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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?