Archive for the Cinema Obscura Category

Cinema Obscura:Rampo Noir

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Movies, Review with tags , , on May 13, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Rampo Noir posterTadanobu Asano stands naked in the middle of a bleached desert. As he moves forwards the eerie silence of the scene is broken by moments of vicious discord. It’s hard to make out what is happening at first, two naked bodies (moving too fast to be identified as male or female at first) battle around a room as static noise shreds your silence accustomed ear. These glimpses of madness and cruelty which make up the first film in Rampo Noir (Mar’s Canal) serve as the perfect introduction for the films which are to come.

Rampo Noir represents the latest in a long line of films adapted from the works of novelist Edogawa Rampo (the first movie based on a Rampo story was made in the mid 1920s). This quartet of adaptations gave four directors (two up and comers and two veterans) the resources to create truly lavish productions and while the money invested is utterly evident the films are in no way tied to notions of pleasing the lowest common denominator. In actuality the tone of the film is almost art house in tone with the second feature ‘The Hell of Mirrors’ being the closest to a traditional horror.

The Hell of Mirrors

The Hell of Mirrors is easily the most accomplished and confident of the films in the anthology which is no surprise considering it was helmed by occasional Ultraman Director and general Japanese cinema veteran Akio Jissoj. Sticking to a fairly regular story and narrative structure The Hell of Mirrors is essentially a battle of wills between a Narcissistic mirror maker and the cool calculating Detective Kogoro Akech. Detective Akech is something of a common character throughout the Rampo writings and in The Hell of Mirrors he is played with near shell shocked grace by Tadanobu Asano. Assigned to find the cause of a number of connected deaths Akech never appears particularly interested in the case until mythical and mystical aspects are unearthed. His detached demeanour moving to childlike enthusiasm and almost empathy with a character who should by all rights be his nemesis.

The Hell of Mirrors is a fantastic looking film but is essentially empty in terms of plotline. There is a story but it lacks a significant beginning and then seems to roll along at its own place until the finish. It is a series of set pieces held together by the lightest narrative strands. It also displays a truly odd moment of self destruction in the usage of a particularly strong bondage scene which serves no purpose other than to make a film which is almost mystically beautiful feel a little seedy. It’s not that the scene is repulsive or particularly extreme; it just lacks any cohesion with the rest of the movie and as such seems to be placed in to either fulfil a contractual obligation for extremity or satisfy one of the director’s quirks.

Caterpillar

In fact such a bondage scene would feel far more at home in the third film of the anthology, Hisayasu Sato’s Caterpillar.

Telling the tale of a wounded war veteran Caterpillar maintains a sickly, dangerous and claustrophobic sense of dark erotica which many would have only seen previously in the final minutes of Miike’s Audition. The crux of the story is that a young war hero has returned home little more than a shell of a man. Badly burned and missing all of his limbs and despite an awesome cameo in a Metallica video his life is suddenly without meaning. His attempts to exist are jeopardised by his wife who has cultivated a desire to hack parts off her little ‘Caterpillar’.

Centred around a cast of three (with Asano chipping in a bizarre prologue and even weirder epilogue) the film really is a marvel in that it remains utterly engrossing despite the repugnant characters. There’s something visceral about the torture inflicted upon the Caterpillar and something oddly compelling about his wife’s drift from maternal madness to frenzied passion. So powerful is this central duo that the third character often feels like an utter intruder which is perhaps the intent of the film. Played with utter disdain and filled with posturing macabre fantasies the third character seems like more of a plot tool than anything else.

Still as a horror Caterpillar is the best thing in the Anthology and remains suitably creepy hours after watching. Which is why the next films comes as such a surprise

Insect

A kitsch, richly funny, beautifully designed and in no way horrific tale of obsession rounds off the anthology. The first film from manga artist Atsushi Kaneko is perhaps the most visually arresting of the anthology. While it doesn’t have the sheer beauty of The Hell of Mirrors, Insect’s oversaturated hues and set design are suitably dynamic. In the film Asano (he appears in all four films in various roles) stars as an obsessive fan of a famous pop starlet who is constantly contending with a peculiar neurosis involving bugs.

