Monday, April 28, 2008

Miike Marathon :: Dead or Alive (1999)

I was debating whether to review this or Ichi the Killer for my final entry in this Miike Marathon of mine. Ichi is probably the more (in)famous of the two but I ultimately chose Dead or Alive (not, not, NOT to be confused with the video game adaptation of the same name) for no other reason than that I like it better and find its excesses a bit more tolerable. Also, I think this film nicely rounds out a thematic overview of Miike's work.

If there is a cinematic equivalent to cocaine, Dead or Alive may be it.

In the closing comments of my Audition review I used the William Blake line "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." The reference was a little out of place since Audition isn't really a terribly excessive film. The comment really referred to Takashi Miike's entire oeuvre since many of his most famous works are experiments and excursions into excessive extremes. Dead or Alive is a perfect example of Miike's over-the-top filmmaking. In Dead or Alive, Miike fills, and then overfills, the screen with a boggling maelstrom of taboo-trampling, adrenaline-charged, adolescent wet-dream, fetishist notions of violence and sexuality, all of which play out in the brutal and cartoonish world of Miike's yakuza-infested Shinjuku district of Tokyo. When it comes to the outrageous and the ridiculous, Miike's cup runneth over. Welcome to the end of your mind.

Let me describe, or at least attempt to describe, the opening scenes of Dead or Alive. A naked woman falls to her death while clutching a bag of cocaine; random police officers brutalize random pedestrians; a homosexual liaison in a men's washroom ends in a fountain of arterial spray; a several metres long line of cocaine is inhaled; the term "eating disorder" is radically redefined; a hitman, after being passed a shotgun by a clown, executes a man in the middle of a crowded street. All of this happens quite literally during the film's first five minutes. It's a frenzy of kaleidoscopic edits and extreme camera angles that pummels the unprepared viewer into a state of semi-conscious, cinematic euphoria. It leaves the likes of Kill Bill or Death Proof gasping for breath.

Amidst all this chaos and cinematic bravura a plot does eventually emerge, although any plot at this point begins to look a lot like the flimsiest of pretenses. In Shinjuku, two crime organizations, the Japanese yakuza and their rival Chinese counterparts, are battling for supremacy. In between the two, playing both sides, is a group of (to use Michael Ondaatje's phrase) "international bastards" lead by the buttoned-down psychotic Ryuuichi. Wading through the ensuing carnage is Det. Jojima, a morally ambiguous but probably decent man struggling not only to battle crime but also to find enough money to finance an expensive medical treatment for his daughter. The two of them will spark a personal vendetta that will eventually explode not only their personal lives but all of Tokyo, all of Japan and even, perhaps, all of the world. In fact, the film's extraordinary ending dives headfirst into the deep end of metaphor so suddenly and so unapologetically that it threatens to drown its audience under a crushing wave of blinking disbelief. But it works. It works if for no other reason than that it is exquisitely satisfying to see this powder-keg of a movie lit off with an ending worthy of the incendiary excesses that have come before it. The battle between Neo and Agent Smith at the end of The Matrix Revolutions cannot hold a candle to this titanic and apocalyptic showdown.

Is there a point to such a film? Probably not. Unlike Visitor Q, Dead or Alive more than anything else feels like an exercise in over-the-top cinematic style, the Japanese equivalent to last year's Tarantino and Rodriguez-helmed Grindhouse. While it does have its moments of cinematic transgression (you may never look at a plastic kiddie pool the same way again), these excesses, rather than being the subject of intense or satiric scrutiny, form the landscape of a city and of a world that Miike is all too eager to rip to shreds.

Closing Thoughts on the Marathon. So that's Takashi Miike. Well, that's a sampling of Miike anyway. He is perhaps the most prolific director working today in Japan, in America, or in wherever. His career started in 1991 and since then he has helmed, at least according to IMDb, an astonishing 77 projects. He must not sleep.

As I've been watching his films, Quentin Tarantino has always been a quick and handy point of comparison for me, not because I find their styles to be particularly comparable but because both seem to act like children when it comes to making movies - they simply enjoy what they are doing and enjoy taking their audiences to unexpected places. They are both agitators: they take and rewrite the rules and conventions that you think should be governing them. Miike can disturb you, disgust you and make you laugh out loud, often all at the same time. He's directed comedies, musicals, and yakuza crime sagas. His experimental excursions into horror, such as his Masters of Horror entry "Imprint" or his Three... Extremes segment "Box," can cause your skin to crawl. The cartoonish and ultra-violent excesses of Ichi the Killer can make A Clockwork Orange look tame and can, in actual fact, give you an aneurysm. He can be sentimental and touching and he can be downright sadistic. It's hard to say who Miike is and even harder to define a Miike film. However, he approaches every project, at least the ones that I've seen, with enough verve, audacity and dripping style to make him never boring, always entertaining, and, perhaps, one of the more interesting directors to come along in a long, long while.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Miike Marathon :: Visitor Q (2001)

