Monday, June 29, 2015

The Isle (2000)

The late ‘90’s/early 2000’s saw a worldwide surge of trangressive and boundary pushing cinema not seen since the ’70’s. American filmmakers like Larry Clark were causing a stir at festivals worldwide with films like Bully (2001) and Ken Park (2002), the later even found itself banned outright in Australia. France of course had the so called “new French extremity” movement with films like Baise-moi (2000) and filmmakers like Catherine Breillat beautifully blurring the lines between art and pornography, a tradition also practiced by Denmark’s Lars von Trier. Perhaps at the forefront of the new millenniums newfound interest in “extreme” cinema was Asia. Japan would be an obvious point of reference with directors like Takashi Miike taking on screen violence to the next level in a film like Ichi the Killer (2001) as well as shattering every social taboo imaginable with Visitor Q (2001) along with Takashi Ishii testing the limits of Japanese censorship with Flower and Snake (2004). Not wanting to be left out, South Korea also had it band of cinematic trouble makers, the leader of which is unquestionably Kim Ki-duk. Kim had three films under his belt before helming 2000’s The Isle, a film which earned a reputation fairly quickly due to reports of some festival audiences either fainting or vomiting. Understandable, but just like Miike, Kim offers so much more than just shallow shocks and The Isle proves just that.  

On the run after shooting his lover after finding her with another man, Hyun-Shik (Yoosuk Kim) arrives at a remote fishing retreat of sorts to hide out. The island is run by the mute Hee-Jin (Jung Suh) who makes her living selling supplies and occasionally herself to the fishermen who rent the floating cabins on the isle. Hee-Jin takes a liking to Hyun-Shik and the two bond out of their lineless and desperation which slowly develops into a mutually masochistic romance.  

Although Kim would keep expanding upon his fascination with the extreme behavior the ideas of love and relationships can lead to with films like Bad Guy (2001), Time (2006) and Moebius (2013), The Isle (Seom, ) is perhaps the ultimate Kim film in that Kim finds a perfect balance between the quiet meditation his films are known for and shrieking grotesqueness. This is a film of incredibly lyrical beauty by way of Kim’s eye for amazing scenery and the brilliant cinematography that comes with it as well as the films haunting score. The moments of tenderness between Hyun-Shik and Hee-Jin are legitimately touching and never once cross over into mawkish territory thanks to the go for broke performance of Jung Suh and Yoosuk Kim and its precisely that which make the films instances of brutality all the more jarring. When the “real world” interferes with the self-contained isolated universe Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik have created for themselves, the only reaction they know is violence, either self-inflicted or to each other (and often involving the use of fish hooks). Dialogue is used only when absolutely necessary and the silence makes the development of the films central relationship all the more fascinating, particularly when various side elements Kim has added throughout the film eventually connect with the main love story. While Kim takes the film into surreal territory for the closing moments leaving things on an ambiguous note, what is clear is that for better or worse, Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik are indeed perfect for each other.

Although Kim’s films have usually faired better internationally than in his home country, some even winning major festival awards, The Isle did run into some issues particularly in England where the BBFC delayed its release on account of the films instances of animal violence, mainly against fish. On that front Kim took the Ruggero Deodato defense saying "We cooked all the fish we used in the film and ate them, expressing our appreciation.” Unsurprisingly some also took issue with the films violence sometimes crossing over into sexual territory, but it would be another one of Kim’s films, Bad Guy that really infuriated critics and not just feminists who dismissed the film and Kim as misogynist. Kim is still causing trouble today with his 2013 film Moebius causing perhaps his most major controversy yet in South Korea, so much so that the film was essentially banned until Kim was forced to make 21 cuts in order to secure domestic distribution. With the state of cinema as it is today, it’s a blessing that there are filmmakers like Kim still making films that not simply irritate the hyper moralists but are also daring and challenging in their originality. The Isle makes for a perfect introduction to Kim’s world. In pure Kim fashion its a film that is both contemplative and at times confrontational and still has the power to stun 15 after its initial release.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Gozu (2003)