Insect threatens to undo the previous work in the anthology by book ending Rampo Noir with a film that is at best confused and at worst incompetent. It has all the styling of a great film but it appears at times that the director is working with little understanding of purpose other than aesthetic. As a result the product ends up feeling more like an art project gone wrong than an actual movie.

More than anything else Rampo Noir represents what experienced directors can do when given sufficient resources and a modicum of creative control. It also shows that the same conditions given to newer directors can be damaging to the final product. The Hell of Mirrors and Caterpillar are spectacular pieces of work largely because the veteran directors know exactly what they wish to achieve and as such use their budgets to convey a professional representation of their ideas.

The newer directors both seem to fall into a trap of concept over production, a raft of ideas extrapolated upon at the expense of a cohesive final film. Rampo Noir is a film well worth watching for four very different takes on work which has obviously become deeply routed in the Japanese consciousness.

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Cinema Obscura: Romanzo Criminale

Posted in Cinema Obscura, Europa, Movies, Review on April 2, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Romanzo Criminale PosterIt is very hard to approach a new gangster movie without at least a little baggage; everyone has seen Goodfellas, Scarface, and The Godfather so we all know the tropes and iconography. We know that the film is invariably going to be about a rise to power and then a swift fall into oblivion, we know best friends are going to be betrayers and are going to be dealt with. We know that the main character is going to upset the old guard and put himself and his associates in jeopardy. These are the archetypes of the gangster film and they have been done extraordinarily well by other directors all over the world.Films like The Long Good Friday, Battles Without Honor and Humanity, City of God, all take moderately different stances on the subject but retain the core plot device of a rise to power and subsequent downfall. Cultural and Perspective differences aside the films follow this pattern fairly well and as such the conceit is already well worn. It does not help that some truly remarkable films have been made using this template, the aforementioned Goodfellas, The Godfather, The Long Good Friday, and City of God being legitimate classics of cinema. Because of this I tend to approach most Gangster films with an expectation of homage, such was the case with Romanzo Criminale.

vlcsnap-9157.pngRomanzo Criminale opens with the films three protagonists as children, tearing through the streets of Rome in a stolen car. They are street kids, low class delinquents who have had to fight for everything in life. After running over a police officer the youths drive back to a hideout, the fourth member of their gang gravely injured. The immediate comparison is of course Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, with the children forming a youthful alliance and even gifting themselves with the nicknames they would become infamous with. However this scene is literally just exposition, the police raiding the hideout as soon as everyone has chosen their name and moving the story forward a few years to meet the characters as young adults.

The film starts off rather unceremoniously, borrowing elements from different films (a montage set to The Sweets’ Ballroom Blitz towards the beginning of the film just screams Goodfellas) but it soon settles down and gets to business. The film is concerned with the formation of the gang and how they become involved with several groups with Italian Politics, becoming tools of the secret service and Fascist Terror groups as they become increasingly powerful.

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The film is split into three distinct sections, the focus shifting between the three friends as they each gather control of the gang they helped build. The first segment focuses on Lebanese the more brutish and straightforward of the characters. His character establishes the gang and is a key figure in allying the group with its political supporters. His right hands and childhood friends Ice and Dandy are the focus of the second and third segments respectively.

vlcsnap-8627.pngThe gangs rise to power is handled in a way not dissimilar to Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive, a quick flurry of action at the beginning of the film giving them all the power they could ever want. As mentioned before the film is more interested in how the gang, who actually operated in real life Rome in the 70s, 80s and early 90s, would maintain their status through deals with politicians and the Cosa Nostra. Whilst the periphery cast is as grand as you would expect from a two and a half hour gangster epic spanning three decades they are just ciphers. The film is focused on half a dozen characters, the three gangsters, two of their girlfriends and the Police Officer who pursues them intently.

Due to the fact it is based on the real life exploits of a decidedly notorious gang the film wastes little time in actually showing them being gangsters. We are shown their initial assault on a rival Crime Lord and a few assassinations, but largely the film is concerned at getting to the core of figures regarded as beasts by the general populace. This causes certain problems in tracking chronology, as despite events taking place over twenty years the film never makes an effort to age the actors or provide easily identifiable keystones for a timeline. What it does is link the film into news stories from the period, incorporating stock footage of events like bombings and assassinations.

