Remember when J-Horror and K-Horror were a thing, and Asian filmmakers could barely churn out titles fast enough for Hollywood to remake them? Well, here is a relatively late example of the form, an elegantly crafted Korean ghost story, Muoi: Legend of a Portrait (2007), which should please fans who cannot get enough of a good thing, even if this particular thing is not quite as good as the films that turned you into fans in the first place. The background landscape is new, but the familiar compositions and pictorial elements remain, enhanced with an interesting color palette, a fine sense of light and shadow, and some entertaining brush strokes; however, the portraiture is more technically proficient than inspired: unable to render its subject in compelling detail, the finished painting is a beautiful pastiche but no masterpiece – interesting enough to peruse in a gallery but not enough to purchase and admire for a lifetime.
The story has Korean novelist Yun-hee (An Jo) desperately trying to come up with material for a new book before a publishing deadline runs out. Fortunately, Seo-yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha), an old friend who moved to Vietnam, has run across a fascinating legend about a haunted portrait; unfortunately, Yun-hee’s previous book used thinly disguised and possibly embarrassing material based on Seo-yeon’s life. Hoping that Seo-yeon never realized the connection, or perhaps never even read the book, Yun-hee heads to Vietnam and begins investing the legend of Muoi (Anh Thu), a woman who died after a horrible betrayal and whose vengeful spirit was contained in a painting . The writer begins having nightmares, fueled by a combination of her research and residual doubt about whether or not Seo-yeon is really unaware of having been exploited in Yun-hee previous book.
In the manner of good Korean horror films, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on subtle brushstrokes to gradually reveal hints and portents, until finally the accumulation of detail resolves into a clear picture of the horror lurking in shadows behind the foreground characters. The problem is that those characters are not worthy subjects: they are too shallow to be intriguing, and the attempt to creature mystique through Chiaroscuro lighting only reveals how obvious their “secrets” are.
Yun-hee’s dreams may indicate she is victim of a guilty conscience, but she actually seems completely remorseless; her concern is only about having her betrayal discovered, not about atoning for it. Seo-yeon, on the other hand, is so preternaturally congenial that viewers immediately suspect she is faking it; the visuals and the narrative identify her so closely with Muoi (both of whom suffered betrayal horrible enough to inspire revenge) that, if you’re wondering whether Seo-yeon’s attempt to help Yun-hee is really a cover for a hidden agenda, all signs point to an emphatic YES!
The problem is exacerbated by a narrative gambit that the screenplay fails to pull off. By structuring the story around the relationship between Yun-hee and Seo-yeon, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait misfires, building to a confrontation so climactic that the story seems concluded – although, in fact, it is this sequence that finally unleashes the vengeful power of Muoi from the portrait. What should have been the climax – the film goes on to paint the screen red with blood in a satisfyingly horrific rampage of revenge – instead feels like an extended epilogue.
This epilogue lasts just long enough to make one realize that it could have been the main body of the film: the script could have begun with the deaths and had Yun-hee tracking down the legend of Muoi’s portrait not simply to earn a paycheck but to put a stop to the murders. With the threat active throughout the proceedings, dread would have evolved naturally, instead of being artificially injected through Yun-hee’s dreams. As it stands now, the film is punctuated with the world’s least suspenseful countdown, with calendar dates periodically flashing on screen to let us know that the traditional date upon which Muoi takes revenge is approaching – even though the story has given us no reason to think Muoi is currently targeting anyone and, in fact, we are clearly told that her spirit is helplessly trapped in the portrait.
Without this kind of ongoing threat, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on a vague sense of anticipation (what – if anything – is Seo-yeon up to?) coupled with Yun-hee’s quest to discover the truth about Muoi. The later is a bit contrived and even clunky. At one point, Yun-hee randomly questions people on the street – a pointless endeavor, considering that she does not speak Vietnamese; however, the screenplay provides a lucky coincidence that rewards her efforts.
Fortunately, the actual revelations of the Muoi’s history is intriguing enough to sustain interest, and it climaxes with a truly heart-rending double betrayal, first in life and then in death: the first drives Muoi to suicide; the second traps her soul in the portrait before she can seek justice against those who wronged her. The film then tops this with a parallel betrayal in the more recent past, which is ghastly enough to prime viewers for the supernatural settling of scores that eventually transpires. You will guess where the film is heading long before it gets there (once you learn that Muoi has a reputation for rendering vengeance on behalf of those willing to pay her price, the big plot revelation is relatively obvious), but you will be glad to follow along anyway.
Like a lesser work in an established artistic movement, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait is more interesting when considered within the context of its predecessors (e.g., as in 1998’s Ring, we have a female writer tracking down the legend of a ghost that strikes with clockwork regularity). Enhanced with lovely location work in Vietnam (apparently a first for this kind of film), Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait attempts to create an interesting variation on established conventions; even though it fails to equal the masterworks it emulates, it does understand and exploit the power of the familiar stylistic devices, rendering a new work that reminds us of why we enjoy the genre. Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait will not win many converts to the movement, but the already initiated may find it worthy of a brief perusal.
