Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Kaidan means "ghost story," but here, it's short for Kaidan Kasanegafuchi which translates roughly as Ghost Story: The Depths of Kasane (Kasane is the name of a swamp). This 2007 film is one of at least half a dozen adaptations of the classic supernatural revenge tragedy Shinkei Kasanegafuchi, penned by rakugo (stylized monologue) performer Encho Sanyutei in 1859. Indeed, at the beginning of the film we see Encho himself telling the tale in the traditional manner. Encho's story is heavily influenced by Namboku Tsuruya IV's Kabuki shocker Tokaido Yotsuya kaidan (1825, another source for numerous films), and these tales, along with others, form the foundation of the traditional long-haired, vengeful lady ghost so prevalent in J-horror films of the late 90s and early 00s.

So it comes as little surprise that director Hideo Nakata (The Ring), seeing the phenomena he'd almost single-handedly launched a decade earlier beginning to wane, should return to the old well (as it were). Here we have a finely crafted, well-paced, traditional kaidan, masterfully mounted with just the right blend of stately grace and blood-curdling chills. Those new to jidai-geki (period drama) should have little trouble adjusting; the film is accessible, in similar 21st century fashion, to Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy (Twilight Samurai, Hidden Blade, Love and Honor) and Kon Ichikawa's Dora-Heita -- except here there be ghosts.

The story involves two generations, with a sins-of-the-fathers theme woven throughout. Essentially its boy meets girl, but neither know that his father brutally murdered her father. He's a nice guy, but cursed by his wicked family karma to inadvertently cause the deaths of a lot of people, at least one of whom becomes that vengeful wraith with all the hair ... Kaidan should not be confused with Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 masterpiece based on the ghost stories of Scotsman Lafcadio Hearn (at least one of which was a re-working of a story by Encho!).

Personally, my only other reference point is the B&W 1957 Kaidan Kasanegafuchi (Ghosts of Kasane Swamp) directed by Nobuo Nakagawa. Clocking in at a little over an hour, it actually utilizes more special effects than Nakata's version! The pace is also more frenetic than that of its 2007 cousin (the latter running at just under two hours), and the story much foreshortened. Tetsuro Tamba plays a villainous character who never shows up in Nakata's film, although several additional characters not in the Nakagawa version do. I'm guessing that Nakata's interpretation is more loyal to the source material and that Nakagawa did a bit of cutting (a la Olivier with Hamlet) for the sake of cinematic forward thrust.

Those familiar with my books will know I'm a sucker for Japanese period drama, as well as Japanese horror, so a film like this is right up my particular street. And it's an excellent interpretation of a kaidan classic. What's not to like?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Three Deadly Beauties at the Japan Society

It's things like this that make me want to move to NYC tomorrow: Mad, Bad ... & Dangerous to Know: Three Untamed Beauties (March 31 - April 18) features 13 films starring Ayako Wakao, Meiko Kaji or Mariko Okada. I've written about all these fine, fine, super-fine actresses in the past, but have only managed to see half these pictures. If you're looking for action, these are the women to see, although you'll likely get more than you bargained for -- they're fierce!

BTW, if you just read the previous post and want to see Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, it's playing Saturday, April 3. Wish I could go!

Love Exposure

Four hours just fly by in this epic tale of transgression and teenage love. Director Shion Sono, who gave us the fantastic Suicide Club (2001) and the fantastically awful Noriko's Dinner Table (2005), spins a yarn that, at its core, follows the standard boy-meets-girl formula while continually spiraling off into areas like child abuse, transvestitism, religious mania, castration, incest, tosatsu (up-skirt photography) and hot schoolgirl-on-schoolgirl action. Except that it doesn't feel like that. What I mean is, the film is morally balanced in such a way that all of the perversity of modern life seems to diminish, to take its proper place in the face of true love. The beauty and power of love, whether earthly or divine, is what Sono is concerned with here, and all the other weird stuff that people get up to is presented as silly or pathetic. How refreshing!

Sono also returns to a theme explored in Noriko's Dinner Table, that of makeshift/dysfunctional families. In the world of these films (as well as Suicide Club to a degree), the Japanese family unit has been irreparably damaged, and it's up to individuals to reconstitute it, however badly or perversely. In the case of Love Exposure, the young male protagonist Yu (pop idol Takahiro Nishijima) winds up in a family situation in which the girl of his dreams, Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima, another pop idol), has become his "sister." Her "mother" (really just an ex-lover of Yoko's dirty daddy) is going to marry Yu's dad (Atsuro Watabe), a Roman Catholic priest. What's that you say? Catholic priests can't marry? Yes, this is one of many conflicts that arise in the film between contemporary Christianity and affairs of the heart (and groin).

Love Exposure enjoyed a rapturous reception on the 2009 international festival circuit, scooping up awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, Kinema Junpo Awards, Fant-Asia Film Festival and others. It's without a doubt Sono's finest work to date and could well stand as his magnum opus.

