Monday, July 27, 2015

Freeze Me (2000)

AKA Freezer

By their very design rape/revenge films are bound to be divisive no matter the original intention of the filmmaker. Its always fascinating and at times maddening to hear debates on the artistic merits, or lack thereof according to the subgenre’s detractors of films like Thriller: A Cruel Picture (1973), I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981) just to name three of the most famous examples. More often than not the arguments for and against these type of films return to the same talking points. Defenders of the subgenre say the films are empowering to victimized women and hail the directors as feminist friendly while the opposition claims the films are misogynistic and the (primarily) male directors depiction of rape glamorizes the act. In many ways Takashi Ishii is the perfect director for the subgenre. Rape has always been a prominent theme in Ishii’s work going all the way back to his Angel Guts manga series and the films made from said manga and a good many of Ishii’s films inspire the exact same debates as rape/revenge films with many praising Ishii as a feminist filmmaker and others dismissing his work as merely sexist exploitation. Freeze Me, Ishii’s first “semi-traditional” rape/revenge film proved not only to be just as polarizing but also easily one of Ishii’s best films and one of the most confrontational films the rape/revenge subgenre has to offer.

Five years before moving to Tokyo to start a new life, young Chihiro was gang raped by a group of childhood friends who also videotape the incident. Fast forward five years and Chihiro is accosted by one of her former assailants in her apartment building. It turns out one member of the group that raped Chihiro has just gotten released from prison and as a celebration the rest of the gang has tracked Chihiro down and made plans to meet up and relive the assault. Pushed too far, Chihiro eventually snaps and begins to murder her attackers as they arrive, in the process discovering just how handy industrial sized freezers can be.

For a rape/revenge film, Freeze Me (Furîzu mî, フリーズ・ミー) is slyly unconventional in that despite following the familiar trajectory of the subgenre, that being victimized woman has enough and exacts righteous revenge on her wrong doers, with this being an Ishii film its agenda is far greater. At its core, Freeze Me is a vicious attack on the social stigma faced by victims of rape and abuse, also touching upon the typical societal view of women and while Ishii’s main target is Japanese society, the theme is universal. Its fairly obvious that Chihiro’s main concern is victim blaming and the damage that can be done to her reputation because of it and because of this some of the directions the film takes will no doubt frustrate many, particularly Chihiro’s motivations behind her actions. Chihiro is a fascinatingly contradictory character in that in the more emboldened she becomes in her self-defense the more her mental state deteriorates and the keeping of the bodies of her rapists in freezers goes against her trying to escape her past. Its these contradictions that really make the point Ishii is trying to make about victim shaming heard all the more louder and clearer and psychologically places the film at the same level as Ms. 45. Ishii balances the gritty story with instances of high style, wisely waiting until the films closing moments to really let loose with the chromatic neon visuals, the effects of which are brilliant and makes the ending of the film all the more powerful.

Again, reaction to Freeze Me was and still is divided every which way with some reviews being insightful and thought provoking to others being mind-numbingly moronic. Among the more interesting is film writer/programmer Kier-La Janisse’s take on the film in her excellent House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films where Janisse cites frustration at Chihiro’s thought process and specifically mentions the freezing of the bodies. In a phenomenal piece for Senses of Cinema, James R. Alexander contextualizes the film along with a detailed history of the rape/revenge film along with a thorough exploration of the depiction of rape in Japanese exploitation (“pink”) films. Of course there are also the reviews which on one hand should be called out for their idiocy but on the other really don’t deserve the attention. A constant source of amazement however is seeing how many reviewers throw out the word “misogyny” without having the slightest clue as to what the dictionary definition of the word is. Interpretation of a film is one thing and with films like these there’s always going to be differences of opinion but blatant ignorance is another thing entirely. Freeze Me is not a misogynistic film. Although difficult, challenging and unflinching it also happens to be one of the most intelligent rape/revenge films making it an essential film from the subgenre and an essential Ishii title.    