Hollywood Reporter informs us that James Wong (THE ONE, DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION) will write and direct a remake of the 2005 Japanese film THE NEIGHBOR NUMBER 13 (Rinjin 13-Go). Shooting is scheduled to begin this year, with distribution targeted for the fall of 2011. Touting Won’gs pedigree as director and co-writer of FINAL DESTINATION, which spawned several successful sequels, Distant Horizon exec Anant Singh says:
“Our hope is that ‘The Neighbor Number 13’ will be a commercial success like ‘Final Destination’ was and also generate the same kind of franchise with James Wong at the helm…”
Said Wong: “I was seized by the concept after one viewing of Yasuo Inoue’s movie, and it hasn’t left me for a moment since. I think we have found a very unique way to frame the story and bring a heroic twist to it that is fresh and surprising and will take audiences on a very thrilling journey”
Hollywood Reporter identifies the movie as a “J-Horror” film, but the story (about a young man who goes to extreme lengths to avenge a traumatizing incident he witnessed as a boy) sounds more like a revenge melodrama along the lines of Park Chan-wook (the home video cover art even mention’s Park’s OLDBOY).
This anthology of Asian horror stories (known as Saam Gaang in the East) was retitled THREE EXTREMES II for U.S. home video, which is doubly misleading: THREE precedes 2004’s THREE EXTREMES by two years, and it is far less extreme in terms of violence and perversity, instead offering moderately interesting variations on the traditional tropes of Asian horror films as established in 1998’s RING. Typical of anthologies, the results are uneven, with two decent episodes and one dud. Fans of the formula, who were put off by THREE EXTREMES, will find THREE closer to their hearts, and at the very least, it represents a considerable improvement upon the other relatively well known Asian Anthology, BANGKOK HAUNTED (2001).
There is no linking device or thematic connection between the three episodes, each of which was made by a completely different team: one from South Korea, one from Thailand, and one from China.
First up is “Memories,” from South Korean writer-director Kim Ji-woon, who would go on to wow critics with his subsequent TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Janghwa Hongryeon, 2003). “Memories” utilizes similar strategies, mixing the supernatural with the psychological. The story features a husband suffering from visions of his missing wife (who appears to him as the traditional Asian ghost girl, with long black hair obscuring his face); his psychiatrist suggests the visions are sympoms of the husband’s repressed memories about why his wife left him. Meanwhile, the wife awakens on a distant street, apparently suffering from amnesia, and struggles to find her way back home.
The greatest strength of “Memories” is its cool, sharp visuals. K-Horror films (as opposed to their J-Horror counterpart) tend to be more colorful, capturing the modern world in glistening precise images that make the intrusion of the horror all the more uncanny. Kim Ji-woon’s use of this approach pays off here, holding attention even if the story turns out to be relatively simple. Intercutting the two narrative threads maintains an aura of mystery, which is enhanced by some suggestive and possibly ironic hints about what is happening (the episode is set in a new housing development that claims to be a place where dreams come true). Unfortunately, the resolution is neither particularly astounding nor comletely satisfying.
Far more disappointing is THREE’s Thai episode “The Wheel,” a period piece set in a small village where a puppet master dies. Opening narration informs us that these puppets are imbued with the spirit of their creator, who is the only one who may own them; anyone else will fall under the curse. Needless to say, someone lays claims to the puppets, and the curse begins to works its evil magic – not that you will care.
For a short subject, “The Wheel” is amazingly listless; you would think the limited running time would force a certain amount of narrative comprehsion, but no, the story wanders from character to character, never settling on a central protagonist or clarifying why we should worry about what happens to any of them. Adding insult to injury, there is an “It was only a premonition” twist ending, suggesting that a character has seen the future that will result from taking the puppets – and then he goes ahead and ignores the warning. Smart move, moron!
THREE improves considerably with its final episode, “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan (who produced the Pang Brothers’ THE EYE and THE EYE 2). The story follows a single cop named Wai and his son, who move into a nearly deserted apartment building, with only one neighbor. Wai’s son is disturbed by the mysterious appearance of a little girl, along with strange phenomena, such as all the doors of the vacant apartments being inexplicably open. When Wai’s son disappears, the cop questions the neighbor, Yu, stumbling upon an extremely strange situation: Yu has preserved the body of his dead wife, Hai’er, in the hope that daily regimen of Chinese medicine (as opposed to Western medicine) will resurrect her.
Although it’s story is simple, “Going Home” is relatively sophisticated. Yu appears at first to be a lunatic villain, who knocks out Wai and ties him up in order to avoid having his secret revealed. But as time goes by, we begin to see his sympathetic side, as he describes the devotion he has showered on his wife for the last three years (the resurrection process is not a fast one). By the time Wai’s cop friends come looking for him, we no longer want to see Yu come to a bad end.