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It is a technique often employed in movies, the only problem being that the Italian focus makes a lot of the stories hard to place. Certainly the only recognisable event for me was the bombing of Bologna. The film tries its hardest to link the gang with these events, even having Ice be at the bombing of Bologna. It is an interesting slant on the gangster situation, the relationship between powerful gangs and legitimately powerful men becoming far more overt than usual.

Romanzo Criminale is a film that is very pretty to look at even if it is not particularly inventive in its shooting. It lacks a lot of the panache and finesse you would expect, instead opting to maintain a subtle impassiveness. As such it is an attractive looking film, but there is never really anything to be awed by. The use of music is odd too, the didactic pop used effectively at times but sometimes proving a little too on the nose (White Lines playing as sometime prepares some Cocaine is just this side of comical). The little interludes scored by Paolo Buonvino are absolutely beautiful though, invoking Ludovico Einaudi and Angelo Badalamenti. These pieces of delicate music are used sparingly and surprisingly effective at creating genuine emotion.

vlcsnap-9820.pngThe standout aspect of the film is the performances though with the three main actors giving a lot of humanity to characters who could be immensely despicable. The actors responsible for Lebanese and Ice deserve the most credit; with both having to overcome characters that are both impassive and largely vicious. Lebanese in particular is a character who should be terrifying.

Lebanese is the son of a family of servants and as such he harbours a lot of ill will to anyone with wealth. He is certainly the most animalistic of the characters, his predatory mindset and lack of partner giving him very little for the audience to attach to. The character instead works through sheer charisma; he is a storm in a tea cup, a brooding force of nature waiting to strike and as such he is absolutely riveting to watch.

Ice is the audience identification figure, given the lions share of screentime his arc is not dissimilar to Michael Corleone’s journey in The Godfather. Like Michael he is a character who attempts to disconnect himself from the gang, only to be pulled back in when drastic actions puts the gang at risk. He is a far more human character than Lebanese partially due to his relationship with his girlfriend. However there is also a lot less depth to the character whom essentially goes from being an enforcer to being a paranoid ruler with very little in-between.

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Dandy brings the humanity to the film, the most cautious of the trio he is the politician of the group, the one who brokers deals. What makes Dandy interesting is the dynamic he has with his partner, a high class call girl who has been outright to be his permanent companion.Dandy is the most gentle of the trio and he is one who first falls in love, his love though unfortunately has her affections split between Dandy and the police inspector pursuing them. As such the situation soon starts to become a bit Lady Macbethish with the girl using her feminine wiles to keep Dandy from doing any harm to the inspector.

What Romanzo Criminale does is offer a glimpse into the minds of three people who would terrorise Rome for three decades. It also offers a glimpse at the corruption which would allow this to happen, intertwining Italy’s politics and its criminal elements at every opportunity. The film treads a well worn path but manages to succeed through the sheer strength of its ensemble of actors.

Cinema Obscura: Exiled

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Movies, Review with tags , , , on March 22, 2008 by Spike Marshall

Exiled PosterTo my infinite shame I only have a cursory knowledge of the cinema of Johnnie To, Exiled being the fourth film I have seen by the much vaunted director. I’ve always intended to see more of his films, but for whatever reason Hong Kong’s current auteur has been ridiculously poorly represented in this country.

Despite wide spread acclaim for his films, it was only until recently that you could obtain any of his films in this country aside from his duelling assassins movie Fulltime Killer which was in relation to the rest of his work a creative nadir.I first encountered the work of To when one of his films was shown on British television at some ridiculous hour in the morning. The movie in question would be The Mission, a film which still doesn’t have a proper DVD release (either in Europe or in Hong Kong) despite nearly a decade having passed since it was released.

The Mission would tell the story of a disparate group of professionals hired to protect a gangland boss. At the time I was in the midst of discovering Asian Cinema and in particular the balletic combat exemplified by the work of John Woo. As such I went into The Mission expecting the same kind of over the top gunplay and histrionics, what I got was instead a perfect representation of To’s methodology.

