Nestled (un)comfortably between the Leslie Cheung retrospectives, the Spotlight on Indonesia strand and all the new Asian titles that make up this year's Terracotta Film Festival, there is also the neatly named Terror Cotta all-nighter. Last Friday, filmgoers at London's Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square were kept wide awake by five of the latest horror features (here considered from worst to best) from the Far East – a region which, lest we forget, helped spearhead much of the great genre revival in the Noughties.
It is a long time, though, since the heady half decade of J-horror (and its local variants K- and T-horror). Now the haunted modernity of those films has been largely replaced, at least in Japan, with the 'bubblegum splattercore' subgenre, typified by directors like Nishimura Yoshihiro (Tokyo Gore Police, Helldriver) and outlets like Sushi Typhoon. These films, more outrageous, cheesy and goofy than serious or scary, are the very opposite of an acquired taste: their impact is greatest when you've seen only one, before the broader-than-broad humour, in-your-face offensiveness and flat superficiality has yet started to pall. So if Murakami Kenji's Zomvideo (2011) is the very first film you have ever seen in this category, then you're in for a crazy treat – but if you've already seen The Machine Girl or Vampire Girl Vs Frankenstein Girl or RoboGeisha or Dead Sushi or Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead, then all the cheap-looking CGI, hit-and-(mostly-)miss gags and anything-goes sensibility on display here are likely to come across as irksomely tedious, even if Murakami thankfully eschews the kind of casual racism that has so often tainted this subgenre.
The set-up of Zomvideo (pictured above), in which a 40-year-old series of chirpy educational VHS's on undead apocalypse survival is unearthed at the same time as an actual army of zombies resurfaces, ought to usher in all manner of postmodern reflections on the zombie genre. "Zombie fans will get annoyed when they hear about this," declares one character, himself an obsessive fan of zombie flicks, as it emerges that these zombies sport weird quiffs, sometimes talk coherently, and can even survive brain death. Yet what is really annoying here is not so much the film's self-conscious evisceration of zombie tropes, but rather its rotten failure to be either clever or funny (like, say, Shaun of the Dead).
What Zomvideo has in common with the four other, frankly better Terror Cotta titles is its backward-looking derivativeness – but this need not be a bad thing per se. Hajime Ohata's Henge (2012), for example – a strange Tsukamoto-esque tale of marital dysfunction and citywide devastation in which a wife (Morita Aki) learns both to live with, and even to love, the evolving monstrousness of her husband (Aizawa Kazunari) – has obviously been made for peanuts, but its references (in short, sharp succession) to werewolf and vampire films, to The Exorcist and Hellraiser, are worn as proud badges of an ambition out of all proportion to the limited budget and duration.
Hajime Ohata's 'Henge'.
Meanwhile explicit third-act allusions in Henge to the original Godzilla (1954) license the utterly lo-fi use of a man in a costume rampaging through a cardboard-model metropolis, with the back-to-basics kaiju filmmaking style matching the husband's regression to a primordial state. The story of lost languages, shape-shifting spirits and atavistic urges does not make a whole lot of sense (especially if you are not au fait with Japan's indigenous folklore), but the unhinged vibe is half the appeal of this straight-faced, surrealist spin on family fidelity.
Nakagawa Nobuo's The Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959), too, is derivative to a fault yet still masterful. Drawn from a celebrated 1825 kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku that had already inspired over 20 film adaptations (the first in 1912!), this tale of conjugal treachery and ghostly revenge acknowledges its theatrical roots in the opening scene (as a curtain literally opens on the action), and yet presents Tsuruya's many coups de théâtre in a manner that is entirely cinematic - all canted angles and uncannily jarring cuts, as well as a surprising amount of grisly gore. The wrongdoing protagonist Iemon (Amachi Shigeru) is presented as a tormented soul, governed by his quick anger, manipulated by his unscrupulous attendant Naosuke (Emi Shuntaro), yet still himself racked with guilt - and so Iemon's much-abused wife Iwa (Wakasugi Katsuko) becomes not just a ghastly revenant but also a vivid embodiment of Iemon's own inner psychological and ethical conflicts.
Wakasugi's grotesque, implacable turn as Iwa would go on to influence the iconography and temper of Japanese horror to come, inspiring the long hair, distorted face and vindictive spirit of the female onryō (or vengeful ghosts) in Kwaidan (1964), Ringu (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2002). Yet what is even more memorably affecting here is the way that Nakagawa delays the supernatural elements of his story till relatively late in the running time, and uses them merely to amplify what is already an intense moral drama. It is a trick that the director would repeat in his next, more famous film Jigoku (1960).
Nattawut Poonpiriya's Countdown (2012) also uses a genre frame to address broader moral and spiritual concerns. Bee (Jarinporn Joonkiat), Jack (Pachara Chirathivat) and Pam (Pattarasaya Kreuasuwansri) are three young Thais in New York, set adrift from their family traditions and religious roots, and self-abandoned to a lifestyle of insincere escapism, shallow hedonism and destructive narcissism. On New Year's Eve, they summon the dealer Jesus (David Asavinond) to their apartment to provide illicit pharmaceutical diversions – and so begins a long dark night in which these lost souls will be confronted with their sins and taken on a torturous trip to redemption. It is a visceral, blackly funny mindfuck of a movie that plays like a post-millennial Reefer Madness (1936) with Catholic/Buddhist underpinnings – and a nail gun.
Nattawut Poonpiriya's 'Countdown'.
Best of all is Upi Avianto's Belenggu (2012). In a town recently plagued by killings and described as "a cage populated by strange personalities", withdrawn, paranoid Elang (Abimana Aryasatya) is haunted by nightmares of blood-stained corpses and a menacing figure in a rabbit suit. So when sultry femme fatale Senja (Avrilla), the literal girl of his dreams, one day walks into the bar where Elang works (accompanied by an albino cowboy), Elang believes he has found "the key to all the mess in this crazy town" - little realising that fate has brought his own and this woman's separate stories of trauma together on a parallel path of mystery, murder and madness.
Belenggu is a heady psychotropic stew of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001), Kurosawa Kiyoshi's Cure (1997) and Shimizu Takashi's Rabitto Hora 3D (2011), written with a tightness that, despite the disjointed style and damaged point-of-view, enables all the fractured narrative pieces eventually to fall into place. And in a film where everyone's strings are being pulled, the director proves the master manipulator. Don't miss it.
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