As engrossing as it is, “Going Home” suffers from some obvious flaws. The mysterious little girl seems shoe-horned into the film in order to justify including this episode in an anthology of ghost stories. She is just a plot device, luring Wai’s son away so that Wai will have a motivation to question his neighbor and stumble upon his secret. Once Wai has been detained by Yu, the missing son is virtually forgotten (except for one or two brief moments of lip service) as the focus shifts to Yu.
[SPOILER ALERT] The surprise ending is also slightly muddled: We are led to believe that Yu’s wife previously resurrected him, using the same Chinese medicine that he is now using on her. Why, then, does his wife does not return fully to life? Are we to believe that a police autopsy killed her upon the point of resurrection? But why would a doctor perform an autopsy whose twitching fingers and flickering eyelids are already displaying signs of life? [END SPOILERS].
The nagging questions raised by the twist ending are not enough to ruin the overall impact of “Going Home,” but they do suggest that the story might have benefitted from a more fully thought-out treatment that did not involve the irrelevant supernatural elements.
At 140 minutes, THREE outstays its welcome, and the episodes do not enhance each other in a way that would tie the three parts into a satisfying whole. Fortuntately, this disjointed nature makes it easy enough to view the episodes one at a time, fast-forwarding through (or skipping entirely) “The Wheel.” Both “Memories” and “Going Home” offer something of interest to fans of Asian horror; although each uses the cliches of the genre, neither one is simply a genre piece. Instead, they display little sparks of original vision that make THREE interesting if not esseential viewing.
THREE (Saam Gaang, a.k.a. “Three Extremes 2,” 2002).
- “Memories” written and directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Cast: Kim Hye-su , Jeong Bo-seok, Choi Jeong-won, Jang Jung-Won, Sung-Keun Jee.
- “The Wheel” directed by Nonzee Nimibutr. Written by Nitas Singhamat from a story by Ek Lemchuen and Nonzee Nimibutr. Cast: Suwinit Panjamawat, Kanyavae Chatiawaipreacha, Pornchai Chuvanon, Anusak Intasorn, Pattama Jangjarut.
- “Going Home” directed by Peter Chan. Written by Matt Chowand Jo Jo Yuet-chun Hui from a story by Teddy Chan and Chao Bin Su. Cast: Leon Lai, Eric Tsang, Eugenia Yuan, Ting-Fung Li, Tsz-Wing Lau.
This remake of a traditional Japanese legend suggests a 1960s Hammer film: the same old story, spiced up with color, more action, and blood.
This period costume drama, from the director of the masterpiece RING, is a deliberate attempt to move away from the tropes of modern J-Horror cinema in favor of a more traditional approach to the supernatural. The generic title KAIDAN (literally Japanese for “ghosts story”) may suggest a remake of the well-known 1964 anthology KWAIDAN* (inspired by Lafadio Hearn’s famous collection of Japanese folk tales), but in fact this is a new version of THE GHOST STORY OF KASANE SWAMP (Kaidan Kasane-Ga-Fuchi), a famous legend that has been filmed many times in Japan, most notably by director Nobuo Nakagawa in 1957. In relation to his black-and-white oldie, Hideo Nakata’s remake comes across a little bit like a 1960s Hammer film: the same basic story, spiced up with color photography, more action, and the occasional spatter of blood.
KAIDAN begins with a prologue (featuring a narrator who is occasionally glimpsed, telling us the story) about a humble man who is murdered by a samurai while trying to collect a debt. The samurai later goes mad, murders his wife, and commits suicide. Decades later, the son of the samurai and the daughter of the murdered man meet in Edo and, without knowing the connection between their families, fall in love. Unfortunately, the relationship is cursed. Rui falls ill and Shinkiji, believing himself responsible for his lover’s misfortune, plans to run away. Rui appears to Shinkiji and warns that she will not stop him, but she will kill any other woman he marries; the warning takes on an added ominous tone when Shinkiji learns that, at the time she was visiting him, Rui had already passed away. Rui flees to his family village with one of Rui’s students. Along the way, Shinkiji has a vision of Rui attacking him; while defending himself, he kills his travelling companion. Shinkiji meets another woman, who falls in love with him; after initially turning down her family’s offer of marriage, he changes his mind, hoping to break the curse, but Rui’s vengeful ghost is not so easily dissuaded.
Nakata’s strength as a director of J-Horror was always his relatively straight-forward approach, which allowed the stories to develop their tension without being over-hyped with extraneous flourishes. This worked superbly in RING, which the script’s built-in time-lock, but it works less well in this period setting, with an old-fashioned story that is somewhat episodic in structure.
The prologue (the only sequence that recalls KWAIDAN, with its deliberately artificial production design and its plot details revealed mostly through narration) launches KAIDAN with a strong beginning, but the first act slow to a stand-still as Rui and Shinkiji fall in love. Satoko Okudera’s screenplay (based on Encho Sanyutei’s story) never involves us fully in the doomed love affair, so we are never invested in the ensuing tragedy. Nakata exacerbates the problem with his slow pacing of the material: instead of being swept up by the passion of the lovers, you are likely to find yourself nodding off as you wait for the supernatural thrills to finally kick in.
