Cinema Obscura: Hellevator
There are certain films which take you by surprise. Their quality far outweighing your preconceived notions.
Hellevator is one such film, a movie I was trepidatious about watching purely because of the truly terrible title. Hellevator immediately conjures up images of cheesy horror, a notion which Japan’s current J-Horror cottage industry makes hard to shake. Thankfully this is a Japanese Horror film bereft of wet haired ghost children. In fact the nearest cinematical Japanese approximation I can think of is Tetsuo: The Iron Man, as both films have a similar squalid mise-en-scene and feverish mentality.
Hellevator is set in a dystopia, a vast complex of underground levels connected by huge freight elevators. It is a retroactive future, with design influences from the past mixed with modern technology and concepts. A perfect example of this is the fascistic police force, whose members stroll around wielding guns from the 1930s and wear uniforms which are one half Japanese Imperial Military one half National Socialist.
This retro stylisation continues to the actual design of the world itself and the technology used. The Elevator in which the action takes place is a science fiction construction built using antiquated archetypes (the ticker tape that shows the current floor being a good example), the police force monitor people with an approximation of security cameras which fuse organic parts with more traditional circuitry. It is an amazing world, made all the more impressive for the evident lack of budget.
Young director Hiroki Yamaguchi understands the limitations of his budget perfectly, fleshing out his ideas with simple iconic shots which set a tone and allows the audience to do the rest of the work. Elements like a typewriter hooked up to a computer, perfectly capture the idiosyncrasy of the world being presented. Whilst certain shots betray the budget Yamaguchi is able to maintain a general sense of quality just by his use of colour and lighting. It is certainly not perfect, but Hellevator is another example of Japanese directors using DV Cameras to make imaginative but commercially unviable films cheaply.
The beauty of Hellevator is that it uses its impeccable design as context; the main thrust of the story is all about character. The majority of the action in Hellevator is focused around a single set, a small freight elevator inhabited by seven characters. We’re given occasional narrative breaks from the elevator, thanks to the main character being ‘psychic’ and roving around in peoples minds, but 60% of the action is just about people reacting to each other.
The plot follows this ‘psychic’ teenager, Luchino after she flees from a police officer after she is found smoking, a capital offence and a really stupid thing to do when she is stood next to people loading fuel supplies. She hops onto an elevator with the intention of going to school; unfortunately the elevator makes an emergency stop to pick up two condemned criminals who are being transported to the topmost levels for their executions. The explosion caused by her discarded cigarette butt having a soirée with some spilt fuel forces the elevator off of its path, dropping it to a lower floor and trapping everyone with the now freed prisoners.
The unexpected threat of these prisoners brings out the survival instincts in the commuters and everything soon turns a little bit Lord of the Flies.
What makes the film truly great is how visually inventive it is, using the plot as a springboard for a plethora of interconnect mini-vignettes. Whilst it is easy to see where certain elements have been taken wholesale from (the design invokes Brazil quite a few times and when the prisoners are free we’re treated to elements of a baroque soundtrack which seems to have been lifted from Oldboy), it is the way in which the film mixes and matches these influences that makes it so incredibly thrilling.
There is a surrealist undercurrent to the entire film which seems to be influenced directly by the work of Dali and members of the Dada group. Little moments like a small army of businessmen marching into the elevator in formation, taking corded phones out of their jacket pocket and making synchronised phone calls recall surrealist work and makes the film war more than the worth of its parts. These moments of visual elegance are combined with a kinetic editing style which makes the film seem almost like an art installation at times.
Largely because it is debut feature the director actually goes overboard at times, but it becomes part of the films overall charm. Whilst elements might not work as well as envisioned they become yet another layer in a film which is consistently daring. It is actually quite amazing that the director manages to keep so many disparate elements working as a cohesive whole. What helps maintain this sense of fidelity is the cast who despite being unknowns are all pretty great in their roles.
Of special note are the two convicts who are played with utter relish by their respective performers. Of particular note is the cannibalistic rapist, who adorns most of the films promotional material and prowls around the lift like a crazed lizard. He is a character who is genuinely unnerving on a conceptual level and the actor just pushes the envelope by making him as repulsive and terrifying as possible. He slithers around the elevator, invading personal space and acting without motive or precedent.
His partner, a political bomber, is more subdued and is only really distinguished by a peculiar quirk. The second prisoner speaks backwards Japanese at all times, and it is once again truly unnerving to hear. Even without knowledge of Japanese the fractured cadence and innate wrongness of his language is disturbing.
The rest of the cast do well with their respective roles (although they’ve never really fleshed out as well as Luchino or the two criminals) with a particular highlight being a professor giving into his more primal instincts. He is a stock ‘panicky guy’ but he plays the part well and manages to maintain a level of friction after the more obvious threats have been dealt with. The girl playing Luchino excels at times and is relatively horrible at other times; her flashbacks which are more interpretative are her strongest suit, whilst her bug eyed horror whilst holding a gun almost threatens to derail the film in its sheer absurdity.
Like a Tale of Two Sisters the central thrust of the film is only revealed towards the end and as such rewatchings are needed to truly understand what the movie is trying to say. As a visual piece Hellevator is fantastic, it just falls short of matching its energy and inventiveness with its story which is probably a little overlong and overstretched.