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August 21, 2007

Extreme Asia - Review of Galloway's "Asia Shock"

In another post, I have reviewed Stray Dogs and Lone Wolves, Patrick Galloway's riveting take on the samurai film. Now we have his Asia Shock, Horror and Dark Cinema from Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. Just like the earlier volume, this is both a book that is very well researched and at the same time easy to read (a difficult combination) - and on top of that again infused with Galloway's indomitable enthousiasm which almost makes you want to flip all those films immediately into your DVD player.

As in the book on samurai movies, here, too, Galloway has opted for a broad definition of his subject. In other words, this is not a book on "Asian Horror Cinema" (although there are plenty of creepy movies in it), but Galloway rather introduces about 50 films that are in some way or another "shocking" or "extreme."

There is more than enough of those elements in Asian films, as you will see when you start reading. Galloway sets the tone with his first review of Miike Takashi's Visitor Q (2001) which is a catalogue of all depravities one can imagine, brought to the screen with a liberating dosis of black humor. In the Korean film Island (Kim Ki-duk) the main person does various weird things with fish hooks in body openings, which is more excrutiatingly horrible than a real horror film. Or what about the tongue amputation in Ichi the Killer, kids playing soccer with a human head in Battle Royale or the girl shooting killer darts from her nether regions in Miike's Fudoh? Who would fancy the fetus dumplings from Three Extremes for dinner, or the live octopus consumed in OldBoy? And there could be no greater riproaring fun (albeit it rather politically incorrect) than exploitation flicks as Convent of the Sacred Beast or The Joy of Torture by the legendary Teruo Ishii. These titles speak for themselves.

You need a strong stomach and perhaps a thick skin - these films certainly are not for everybody. If you don't like these "extreme" cult films, don't throw away the Asian cinema baby with the bath water of shock: there is also a whole world of beauty out there with art house films by Koreeda Hirokazu, Kawase Naomi (winner of the Grand Prix of the Cannes film Festival 2007 with Mogari no Mori), Iwai Shinji, Wong Kar-wai, Hou Hsia-hsien and Zhang Yimou - not to speak of Kim Ki-Duk's poetic Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring!

But back to Asia Shock. Of the 40 full reviews, 22 are dedicated to Japanese films, 9 to Hong Kong films, 8 to Korean ones and 3 to Thai cinema. The large number of Japanese films is fully justified, and Galloway aims at diversity here, but even so I missed some favorite directors. For example, Ishii Sogo (what about Burst City or the funny Crazy Family?), Ishii Takashi (Freeze me, or even better, the Angel Gut films he made early in his career - he wrote all of them and helmed two himself), Kitano Takeshi (Violent Cop or Sonatine, Kitano's violence is of a special order and there is nothing more shocking than the speed and naturalness with which he rams a pair of chopsticks into the eye of a yakuza in Sonatine). Tsukamoto Shinya is present with A Snake of June, indeed his most beautiful and poetic film, but not one which I would file under "Asia Shock" - earlier films as Tokyo Fist or Bullet Ballet and of course the Tetsuo movies would have been more fitting.

Korea is properly represented with famous directors as Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, and Kim Jo-Woon, and I think Galloway gives a good idea of the shock and horror films of the Korean "Golden Age," which unfortunately already seems to be fading.

I am not very well at home in Thai cinema, so I gladly follow Galloway's lead here, but I do have a slight problem with the large number of Hong Kong films he includes. With a few exceptions, Hong Kong films are not shocking at all, but on the contrary often rather silly because of the slapstick elements Chinese directors mix in. Slapstick does not go well with horror, to say the least - especially the older films like We're going to eat you are only palatable when you are in an enormously silly mood yourself.

Why all the violence in these Asian films? Certainly not because Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Thais are more violent, on the contrary, you don't have soccer hooligans in Asia. Society here is safe and well-ordered, with strict gun control, the people are often more well-mannered and polite than elsewhere. By the way, in China (different from Japan and Korea), violence and anger are even culturally taboo, and that is probably the reason you find it mixed with slapstick (to take the bite out of it) in the Hong Kong films I mentioned above.

But just because societies like the Japanese are so well-ordered, with intricate webs of social obligations, people need an escape valve now and then, and one such flight into virtuality is offered in the form of violent manga and films. And then other circumstances kick in, in the first place the political one of freedom of expression. Asian shock films are not produced where (self-) censorship exists, absolute freedom is a necessary first condition.

In addition, but just as important, we have cultural factors, such as the absence of taboos in Japan due to the fact that there is no puritanical or fundamental religion here that dominates society - the same can be said about most other countries discussed here. There is also no false "political correctness" - can you imagine kids killing each other in the most atrocious ways in a Hollywood film?