AKA Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu (極道恐怖大劇場 牛頭, Yakuza Horror Theatre: Gozu)

Along with being exhaustingly prolific, one of the things that makes Takashi Miike such an exciting discovery for film fans is his versatility and the unpredictability that comes with it. Despite helming several films a year and covering every genre imaginable, Miike still manages to leave a signature, oftentimes insane stamp on every single film no matter how different it is to the one that came before it. To give a good example of this, 2001 alone saw the release of films like Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris. Quite the range. There’s also not many directors who would even think of approaching yakuza crime films like Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), The City of Lost Souls (2000) or the Dead or Alive trilogy (1999-2002) the way Miike does. This diversity is ever present in Miike’s horror films be it Audition (1999), The Happiness of the Katakuris (that is if the film is even classifiable at all in terms of genre), One Missed Call (2003), Imprint (2006) and most recently Over Your Dead Body (2014). Then there’s Gozu. Made the same year as One Missed Call which again is a perfect example of just how varied Miike is while working in the same genre, Gozu is one of Miike’s most abstract films along with being one of his best and like most everything in Miike’s oeuvre, mind-bogglingly original.

Low ranking yakuza Minami is given the job of killing Ozaki, one of his superiors in fear of Ozaki’s mental instability being detrimental for business. Minami isn’t exactly up to the task though as Ozaki is very much a mentor to Minami and the two share a deep bond. A mishap on the road however leads to Ozaki being inadvertently mortally wounded, although after Minami makes a pit stop to clear his thoughts Ozaki’s body mysteriously disappears from Minami’s car. Completely baffled, Minami sets out on the increasingly surreal journey to find Ozaki encountering one strange character and situation after another while also uncovering some truths about himself along the way.

Given the material, its inevitable that Gozu (literally “Cow head”) would be compared to the works of the David’s Lynch and Cronenberg and Miike himself acknowledges those comparisons. There are indeed moments where Gozu resembles films like Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) however ultimately the brand of surrealism on display in Gozu is quintessentially Miike. Here Miike takes the slow burn approach ala Audition and fuses it with yakuza elements along with the absurdity of The Happiness of the Katakuris sans the musical numbers. Some of the situations Minami finds himself in are so over the top in their bizarreness that the film crosses over into comedic territory while still being unsettling due to their sheer oddness. And odd is it ever. Men with half the pigment in their face missing, a deranged brother and lactating sister inn keeping team, the titular cow headed demon, these are the types that inhabit the world of Gozu, not to mention a climatic scene which will give even the most jaded viewers something they’ve never seen before. Like Lynch, Miike often gets accused of weirdness for weirdness sake by those who can’t see past the abstractions and there’s much more to Gozu than a bunch of random strangeness, although it is the bewildering nature of the film that makes Minami’s search for Ozaki all the more engaging and the flashbacks of Minami and Ozaki also make the film a non too subtle exploration of Minami coming to grips with his own sexuality.

Originally Gozu was never intended to play in theatres as it was designed a “V-Cinema” direct to video/DVD project in Japan. Thankfully that didn’t happen as although the film did end up going direct to video in Japan, the film ended up playing at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes and it wound up playing other festivals as well such as the Toronto International Film Festival and South By Southwest. The film actually did have a theatrical run in the US as well. Perhaps nowadays direct to video films aren’t looked down upon as much as they may have been in the past with the numerous changes in the film industry but in Japan V-Cinema hasn’t really had the stigma attached to it as it has in other countries, although Miike claims (perhaps jokingly) in an interview on Cinema Epoch’s 2-disc special edition DVD of Gozu that his video productions are usually seen only by young kids in the Japanese countryside. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Gozu otherwise they’re be a good chance of it never leaving Japan. As is the case with the majority of Miike’s genre efforts, Gozu may only appeal to a select audience and it may even be a bit much to take for some Miike fans which is saying something but it’s a testament to one of the most consistently interesting and creative cinematic minds still working today.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Imprint (2006)