Monday, July 13, 2015

Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988)

AKA Red Dizziness

With Jess Franco gone its safe to assume that Takashi Ishii is the most “free” filmmaker still working today. With the possible exception of Lars von Trier, its hard to think of another director making films with the type of complete artistic freedom that Ishii has, particularly for the past ten years. Of course this type of freedom can sometimes come at the expense of an audience and Ishii’s more recent output has divided viewers with many dismissing it as being over indulgent, obsessive and fetishistic yet its exactly those things that make Ishii one of the most exciting and consistently audacious filmmakers with films like Flower and Snake (2004), its 2005 sequel, The Brutal Hopelessness of Love (2007) and Sweet Whip (2013) just to name a few. Had Ishii never directed a film his reputation would still be firmly in place as the man behind the Angel Guts manga series which would be turned into one of the most well known and financially lucrative Japanese exploitation, or “pink film” (“Pinku eiga”) series with most films featuring the “Angel Guts” moniker being made for the legendary Nikkatsu studio. Ishii wrote the films from stories based on his manga and eventually made his directorial debut with the fifth film in the series, Red Vertigo, easily the best in the series and a knockout debut which would only be a sign of things to come.

While working the night shift, nurse Nami is assaulted by two patients who attempt to rape her. In a state of shock, she rushes home only to find her photographer boyfriend cheating on her with one of his models. Even more distressed than before, Nami takes off on her bike but is struck accidentally by Muraki, a disgraced former stock broker with several people after him for stealing a large amount of cliental money from his firm. Nami comes too, only to find Muraki molesting her. After explaining his situation to Nami, and eventually hers to him, the two bond over their shared desperation and a bizarre romance begins to form between the two.

What’s bound to surprise many about Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (Tenshi no Harawata: Akai Memai, 天使のはらわた 赤い眩暈) is Ishii’s approach and handling of the material. While the films instances of sexual violence are undeniably harsh as is the case with most pink films, those looking for a total sleaze fest will be sorely disappointed. Although the mere suggestion is enough to disgust most, the fact is that Red Vertigo is ultimately a love story about the preverbal “lost souls” beaten down by life who seem to find some solace in each others misery. What’s interesting is that Ishii’s doesn’t seem so much interested in answering the question of why Nami would want to begin a relationship with Muraki but rather exploring the slow development of the relationship which raises several possibilities as to what Nami’s reasoning is. Muraki’s mentality is equally ambiguous in the sense that its unclear if his constant apologies to Nami for his actions are legitimate but its also apparent that he’s in desperate need of a companion. What’s really incredible are the moments of sensitivity Ishii peppers amongst all the ugliness and despite how hard to take the directions taken by the narrative might be, there’s no question that Ishii is on Nami’s side. With this being his first film, Ishii lets known what will become his visual calling cards right off the bat with brilliant neon lighting, surrounding his characters with constant rainfall and a dose of surreality by way of a random dream sequence early on.

Its been mentioned many times before but Ishii’s original intensions when he began writing and drawing the Angel Guts series bears repeating. Numerous viewers have written the series off as being nothing more than sexist rape fantasies which is clearly painting with a broad brush. Ishii intended the series as a tribute to victimized women with the “Guts” in the series namesake referring to courage. According to Ishii, prior to his manga women were depicted as nothing but sex objects with no characterization. Ishii’s creation of Nami (the name of the female protagonists in all the comics and films) was in direct opposition to that in an attempt to write and draw a female character rooted in reality. A lot of the negative criticism directed towards the series, and Ishii’s films in general for that matter has primarily come from western critics while in Japan Ishii is celebrated by some as a feminist director which speaks to the differences in eastern and western views in regards to topics like the depictions of sexism and rape in the media. Red Vertigo was one hell of a way to make an entrance as a director, essentially establishing every narrative and visual motif Ishii would continue exploring and continues to explore to this day. Unquestionably one of the most important pink films from possibly the most important pink series and the debut of a true maverick.