Although I have seen quite a lot of Asian films, Galloway's book still pointed me in the direction of several new adventures as Organ, Evil Dead Trap and Tell me something. But more than that, his reviews ar such fun to read that you automatically assume the films will be fun too, and before you know it you are off to Tower records or HMV, or searching on Amazon. His book inspired me to view quite a number of films for the second time.

In short, there are few film books that are so enjoyable as Asia Shock and I hope Galloway keeps writing about Asian cult films.
Asia Schock was published by Stonebridge Press (2006). Read Galloway's blog about the book.

August 20, 2007

Monster hair - Review of Sono Shion's "Exte"

Japanese horror films are all too famous for the female ghosts who swing their long, black hair in front of their faces. The classic example is Ringu, where the videotaped ghost - hair first - even comes creeping out of the TV for her last killing spree, but the tradition is as old as Asia - another famous example is the story Kurokami, "Black Hair" in Kobayashi Masaki's cult classic Kwaidan. With the J-Horror boom fading, a certain tiredness with all those ghouly black tresses has inevitably set in, so here comes cult helmer Sono Shion with a tongue-in-cheek take on the subject which neatly puts things on their head.

In Sono's latest film Ekusute ("Exte," "Hair Extensions") black hair growing uncontrollably is itself the ghostly killer. On top of that, a black-haired beauty in the form of Kuriyama Chiaki (the mace-wielding schoolgirl with the icy gaze from Kill Bill, now in a much sweeter role) takes center stage with such lustrous, long straight hair that she is almost a walking shampoo ad. That perfectly suits the film, because Exte is all about hair.

At the center stands the goofy, cross-dressing Yamazaki, a great role by Osugi Ren, who works in the city mortuary and stealthily collects the hair of the dead. Later in the film he even sings about his strange hobby in a terrible daft song that keeps ringing in your ears, "Hair, hair, my hair..." (The Japanese English word "hea" is used, instead of "kami no ke"). Mark Schilling calls him in this role "the Hannibal Lector of hair."

Custom officers have opened a container in the port and found it chock-full of black hair, not so surprising as Japan's newest female fad are "hair extensions" and domestic supply cannot keep up. The shock is that they also find a dead woman in the container, whose hair still seems to be growing. When Yamazaki notices that, later in the morgue, he elatedly carts her body off to his wooden shack. There he puts her in a hammock and to his ecstatic delight, the beautiful black hair indeed starts madly growing and sprouting, not only on the head, but from all parts of the dead girl's body, in wave after wave. It shoots up from her mouth, her eyeballs, from under her fingernails, and from the terrible gashes on her legs and arms. (In fact, as we see in flashbacks, the young woman was murdered in a gruesome way by organ harvesters...). It is not a movie to watch when you are eating something, your food will feel like a ball of hair and make you almost choke! The unruly hair in this film is like the slithering sand in Teshigahara's Women in the Dunes, an ominous presence dominating the whole film.

Yuko (Kuriyama Chiaki) is cheerfully working in a hair salon, how could it be otherwise in this hairy movie, that cynically is called "Gilles de Rais" after a notorious Medieval child murderer. As an apprentice practicing hard to become a full-fledged hairdresser soon, she happily cleans, clips and colors.

There is an important subplot concerning Mami, the daughter of Yuko's vampish elder sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi in a delightfully false role), who is abused by her mother and her mother's yakuza boyfriend. Kiyomi unceremoniously dumps Mami in Yuko's apartment when she wants to go partying. At first unhappy about having to take care of a child, by accident Yuko discovers the terrible bruises with which Mami is covered because of all the beatings she gets... and so unofficially adopts Mami and starts a fight with sister Kiyomi (who would probably be happy to be rid of the little girl, but opposes Yuko purely out of spite) about control of her little niece.

The struggle between the sisters over Mami runs parallel to the main story of the uncontrollably growing hair extensions and things heat up when both intersect. That happens when Yamazaki sells high-quality hair extensions made from the dead girl's locks to Yuko's salon. Now the vengeful spirit of the grisly murdered woman starts causing havoc and unsuspecting customers are being strangled by their hair extensions, which curl up into very efficient lassos and nooses. They also start spewing hair from the most unexpected places... Kiyomi steals a few such hair extensions from Yuko's apartment, with predictable but utterly satisfying results.

At the same time Yamazaki is drawn to Yuko's gorgeous, long straight hair (and that of the little niece, who resembles Yuko in this respect). And all the time the organ-harvested dead girl keeps spewing killer hair, whole rooms full of the black locks, like a nest made of hair... Even Yuko and Mami seem to be reborn as mother and daughter in that hairy womb, as a sort of "elemental tide of unleashed feminine power."

How could it be otherwise with all that gorgeous hair?