When attempting to discuss a film with a large reputation there’s always the conundrum of not regurgitating what’s already been said numerous times before ad nauseam. This is especially true of films who’s reputation resulted out of a controversy. Controversial films and films that have been dubbed “shocking” or disturbing” are interesting in that there’s always the chance of a film relying on nothing but shock value and as a result are rather hollow. Then there are the films which push boundaries, break social taboos and are truly transgressive that clearly have something to say with an intelligence behind them. Films like Borowczyk’s The Beast (1975), Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) immediately spring to mind. At this point the fate of Takashi Miike’s Imprint is near legendary. Originally intended to be the season one finale of Showtime’s Masters of Horror anthology series, the film was immediately banned from broadcast in the US. Due to the banning, Imprint became instantly notorious with many impatiently for the DVD release and wondering just how graphic the film really was and if it would live up to the hype. Miike proved once again to be one of the most fascinating and radical contemporary filmmakers with Imprint, one of the most unflinching and original horror films in recent memory, and a film which is so much more than simply shock value for shock value’s sake.

In 19th centaury Japan, Christopher (Billy Drago) an American journalist returns in search of his lost love, a prostitute named Komomo whom he once promised to take back to America with him one day. Upon arriving on a strange island, Christopher sees no sign of Komomo but is offered a variety of prostitutes to spend the night with. He chooses a nameless, disfigured woman (Yûki Kudô) who claims to have known Komomo. Christopher demands to know the truth about what happened to his love, although when the woman begins relating the fate of Komomo along with her own personal history, perhaps Christopher begins to regret ever coming back in the first place.

At heart, Imprint is a morose fable based on the idea of the extremities that love can lead some too, even willingly go insane, clearly a favorite theme of Miike’s. Miike does something interesting by telling the story in a sort of episodic nature where truth and lies become entwined and amazingly the film covers quite a bit of emotional ground despite its brief 63 minute running time so the effect is definitely akin to being hit by a bus once its over. That feeling is also aided immensely by Miike’s matter of fact presentation of what has made the film so notorious in the form of torture, aborted fetuses and a climatic reveal that even by Miike standards is completely mental and comes out of left field. Imprint is also a curious film in that despite taking place in the 19th centaury Miike’s astounding visual design incorporates influences from a variety of eras making it seems as if the film is existing outside of time. Also the fact that aside from the American Drago and Kudô who speaks perfect English, the rest of the Japanese cast are speaking phonetic English which oftentimes sounds incredibly “off” yet adds to the already odd tone of the film and the idea of the film taking place in some surreal netherworld. It also has to be pointed out that Drago turns overacting into an art but considering that most everything in this world Miike creates is exaggerated to a certin degree Drago’s histrionics make perfect sense.

Setting aside for a second the fact that Showtime is a premium pay cable channel that is supposed to air films completely uncut and uncensored, one of the most surprising things about their banning of Imprint is that they were apparently so surprised by its graphic content. By the time it was supposed to air Miike already had a sizable reputation for not just pushing the envelope but setting fire to it with films like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Visitor Q (2001) just to name two already under his belt so it seems hard to believe that someone over at Showtime wouldn’t be aware of the type of filmmaker Miike was. Believe it or not Miike wasn’t the only filmmaker who had censorship imposed on their work with Dario Argento being forced to make cuts to his first Masters of Horror episode Jenifer (2005). Imprint did however air overseas uncut with no issues. The banning of Imprint will ultimately be the first thing most will think about whenever the film is mentioned which is fair as it stands as an example of absurd censorship although its unfortunate that most reviews of the film chose to focus solely on its more sensational content making the film seem shallow which it most certainly is not. Far from just an empty collection of shock scenes, Imprint is a legitimate modern masterpiece from a true maverick.