When the finally do, they are almost worth the wait. The revelation that Rui was a ghost when she appeared to Shinkiji with her warning is a standard trope in traditional Japanese ghost stories, but it remains effective (there is an especially nice “jump scare,” involving a hand that appears suddenly from a corner of the frame, proving . Later scenes of Shinkiji battling with ghosts who turn out to be human beings (whom he kills, thinking they are Rui) recall Nakagawa’s approach to supernatural manifestations; although not quite as effective, they benefit from the occasional judicious use of computer-generated imagery. Especially memorable is the spirit who emerges – head downward – from a churning lake of water that has replaced a room’s ceiling. (It’s as if Nagata is trying to prove that the water imagery he used in his American effort,THE RING 2, really can work if done right.)
As much as KAIDAN‘s final act improves upon what preceded, it ultimately lets the viewer down. Shinkiji – at first a sympathetic, doomed figure – loses audience empathy as he repeats his same mistake and over. No doubt the idea is to show the curse taking its toll upon him morally, as the horrors he has suffered turn him into something of a monster himself (in seeing what happened to him, we get some understanding of how his father could have gone mad with fatal results). Unfortunately, these sequences go on past the point that we stop caring. When the curse is finally fulfilled, we feel more relief than regret.
There is a pretty decent final battle, with Shinkiji fending off the posse come to arrest him for his latest homicide. In the tradition of move climax’s, he can’t go down easily, so this simple tobacco salesman is suddenly handling himself like a skilled warrior. Fortunately, the actor’s performance sells the scene; he looks just as surprised as anybody, and we have to assume the curse is still at work, perhaps imbuing him with his father’s skill.
KAIDAN ends on a particularly haunting image – which, ironically, borders on the absurd in its surreal combination of horror, beauty, pathos, and romance. It’s an excellent example of the power of a good visual, providing a satisfactory denouement to the emotional turmoil of the tragic tale’s otherwise downbeat and unsatisfying ending.
Although KAIDAN must be gauged an overall disappointment from the director who delivered the seminal masterpiece RING, it does have redeeming features. The story is too slow for fans of modern J-Horror, but those with a taste for a more traditional approach should find the film interesting an interesting pastiche of older classics. And truth be told, even with its pacing problems, this KAIDAN is nowhere near as tedious as the 1964 alleged classic KWAIDAN.
KAIDAN (“Ghost Story,” 2007). Directed by Hideo Nakata. Screenplay by Satoko Okudera, story by Encho Sanyutei. Cast: Kumiko Aso, Takaaki Enoki, Reona Hirota, Teisui Ichiryusai, Mao Inoue, tae Kimura, Taigi Kobayashi, Hitomi Kuroki, Ken Mitsuishi.
- Regarding the difference between “kaidan” and “kwaidan,” the latter appears to be a variant spelling unique to Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of stories.
Surfing the Internet the other day, I stumbled upon an advertisement posing as an article, which posed the question, “What is the Asian secret to strong lush hair?” I did a screen grab, so that you can see what I am talking about without having to click through the link:
As you can probably guess, my first thought upon seeing this ad was to wonder why it did not look like this:
With no major new horror, fantasy, or science fiction films in nationwide release this weekend, I need something to write about, so this seems as good a time as any to answer a question that plagues many Western viewers. The real secret is why so many J-Horror films feature ghostly women with long, black, usually unkempt hair, like THE GRUDGE’s Kayako (seen in the mock-up ad above).
As is sometimes the case with questions like these, there is no simple answer, because the tradition has been around so long that many modern practicioners of horror probably follow it simply because it is a tradition – without necessarily understanding the underlying implications.
Basically, what the cauldron boils down to is that traditional depictions of female ghosts featured unkempt hair because, long ago, Japanese women kept their hair up while alive; it was let down when the body was prepared for a funeral. Hence, a woman with undone, flowing hair looked like a dead woman.
Okay, that explains the look, but in some cases (such as “The Black Hair,” from 1964’s KWAIDAN), the hair almost has a life of its own, or at least some kind of lethal quality is suggested. I don’t have a specific explanation for that, but a Japanese friend informs me that there is a folk belief in the country that hair has an almost magical quality, as if it represents some kind of spiritual essence of the person. For that reason, combs and brushes, which we regard somewhat casually in the West, have more personal significance in Japan, and if you were to find one lying around in that country, you would avoid touching it, for fear of what might “rub off” on you.
Of course, these traditions and folk beliefs are re-imagined and sometimes altered when committed to celluloid. One good example occurs in the Korean film PHONE (2002), which features a fairly typical Asian ghost gaining possession of a very young girl. When her parents take her to a child psychiatrist, the doctor interprets one of the girl’s drawings, of herself with long, black hair, as a wish-fulfillment representation of her sexually mature self. The suggestion, then, is that long hair represents the power of female sexuality, which gives these ghosts – often helpless victims while alive – incredible power after death.