Still from a shoot out in ExiledThe Mission is a film which is conceptually an action film, but uses its action set pieces as a way of contextualising its main characters. To is far more interested in the divergent dynamics within his group of bodyguards and the moments of gunplay, characterised by an eerie stillness rather than the usual Hong Kong acrobatics, just serve as punctuation for his characters. Exiled takes a similar tact and in a lot of ways works as a thematic sequel to The Mission.

The film opens with knocking on a door, a pair of well dressed men asking the startled occupant if Mr. Wo is in. They are told that no one named Wo lives their and they promptly decamp to a nearby square. The process is repeated when two more men arrive, receiving exactly the same response and taking position in the same square.

Tai, Fat, Cat and Blaze

This opening, with its minimal dialogue, sets the tone of the film completely. Exiled is essentially a spaghetti western transposed to the Macau of 1998. The ambience and framing are perfect reproductions, even borrowing Leone patented headshots for the introduction of the characters. Even the scenery lends itself to this Spaghetti Western feel, with Macau being a Portuguese colony just about to be handed back to China. As such the streets are sun drenched and lined with pearly white villas which give a flavour of Mexico.

Blaze from ExiledThe four men are looking for Wo for different reasons, two of them Blaze and Fat are here to kill him by the order of Boss Fay. Tai and Cat, the other two men are here to protect Wo. The two teams stand watching each other, smoking cigars and waiting for Wo to return home. Wo’s wife stares nervously out of the window as she awaits the chaos her husband’s arrival will cause.

When the action does kick off, Wo’s attempts to slink back home being noticed by both Tai and Blaze, the film showcases a wrinkle on the To formula. To’s earlier films are best exemplified by their meditative, Zen like, depictions of action. Exiled maintains a sense of this stillness, the slow build up to the fracas involves Wo methodically loading his revolver as Tai and Blaze inexplicably shed bullets from their ammo clips, but the action itself is heightened to a point of near ridiculousness. The resultant gun battle in Wo’s home ends with two of the gunfighters shooting a wooden door through the air at each other as outside Cat shoots an empty can which flies dramatically at an on looking police officer.

The gunfight only ends when Wo’s wife appears holding Wo’s month old son, the hitmen and bodyguards deciding to cease fire and instead talk about the situation. The four men proceed to repair Wo’s broken home, fixing broken mirrors, filling in the bullet holes in doors, and generally returning everything to a state of order. The wrinkle in the plot is that all five men have known each other since they were kids, Wo and Tai falling foul of their previous employer after a botched assassination attempt. The five men decide to try and raise some money for Wo’s family; unfortunately this job forces them afoul of their deliriously malicious employer Boss Fay.

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That is about as much plot as I am willing to go into, because detailing anymore would just be a waste of time. Needless to say the five men find themselves drifting from action set piece to action set piece as they try and work out how to survive a dual assault from their previous employer and a local mob boss. Like The Mission the gunplay in the film only serves as punctuation for the characters, it is that which galvanises and informs them as people more than anything else. Whilst The Mission makes this point clear by having the action staged in a cool and detached manner Exiled takes a different approach and heightens the action to a point where it becomes almost a parody of itself.

There are some moments of genuine viciousness of the film, all perpetrated by Boss Fay, but the general rule of the action scenes is detachment. Each gun battle is superbly orchestrated, with a genuinely suspenseful build up proceeding three of the four major fracases in the film, but it is a means to an end within the film. The movie is far more concerned with the internal dynamics of the group, with Blaze and Tai trying to manoeuvre around each other to obtain their goals.

fay-and-blaze.pngBlaze is the star of the show and is played with typical aplomb by the always great Anthony Wong. Blaze becomes the defacto leader of the group and the focus of Boss Fay’s anger and malevolence. He is a classic unwilling hero, growling at those who ask for his opinion before finally interjecting with the correct course of action. There is a real conflict within the character, a part of him wanting to stay the course and do his job and the part which knows he can’t possibly kill his childhood friend and this internal confusion makes him dominate any scene he is in.

The other members of the team are never given quite as much to work with, but slot naturally into their roles. Fat and Cat are two characters with very little to contribute to the story, but who are made important facets of the film due to exuberant performances from Lam Set and Roy Cheung respectively. Tai exists as the emotional core of the group, the gangster who has let his heart rule his head and the ever reliable Francis Ng does a fantastic job of dividing audience sympathies between his character and Anthony Wong’s Blaze.