I don't want to say too much more, as this is the kind of film that's best approached with a minimum of preconceptions. I will suggest a prerequisite, however: Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. The main character in this seemingly unrelated exploitation classic from 1972 will figure largely in Love Exposure, and a familiarity with her will only serve to enhance your enjoyment of this amazing picture.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


As giant, killer wild boar movies go, I can safely say the Korean Chaw (2009) is the best since the Australian Razorback (1984). While more derivative (think Jaws except with a giant, killer wild boar), Chaw is certainly more funny and upbeat than its sleazy and lugubrious Aussie cousin (although the latter's monster is pre-CGI and, thus, better). I suggest a double feature, with Razorback first; Chaw will serve as the palate-cleanser (to get the taste of dusty, rotting offal out of your mouth -- yuck!).

So you've got a frustrated Seoul cop who's transferred to a provincial post out in the boondocks. He thinks it's going to be all fishing and afternoon naps. Boy is he mistaken. Seems there's this huge ... well, you know. Cue the Jaws prototypes (town leaders who downplay the danger for the sake of tourism, professional hunter who's tough but ultimately not up to the job, the aforementioned cop, a scientist) and away we go. Aside from these stock characters, the townies are a hoot, and the whole business is infused with a uniquely Korean comic sensibility. (Don't ask me what "uniquely Korean" means -- just a vibe I've picked up from watching a lot of Korean movies.) Broad, and at times brutal, the gags are nevertheless consistently hilarious and I laughed out loud more than once.

The grand finale appears to be an homage to the final scene in Razorback, albeit with a different climax. All in all an entertaining hoot. You won't be snorting at this boar-fest!

Vengeance Trilogy

I remember when the only way you could see one of these pictures was on an import DVD (my original copy of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a region-3 disk out of Hong Kong). How gratifying, then, to have a box set like this, boasting a whopping eight disks! There's also a glossy collector's booklet featuring production stills and essays by Hollywood insiders like Eli Roth and my boy John Kreng (Fight Choreography: The Art of Non-Verbal Dialogue).

The feature disks all have commentaries (three different ones in the case of Oldboy) and, this being an eight-disk set, there's a veritable smorgasbord of extras. Since Sympathy opened to less than favorable reviews (following director Park Chan-wook's more crowd-pleasing Joint Security Area, its ultraviolence was off-putting to audiences), its extras disk is the leanest. That said, we're talking several making-of featurettes, cast interviews, storyboards, stills, trailer and a profile of director Park Chan-wook by Brit talk show host Jonathan Ross. Yeah, that's the "skimpy" extras disk.

By the time you get to Oldboy, it's insane. Oldboy was such an international phenomenon that, in addition to the standard array of DVD extras, there are featurettes about the phenomenon itself (like Le Grand Prix at Cannes, a short documentary about the splash the film made at the renowned French film festival). There's a solid two disks worth of extras for Oldboy including five making-ofs, interviews, deleted scenes and a 3-hour video diary.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (or simply Lady Vengeance as it is called here) is similarly well-endowed with additional features, as well as an alternate, director's cut version of the film.

I reviewed all three films in the Vengeance Trilogy in Asia Shock, so I'll leave it to you to check that out for my own critical take. Upon obtaining this new box set, I took the opportunity to watch these films again, and seeing them all together I came away with a greater appreciation for the first film, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In retrospect I think it is probably the finest of the bunch. I found greater appreciation for it's subtle, artistic touches in contradistinction to the manga-esque outrages of Oldboy (as great as they are).

In any case, do I really need to tell you to go get this box? If any one box contains the essence of "asia shock," it's this one.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Nightmare Detective

I was all set to enjoy this film. And I tried, believe me, I tried. How could it be bad? Directed by that titan of Tokyo transgression Shinya Tsukamoto (A Snake of June, Tokyo Fist, Hiruko the Goblin, Gemeni, Tetsuo the Iron Man) and featuring a cast of Japanese cult film favorites like Masanobu Ando (Battle Royale, Kids Return) and Ryuhei Matsuda (Taboo, Izo) as well as crusty but benign stalwarts Ren Osugi and Yoshio Harada (their works too numerous to mention), it seemed like a slam dunk. So what happened? Well, as Groucho Marx once remarked after a particularly bad joke, "They can't all be good. You've got to expect that."

Considering Tsukamoto's stature and body of work, I suppose he's entitled to a stinker now and then. And Nightmare Detective is that odoriferous offering. The story begins with a promising array of elements (murder, suicide, psychic phenomena, dark doings in the dreamworld, a monster), yet they all soon melt into so much boring mush. Two factors are fatal to one's enjoyment of the picture: 1) a non-actress in a pivotal role and 2) a talky talkfest of a script. The latter problem speaks for itself (in overlong, repetitive dialog sequences). As for the former, it boils down to the abilities (or lack thereof) of mononomial model/singer Hitomi. She's beautiful in a computer-generated sort of way, but only manages to muster one facial expression throughout the film, a sour frown. The camera, or perhaps Tsukamoto himself, loves Hitomi, so we get lots of long extreme close-ups of her frozen visage creating a feeling more like flipping through a magazine than watching a movie.

The film occasionally stumbles into something interesting, like the surprisingly compelling arguments for suicide delivered by Tsukamoto himself (here playing a knife-wielding maniac whose own wounds are somehow healed when someone else takes their own life). And of course the gory action sequences are top-notch, especially when we get a glimpse of the rampaging nightmare beast. But that's about it. Overall, Nightmare Detective is 20% intriguing, 80% deadly dull.

So instead of watching this film, may I suggest instead checking out one of the others I mentioned en passant? You'll have a much better time and any resultant nightmares will be good ones!