It is tempting to interpret this as a sign of a male patriarchal society fearful of what will happen if demure women escape from their traditional society roles – it’s a classic example of what Freud called “The Return of the Repressed.” This would also help explain why so many Asian horror films focus on female ghosts. Another reason is that in Asian countries, women are considered to be physically weaker but spiritually stronger than men; a female ghost, being all spirit, would naturally be more powerful than one of the opposite gender.
No doubt some will take issues with some of these answers and explanations, but I will remind readers that these explanations are not meant to be definitive. “The Long, Black Hair of Death” is a great image at least partly because it is the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach inkblot, open to many interpretations. For instance, the fact that the hair so often covers the ghost’s face is not only a good suspense device – sort of an organic version of the Phantom of the Opera’s mask – it also raises questions about identity and personality, as if the individuality of the formerly living person has been partly erased in death, leaving only a faceless spirit behind, one with little connection to its own lost humanity.
In short, this is one of those secrets whose power derives at least partly from its secrecy. We can theorize and guess, but we will never really understand that long black hair, any more than Ishmael will ever fully know the White Whale.
UPDATE (7/25/2012): In his book J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond, author David Kalat adds another kink to this theory. Referring to the seminal Korean ghost film, WHISPERING CORRIDORS (1998), set in a repressive girl’s high school, Kalat points out that the strict dress code of such institutions forbids free-flowing hair. Thus, a woman who “lets her hair down” is a rebel undermining the authoritarian system. These female ghosts, unable to fight back while alive, return defiantly, finally able to turn the tables on the system that destroyed them.
There is now a German trailer available for THE SHOCK LABYRINTH, a new 3D J-Horror film from Takashi Shimizu, the director who gave us the JU-ON films and their first two American remakes, THE GRUDGE and THE GRUDGE 2. The storyline follows some friends trapped in a maze-like haunted house attraction, and it is based on/inspired by the real-life Labyrinth of Horrors at the Fuji-Q High Land amusment park, near Mount Fuji. Advance word has not been that great, but the trailer certainly looks interesting. No word yet on possible U.S. distribution.
In case you want to know what the German narration is saying, you can watch an English-language translation below. Unfortunately, the video resolution is much lower in this version of the trailer.
With this past year’s economic climate, most of America’s major Asian Film Festivals in the United States have drastically cut their programs, showcase fewer films and run for fewer days. The New York Asian Film Festival, which has been around for almost 30 years scaled back their program from last year’s eight days, to this year’s two and a half days. Even the powerhouse Los Angeles Asian Film Festival had major cutbacks. But the only Asian Film Festival in the country to go beyond the call of cinematic duty to support Asian made films and Asian filmmakers is the San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF), which started in San Diego, CA, October 15th, and still has one more week of fantastically far-out and freaky frightening Fant-Asia films to go. So essentially, this festival is running for a whopping 14 days and is featuring 200+ films from 20 countries. This says a lot about the organizers and their passion to not bow to the economy but to put themselves out there to show the world that Asian film is worth the time and effort.
A new program added this year is the SDAFF Extreme series, four fantastically far-out and freaky frightening films (not a typo folks, but a wee bit of déjà vu) that is worth getting out here just for this quartet that will be music to the ears for Fant-Asia film fans. First off there’s the “What? Are you kidding me?” Japanese ALF meets HELLO KITTY, an a-mews-ing feature NEKO RAMEN TAISHO (aka PUSSY SOUP). If you’ve heard of the 1960s FELIX THE CAT cartoon, then please sing the following to the same cadence of the famous TV animated series. “Taisho the cat, the wonderful, wonderful, cat, whenever he gets in a fix he reaches into his ramen bowl of trix. Taisho the cat, the wonderful, wonderful cat, you’ll watch the noodle contest, your eyes will freak, your mind will squint with “huh?”, watching Taisho fall in love with a…cat?” The Taisho cat puppet living in the real human universe is so pathetically bad, up there with the pets.com dog puppet, that it’s really just rip-roaring to watch.
Part blaxploitation, part spaghetti Western and part chambara (samurai sword fighting film), AFRO SAMURAI: RESURRECTION is all Japanese anime as Afro Samurai and his mudslide brother Ninja Ninja (both voiced by Samuel L. Jackson) are en route to find the holder of the second head band. In the wacky samurai world of Afro, whoever owns the second headband can challenge the holder of the first headband, and not before. The holder of the first headband is Sio (voice of Luck Liu), a deranged, sexy femme fatale trying to resurrect Afro’s dead father and use the father to kill Afro. What is engaging about the film is picking out the various Japanese samurai films that have perhaps influenced AFRO SAMURAI. Parallels from the LONE WOLF AND CUB, WICKED PRIEST and HANZO THE RAZOR series came to mind. But the one that even the director Leo Chu and producer Eric Garcia did not see, was that Ninja Ninja sounded like Donkey from the SHREK cartoons. Jackson undoubtedly “burro-ed” the voice to prod at Eddy Murphy’s Donkey character but did so without being an ass.