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The standout of the cast is Simon Yam who gives a performance as Boss Fay that is both hilarious and terrifying. He is a truly loathable character, but he is played with so much energy and passion that you can’t help but grow to like him a little.


The cast are all Johnnie To regulars and as such it allows them to naturally fit into the vision of the film. Exiled is an ambient piece more than anything, mood, tone and atmosphere being its main components. What the actors do is become part of the tone and mood and as such it all becomes a homogenous product. Simon Yam is a perfect example of this, usually a fairly restrained and toned down actor he understands the need for a big and charismatic villain in the film and completely cuts loose. He becomes a part of the films tone and sets up a genuine external threat to the team by embracing the heightened thematics of the film.

What these actors also allow To to do is focus on the aesthetic elements of the film. Exiled is a film that just radiates style and cool and it is all down to the visual choices that To makes. The violence in the film is naturally heightened and To amplifies this by making each bullet wound explode in clouds of red mist. It is an unusual choice but within the framework of the film it is a choice that makes perfect sense. It allows the bloodshed to standout from the luminously beautiful backgrounds he stages his fights in.

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Exiled is a superlatively beautiful film at times, shot with the kind of care and precision you’d usually only expect from a piece of arthouse cinema. Macau makes a good playground for To’s camera, the aesthetic of the country itself fitting the breezy and stylised nature of Exiled perfectly. The spaghetti western tone of the film is helped immensely by a playful soundtrack incorporating harmonics, panpipes and guitars.

cop.pngBut for all of the auditory and visual tricks To uses the core of Exiled is still decidedly simple. It is a film purely about the bond between men, the unwritten code of brotherhood and this simplicity and allows the different elements of the film to mesh together as a fantastic whole.

Cinema Obscura: The Vanishing (1988)

Posted in Cinema Obscura, Europa, Movies, Review with tags , , on March 12, 2008 by Spike Marshall

poster1.jpgConceptually a traditional missing person film is an impossibility. Despite factual evidence to the contrary movie audiences have been conditioned to accept that Big Brother is always watching. We are a society convinced that we are under constant surveillance, so how are filmmakers supposed to present an adequate mystery when the audience is acutely aware of the, albeit fictionalised, methods in which a person could be found?

The solution presented in George Sluizer’s Spoorloos (hereby referred to by its English translation the Vanishing) is to have the mystery focused on the why, rather than the how. The Vanishing is not about the search for a living person, but about the search for truth and the search for a rationalisation of the irrational. This is the reason I was so taken with the film.

Going back to what I wrote in Ouroboros I first watched The Vanishing last night, and yet I was already aware of the shocking ending. Because of the apparent ineptness of the American remake, made by George Sulizer himself, the ending to the original The Vanishing, which was subsequently altered for the remake, had become a sort of cinematic legend. As such I was presented with the resolution to the film as a cultural meme long before I sat down and actually watched the movie. Of course now I have the dilemma of whether to discuss the ending in this review, under the assumption that everyone who is interested in the movie already knows about it, or to leave it decidedly ambiguous. It is an old movie, but a movie whose appreciation can rest upon knowledge of those last moments. I have therefore added spoiler warnings for your convenience.

The Vanishing starts off with a dual narrative, interlinked by one key event. Rex Hofman (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia Wagter (Johanna ter Steege) are a Dutch couple holidaying in France. After Saskia goes missing at a service station Rex starts a frantic search to find her. The other narrative follows the person whom we assume is Saskia’s abductor, a French family man by the name of Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu). Whilst Saskia serves as the catalyst and emotional core (more on this later) of the movie, the intellectual weight of the film is carried by Rex and Raymond who engage in a cat and mouse game of sorts

The Vanishing - RaymondRaymond is the more fascinating character of the two, largely because of how the film approaches him. One of the ways the movie defied my expectations was by immediately showing Raymond’s preparation for the abduction mere moments after we have seen Rex’s initial search for Saskia. It completely changes the tone of the film and stops it from being a traditional thriller and skews it towards something far more cerebral and rewarding. By showing Raymond’s preparation for and subsequent failed attempts at abductions the audience is put into an unusual and uncomfortable place.

