other thing that makes this a gripping movie-watching experience is the performance from De France as Marie she makes the character both vulnerable and resilient and is consistently engaging on-screen presence. Even more impressive is that due to the strength of De France’s performance you can still find yourself oddly rooting for Marie on the second or third viewing despite the fact you have the foreknowledge she is hunting down herself.

Of course, all of this is only the opinion of this critic, many critics of the time and since were less than impressed with movie only holding a 40% Rotten Tomato score and the late great Roger Ebert saying: "The philosopher Thomas Hobbes tells us life can be 'poor, nasty, brutish and short.' So is this movie."  There were several others such sneering reviews which attacked movie and director for the level of gratuitous violence and the plot logic which we have gone over. Some of them had a point, but still, you feel there is a toying with horror cliché at work here, particularly in relation to the relationship between “final girl” and killer that was overlooked or deliberately dismissed by the most ardent critics of the feature.

None of the criticism or controversy stopped horror nor did it damage the career of Aja who has gone on to direct several Hollywood horrors with mixed results. As while his remake of “The Hills Have Eyes” is one of the few modern remakes worth your time he has also made rubbish like Kiefer Sutherland-starring supernatural thriller “Mirrors,” which is itself a remake of a South Korean feature “Into the Mirror.” Aja certainly remains a fun horror director and his latest "Crawl" was particularly decent. However, “Switchblade Romance” will probably remain his calling card as nothing he has made since has quite matched its sheer visceral power (even if “The Hills Have Eyes” remake runs it close).