DETROIT METAL CITY, is Japan’s interpretation of over the top Fant-Asia ecstasy of action milieued into a surreal social environment of death metal and head bangers as Soichi (Ken’ichi Matsuyaama) accidentally goes into a music audition to sing songs about pop tarts and rainbows and get challenged by Gene Simmons to hell-spawn himself into dark music to destroy all bands. Will it be the KISS of death or the kiss of success?
The final SDAFF Extreme is for “surreal” a blood-gore fest for a feast at the festival full of frenetic and frantically fearful feeding frenzies as the title says it all, VAMPIRE GIRL VS. FRANKENSTEIN GIRL. Filled with blood-lusting sucking vampires, a frazzled and freaky Frankenstein girl, hip hopping homicidal nurses, insanely insane mad scientists, and new and improved Japanese ways to disembowel and dismember puny humans, it’s just a simple but crazzzzy love story gone awry.
Lee Ann Kim, a first generation Korean American and the executive director of the San Diego Film Foundation, which she founded in 2000 with the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego, talks about the challenges of doing the banner year 10th anniversary and why during such difficult economic times it was decided to go all out when film festivals globally are cutting back. “At the beginning of the year we had to make a decision,” Kim shares, “Doing a 10th anniversary with so many films and with the economy being so hard, we had to decide on whether we keep it small or go all out, balls to the wall. Although all the other festivals scaled back big time, we have a reputation and because this is our milestone year, the 10th year, we decided to go two weeks.”
Besides the SDAFF Extreme program what other ways are there to indulge yourself with the latest and coolest Asian cinemateque creations in horror, anime and more, at San Diego’s hippest film festival? If you thirst for more femme fatale vampire there is THIRST, a South Korean dark comedy about a priest turned vampire. Zatoichi returns to the big screen, or should I say Zatoichi-ette in the form of ICHI, an ERA (equal right amendment) version of the classic Japanese chambara film series Zatoichi. But instead of burning her bra like the women in the 1970s ERA movement, Ichi will be burning her opponents with some slice and dice, human vegematic swordswoman ship.
Oh yeah, beware of STRANGE BREW. Although it is the title of a very famous song, one of the Cream of the crop from the 70s, this is a collection of twisted tales from the cream of the crop shorts submitted to the festival. There’s also the southern California premiere of K-20, a Japanese fantasy actioner with a $20 million price tag that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as Hikichi Endo who is approached by the mysterious K-20 to do a job that puts him in harms way where he must hunt down K-20, before the police gun down Hikichi. MUSHI-SHI is about a “bugcatcher” who heals victims of supernatural creatures, a character who could have been useful to the astronaut who discovers the truth about clones in the Japanese futuristic angst driven story THE CLONE RETURNS HOME.
Although the SDAFF is an international film festival with a yearly increase in non-Asian audiences, they have held on to their identity as an Asian Film Festival rather than switch their name as Kim offers a few parting words. “For me,” she beams with glee, “I really appreciate it when I walk into a film and see lot of non-Asians watching the films. Many people have asked me change the name of the festival, saying you can’t grow if you don’t change it to the International Film Festival. They feel that this is just for Asians, and I say not. I feel if I change the name we are giving in to what they want us to do. What is wrong with it being Asian? Asian encompasses such a vast amount of the world. I feel it is our purpose to open ourselves up to the largest community possible, because our mission is to connect them to a human experience, regardless of who you are or where you are from.”
For information in regard to the films, dates and times, how to get to the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center where the films are being shown, and other cool stuff about the SDAFF please visit www.sdaff.org.
Furthermore, for those who can’t get out to the festival, many of these Fant-Asia films are available for purchase at www.hkflix.com, as well are many of the martial arts films that are also being featured at the festival such as Donnie Yen’s YIP MAN and John Woo’s RED CLIFF, both films having their West Coast Premiere at the festival. (Check out the Film Festival program guide for the complete martial arts film listing.)
Three final cool notes about the festival that are totally impressive: Perhaps a small thing, but I’ve noticed over the years that audiences often bring their own kinds of snacks into the films, now that is something you never see in movie theaters; this year the festival offers for the first time an interactive booth, where filmgoers can get a free “Qi Reading” for their health and well being; and a final important thing, each year the SDAFF raises awareness and supports worthy causes during the films’ screening, this year their causes being Water Conservation and the Fold a Prayer Cancer Awareness Campaign. Bravo, bravo and bravo.
Turns out in Park Chan-wook’s universe, revenge may be sweet, but blood is just plain tasty. In THIRST, a priest’s benevolent attempt to aid medical researchers turns around to bite him in the… well, let’s say neck, when a blood transfusion transforms him into a profoundly conflicted vampire. Adding to Sang-hyun’s (Song Kang-ho) confusion: his attraction to Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), wife of a childhood friend and a woman so desperate to escape her cramped, dead-end life that an emotional appeal to a newly undead doesn’t seem a particularly unsavory option.