 

Raymond is the focus of nearly 50% of the films running time, and despite being a complete sociopath he is also a far deeper and involving character than Rex. His relationship with his family, particularly his daughter, and the way he practices the abductions are perfect examples of this juxtaposition of humanity and sociopath menace. There is also an intelligence and practicality to Raymond that is also enthralling. Watching him test how secluded his holiday home is, testing how long the effects of chloroform last and practicing how he will trap his victim is utterly fascinating. It is also especially disturbing if like me you have a notion of where his actions are ultimately leading.

The Vanishing - RexRex is a far less relatable character, despite the fact he is the protagonist of the film. His character arc is a fairly well worn one, with him pursuing the truth of Saskia’s abduction with a fevered determination. The majority of his screen time is spent with him pursuing Raymond who three years after the abduction is still goading Rex. Desperate to meet the abductor face to face, Rex follows invitations sent to him via postcard for a meeting. Even three years after the fact he is determined to find Saskia, despite the affections of his new girlfriend.

What is interesting about Rex is that within the narrative his only purpose is become another plaything for Raymond. Raymond has already extolled power over Rex by making him chase around the country, but when Rex goes on National Television begging for a chance to meet the abductor and for information about Saskia’s fate he sees an opportunity for even greater control. The third act of the film revolves around a roadtrip of sorts, with Raymond approaching Rex and agreeing to take him to Saskia. This journey takes up more than a third of the films running time, the discussion between the two men becoming the films intellectual core.

It is at this point that I’m heading into spoiler territory, so look away for the next few paragraphs if you want to appreciate this absolutely fantastic film with as little knowledge as possible.

The Vanishing - Rex and RaymondAs soon as Rex gets into Raymond’s car his fate is sealed. There is no going back for him; the entire process of the road trip is simply a means for Raymond to manipulate Rex into destroying himself. As they drive Raymond starts to detail the choices in his life that would lead him to the abduction of Saskia. His rationale is a thing of genius, largely because of its underlying motive. Everything he says, every story and anecdote is shaping Rex’s mindset to make him easily malleable. The most obvious allusion I can think of is Russian Literature, particularly Crime and Punishment, where characters begin to rationalise the complete destruction of another human being for purely intellectual reasons.

The reason for the abduction and murder is both coldly logical and utterly insane, operating on the kind of skewed perception that only true sociopaths can appreciate. The idea of not being a true hero, until you’ve proven that you can commit acts of true villainy is hardly a weighty philosophy but its presentation within the context of the film is so well realised that it becomes quite brilliant. Of course it is hard to ascribe any truth to what Raymond say, when it is quite clear his intention is to make Rex choose to be killed at his hands. The climax of the film, where Rex drinks a cup of obviously spiked coffee to learn the truth about Saskia and finds himself waking up buried in a coffin underground is made all the more disturbing because of the illusion of choice.

End of Spoilers

The Vanishing - SaskiaWhat makes the end of film so truly heartbreaking and terrifying is the final flashback to the day of the abduction where we see Saskia and Raymond interact and ultimately see Saskia’s abduction first hand. After the intellectualising of the crime, it is a hard blow because it adds a human element to something which had become increasingly abstract. There is so much joy and vitality and energy in Saskia’s last moments that it takes the academic sheen off of the abduction and reverts the film back to its horror roots.

The Vanishing is a beautiful, intelligent and meticulously crafted movie. The kind of film which makes you glad to be a fan of foreign films. It is cold and intelligent and dark, and yet bursting with humanity, and beauty and life. It is an odd film, but a film which is rewarding for its oddness.

Cinema Obscura: Hellevator

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Review with tags , , , on March 8, 2008 by Spike Marshall

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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.

Hellevator - Workers

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.

Helevator PhoneThere 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.

mandesk.jpgHis 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.

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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.

Cinema Obscura: Survive Style 5+

Posted in Asian Cinema, Cinema Obscura, Movies, Review with tags , on December 22, 2007 by Spike Marshall

Survive Style 5+ is perhaps one of my favourite modern Christmas movies. I remember catching it first during the Leeds International Film Festival. It was being shown as a triple bill with Miike’s attempt at a kids film ‘The Great Yokai War’ and the mean and moody revenge film ‘A Bittersweet Life’. Survive Style was the unknown quantity at this point as the buzz on ‘A Bittersweet Life’ was tremendous and I was a devout Miike follower at the time. That Survive Style 5+ left the biggest impression on me is testament to how great a piece of work it actually is.

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One of the things which I really hate about reviews is the entire ‘flavour’ section, it’s important to try and get an idea of what the film is about but it also means that for a paragraph or two I’m forced to abandon any attempt at analysis and just write down some key point plots and interesting facts. So stick with me for the next few paragraphs.

Survive Style 5+ is the first feature film from Gen Sekiguchi who had previously been a director of countless adverts and two short films. The film is broken up into five separate, but interlinked, narratives in a style not to dissimilar to Magnolia. One story is about a nameless man who keeps murdering his wife only for her to return as soon as he gets back from burying her, another story is about a marketing executives attempts to off her lover and keep her career going, the third story is about an English Hitman and his Japanese employer/translator, the fourth story is about a father who is hypnotised into thinking he is a bird and the final story is about a group of young small time crooks.

 

These narratives link and overlap throughout the film with the English Hitman being a constant presence in all of the stories. He is the reason for the father staying hypnotised, he is brought to the country by order of the marketing executive, and he is employed by the nameless man to try and sort out his undead wife. Whilst this structuring sounds confusing it actually works perfectly within the confines of the film, although certain elements of the story are far less interesting than others. More than anything else the disrupted and constantly shifting narrative plays well against the generally anarchic tone the film has.

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Survive Style 5+ feels like a mental breakdown put to film, a joyous breakdown for sure, but still something so pure in its insanity and weirdness that it takes a bit of getting used to. On my first watching I spent a good hour of the film trying to work out how the director had secured the budget for a film that looks beyond lavish but seemed to have no commercial viability. Certainly it feels far too strange, far too odd and self aware to be viewed as a traditional comedy but that’s the only way you can really sell it.

Layered within the story of super powered wives rising from the grave to obtain revenge on their murderous husbands are homages to Stanley Kubrick*, the marketing executive story is littered with snippets of the executives deranged advert ideas and has a cameo from Sonny Chiba which is hilarious but utterly baffling, even the more grounded story about homoerotic underpinnings in a group of thieves is designed to the point of being artificial.

It’s a piece of work full to the brim with ideas and which is just desperate to entertain and amuse. In that sense it works perfectly well and the dollhouse aesthetic simply serves as a staging area for these bright and colourful characters to do their thing. The only problem is that the dollhouse artifice is so well constructed that you start to expect more of the film. When the mise-en-scene is so immaculate, the music so perfect, the framing almost breathtaking, it’s hard to not be a little annoyed when all you’re getting is light and airy comedy.

But that is what the film is trying to do and as such the film becomes more about enjoying the sheer visual decadence and inherent craziness of the situation. This is a film where whenever a man’s wife gets killed she is resurrected with super powers related to how she was dispatched, a film where a man is attacked by a giant stocking, where Vinnie Jones is an esoteric hitman asking people for their ‘function in life’ before depriving them of it, where a stage hypnotists kicks off his show with a cock thrusting song and dance number, where thumping electronica blasts out whenever two smalltime crooks have eye contact, where a primary school teacher mocks her classes pictures for their unoriginality, where Kubrick is referenced in an advert about male impotency and a hundred yard sprint,……

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Taken for what it is, a simple but beautiful film all about trying to be entertaing then it works admirably. But there is the sense that there should be something more, Gen Sekiguchi is an obviously talented filmmaker and his assembled cast do great work (even Vinnie who doesn’t act as much as present a more charming version of himself) with the sparse material they’re give and as such you’re craving a little sustenance on something other than a visceral level.

As such it almost feels like an extended commercial all artifice and hilarity with no depth.

*There’s at least three direct references to Kubrick films during the course of Survive Style 5+ and the aesthetic choices really hark back to some of his earlier work. It’s easy to imagine that if Kubrick had a more giddy temperament this is the sort of film he’d make to relax.