As with Park’s previous work, THIRST mashes up explicit gore, creative fantasy, social satire, and plain ol’ human weakness to come up with a unique, occasionally funny take on a beloved horror standard. We had a chance to speak to Park during his visit to New York:
WHAT’S THE SPIRITUAL NATURE OF A VAMPIRE?
Well, when you’re looking at the special nature of a vampire, I set out actually to take out anything that’s fantastical about a vampire. I didn’t want there to be any kind of mystical elements, so in my film, vampirism is treated almost as a disease, almost as if it is something that can be scientifically explained. The film isn’t interested in trying to [provide that explanation], but if someone in the film’s world was interested in trying to come up with a scientific explanation of the vampire phenomenon, he would be able to.
The way I set this up is that I treated vampirism as a kind of transferable disease — you can get it through infection or through germs. Like a virus can enter your body, in the same way a vampire’s blood enters your body to turn you into a vampire. What I have done is to take the vampire and turn him into the most realistic [kind of creature], take out any kind of mystical or fantastical elements out of it.
AND YET, FOR TAKING THE MYSTICAL ELEMENTS OUT OF IT, YOUR PROTAGONIST IS A SPIRITUAL MAN, A PRIEST.
That’s exactly the starting point of the story, and what makes this film interesting. I’ve taken the mystical elements out of vampirism, but then we have this spiritual man to whom these terrible things happen. So therein lies the question of this person, who is a man of faith, who follows the will of God. But then, that would mean that him becoming a vampire would also be God’s will. What meaning could there be within that will? Why, out of all people, would he be the one to be inflicted with vampirism?
Now I could ask the same question by choosing to deal with a communicable disease more commonly found in real life. But to go about it that way would just be real life. [You can] ask the question, “Why am I the one to get this disease?” but we’ve moved it to a different level. In this film, when we’re asking why is it this particular priest who’s inflicted with [vampirism] — and whose blood is it, anyway? — we’re starting to move on to a different level, starting to ask different questions.
HOW IS THE VAMPIRISM REFLECTED IN THE LOVE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN SANG-HYUN AND TAE-JU?
In this film, the priest turns into a vampire, and because he turns into a vampire, he loses the power to control his desires. The way he falls in love with this woman, the trigger is intentionally left obscure. Now, when you watch the film, you realize that once he’s transfused his blood, there’s initially a dormant stage, where the characteristics of a vampire haven’t revealed themselves yet. But is it the dormant stage, before he’s fully a vampire, when the woman enters his life and all the sexual desires he’s repressed for so long can no longer be controlled? Is this the reason he falls in love with her? Or is it the other way around, is it because he’s met this woman and fallen in love, is this the trigger for him turning into a vampire? This is intentionally left obscure in the film.
Also obscure is the woman’s stance towards the man. Out of the intention to kill her husband and take control of the household, she brings in this outside person and uses him to take care of her husband. If you look at it from that perspective, the metaphor for vampire is actually the woman, not the man. But here again, it’s kind of obscure whether she’s only using him to achieve a means, achieve her ends, or is she actually, really in love with him. Both interpretations are possible.
BECAUSE TAE-JU IS ESSENTIALLY A FEMME FATALE, DO YOU VIEW Thirst MORE AS A NOIR FILM THAN A HORROR FILM?
Yes, there is that element in there, especially if you look at the film from Tae-Ju’s perspective. The interesting thing about the noir genre is that it leaves you wondering if the woman only ever meant to use the man or whether she actually was in love with him. If she is an exemplary femme fatale, she would never actually give you the answer.
THE VAMPIRE ALWAYS RINGS TWICE?
Remember how scared you were when you first saw THE GRUDGE? Want to feel that way again? Well, it’s a good thing home video allows you to pop the 2004 film in the DVD player, because watching THE GRUDGE 3 is not going to invoke any of the atmospheric, irrational thrills you recollect from the older movie. In fact, THE GRUDGE 3 – a low-budget, direct-to-video sequel shot in Bulgaria – is such a dismally spiritless affair that it almost seems deliberately designed to make the disappointing THE GRUDGE 2 look good by comparison.
In case you don’t remember the ending of the aforementioned GRUDGE 2 (and really, why would you want to?), it relocated the action to Chicago with the obvious intention of setting up future sequels that could abandon the Japanese origins of the story. Living up (or down) to that unpromising premise, GRUDGE 3 is set entirely in Chicago except for one brief scene in Japan that introduces us to Naoko (Emi Ikehata), who in the grand tradition of pointless revelations turns out to be the unlikely sister of Kayako, the angry spirit responsible for the lethal “grudge.”
The great thing about the JU-ON films (the Japanese originals on which THE GRUDGE was based, particularly 2003’s JU-ON: THE GRUDGE) was the way that writer-director Takashi Shimizu abandoned traditional plot structure, offering a series of vignettes that tied together like a twisted tapestry, avoiding the exposition, characterization, and plot mechanics over which so many horror films stumble. THE GRUDGE 3 abandons this lesson in favor of telling a story about an apartment building where the manager is slowly turning homicidal thanks to a ghostly influence; in effect, it has as much in common with THE AMITYVILLE HORROR as THE GRUDGE.
Fortunately for our American victims, after sitting out the events of the previous two films (six, if you count the four Japanese JU-ON titles), Naoko has finally decided it’s time to take action and put her sister’s restless spirit down for good. Why the change of heart? Apparently, as long as Kayako was limited to Japan, it was okay, but it’s a shame on the family for the ghost to be messing with Americans overseas.
What is Naoko going to do? Perform an exorcism, that’s what. This undermines the overwhelming terror of the orignal JU-ON/THE GRUDGE concept – which was that the curse was unstoppable; one you were exposed to it, your fate was sealed. It also moves the already conventional story in an even more conventional direction, with a stranger riding into town to solve the problem.
This disappointing scenario was written, surprisingly enough, by Brad Keene, who scripted two of the best entries in the annual After Dark Hororfest. You really would be better off watching either FROM WITHIN (2008) or THE GRAVEDANCERS (2006). Presumably, executive interference undid him here.
Keene’s writing certainly wasn’t helped by Toby Wilkins’ direction. Having helmed a few “Tales of the Grudge” webisodes to promote THE GRUDGE 2, Wilkins does a poor job of stepping into the director’s shoes. The omnipresent dread that filled Takashi Shimizu’s JU-ON and GRUDGE films is missing from THE GRUDGE 3, replaced with the cliches of bad American horror movies. Even worse, the uncanny, irrational scares have been abandoned in favor of cruder shocks, including a few moments of gratuitous gore. Completely ineffective, these bloody moments merely underline how desperate the director is to deliver anything approaching a scare.
The cast of is mostly forgettable. Genre names Shawnee Smith (SAW) and Marina Sirits (STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) show up just long enough to get killed off. Aiko Horiuchi, replacing Takako Fuji as Kayako, does a passable imitation, but newcomer Shimba Tsuchiya is too old to play ghost-boy Toshio, who has been recast twice previously to prevent the character from aging on screen. It’s a sign of how careless the custodians of the franchise have become that such an obvious mistake was allowed to slip through.
Perhaps the most perplexing cinematic mystery of the new millenium is why and how Ghosthouse Productions (Sam Raimi’s horror-oriented production company) managed to run their GRUDGE franchise into the depths of the direct-to-video abyss so quickly, going from a blockbuster hit (THE GRUDGE) to a disappointing theatrical sequel (THE GRUDGE 2) to a total DTV disaster (THE GRUDGE 3) in just three easy steps. Really, they couldn’t have failed any more badly, or any faster, if they had tried. (Maybe someone from the Bush administration is working for them?)
Of course, even popular trends can fade fast, and America’s J-Horror remakes and sequels have been waning for awhile now, so it’s tempting to theorize that Ghost House is merely the victim of fading audience interest in a genre that has lost the ectoplasmic power to spook. Has J-Horror given up the ghost? Perhaps.
Or perhaps not. Two new JU-ON sequels made their debut in Japan last month, JU-ON: SHIROI ROJO (“The Grudge: The Old Lady in White”) and JU-ON: KUROI SHOJO (“The Grudge: The Girl in Black”). JU-ON writer-director Takashi Shimizu merely supervised these follow-ups, but the deliciously creepy trailer suggest that the angry spirits of Japanese horror films still have a few scares left in them.
THE GRUDGE 3(2009, direct to video). Directed by Toby Wilkins. Written by Brad Keene, based on characters created by Takashi Shimizu. Cast: Matthew Knight, Shawnee Smith, Mike Straub, Aiko Horiuchi, Shimba Tsuchiya, Emi Ikehata, Takatsuna Mukai, Johanna Braddy, Marina Sirtis.
American audiences are sick and tired of American J-Horror remakes and sequels, and who can blame them after ONE MISSED CALL, SHUTTER, and especially the dismal directo-to-video disturbance known as THE GRUDGE 3? Yet Japan continues to produce modern kaidan eiga (“ghost story movies”), and the most recent examples look pretty good, judging by the trialer.
JU-ON: SHIROI ROJO (“The Grudge: Old Lady in White”) and JU-ON: KUROI SHOJO (“The Grudge: Girl in Black”) are indirect sequels to four JU-ON films written and directed by Takashi Shimizu, which were remade as THE GRUDGE (2004) with Sara Michelle Gellar. Shimizu is on board as “consulting producer” for both of the new Japanese sequels, and he takes a credit for “original story,” but he turned the actual writing and directing chores over to newcomers, who hopefully will bring some new blood to the franchise while staying true to what made Shimizu’s films so special.
SHIROI ROJO, scripted and directed by Ryuta Miyaka, deals with a high school girl disturbed by visions of her best friend come back from the grave after a murder suicide. KUROI SHOJO, scripted and directed by Mari Asato, is about a girl with a mysterious growth in her body that turns out to be the a “grudge” (or curse) from an unborn baby.
No word on when either or both of these will make it to U.S. shores.