"Nothing is true; everything is permitted." These, according to the legend, were the last words of Hassan i Sabbah. As a theory of ethics or as an ethos, such words lead to decadence and anarchy and should, I believe, be strongly opposed by all who are sane. As a theory of art, however, they may have merit, though I'm sure art is not what Sabbah had in mind when he uttered them. In the most literal sense, nothing in art is true. This is what Plato meant when he banished the poets from his ideal republic. Plato had correctly noticed that fiction and poetry, though beautiful and often moving, are lies; however, they not the kinds of morally lapsing lies that he might have thought they were. Art, by lying, can tell us the truth. Poetic or artistic lies, freed from the restraints of empirical objectivity, penetrate deeper into the truth of things than any credible account of reality ever can. An allegory explains the universe; a simile reveals a thing's true nature; a metaphor cuts to the quick. When we see art in such terms, as a counter to reality that in fact reveals reality to us in new and important ways, it becomes clear that, indeed, everything is permitted, for if we accept that, in a very literal sense, nothing is true in art than everything in fact becomes on occasion for metaphor.

But what, you say, has all this to do with Takashi Miike and Visitor Q, of which, I presume, most people have not heard and are not likely to ever see? Well, I shall tell you. The above is a justification or sorts for the ridiculous parade of obscenities and horrors you will encounter if you chose to watch Visitor Q. If you are not convinced that everything is permitted in the service of art than you should probably avoid this film because it will likely shock into a coma or send you out into an apoplectic rage in which you will think it wise to tighten the laws governing censorship (which, as you might imagine, does not think everything is permitted).

Visitor Q is a family movie, or rather it is a movie about a family. This particular family, however, is in quite a lot of trouble. The father, a disgraced reporter looking to make a documentary on "young people today," goes to his prostitute daughter for material and ends up purchasing her services. His son, bullied by his peers, ferociously redoubles that scarring abuse upon his mother. His mother, to deal with the physical and no doubt emotional pain, turns to heroin, a habit which leads her also to prostitute herself to fetishists. In the harrowing world of Takashi Miike, this is Japan - depraved, decaying, and excremental. Into these ruinous lives enters the Visitor, a man who quite literally tries to knock some sense into this disintegrating family.

In its own way, Visitor Q is a redemption story. That it uses several murders, incest, necrophilia, rape and some of the most bizarre scenes involving breast milk in cinematic history to arrive at it only highlights the immediate need for that redemption. But don't be fooled by its seeming prurience and excess. Though it seems to play out like protracted telling of the aristocrats joke, Visitor Q is actually an example of some of the most scathing satire and sharpest black comedy you're likely ever to encounter. And I do mean ever. Unlike the pointless and pornographic images of, say, Salo, Visitor Q's extreme images are not connected with a self-immolating swan dive into the hellish flames of nihilism but are rather all connected to pressing social and familial concerns, concerns which are not only conservative and traditional but downright wholesome. That this family does not act like a family is the point; that they should act like a family is also the point; that they have no idea how to do so is once again the point. In one scene, the father, deliriously excited that his home is being destroyed by fireworks since it presents him with such an exciting moment for his documentary, yells out while taping the incident, "How am I supposed to feel? I don't know how a father should feel! But I know my family is being destroyed! So, what do you think?" It's almost too on-the-nose, but anyone who misses the levels of irony and metaphor in a movie character, himself armed with a camera, filming a scene of destruction, self-reflectively asking his own audience "what do you think?" has no business watching movies.

Miike has denied that his films are rooted in social concern or that they are metaphors for modern Japan. That's okay. George Romero tried to tell us that Dawn of the Dead was not about consumerism. (Psst... even if he didn't think it was, it was.) Some of Miike's films, like Dead or Alive and Ichi the Killer, are simply efforts in mindless, and mind-boggling, entertainment, though even they have artistic merit, dubious as that may sound to anyone who may familiar with either of those films. But a film like Visitor Q is something more than simple sensationalism. For one, it's not very entertaining, it is in fact quite sickening, if we try to see it as something other than satire. For two, the relevance of its satire and the blackness of its humour are simply too sharp to be accidental. Sure, it may offend nearly every audience that watches it but that shouldn't suggest that it is without merit. Remember, everything is permitted. In the hands of childish artist, this sort of freedom will likely result in self-destruction. In the hands of a genuine and mature artist, however, this freedom will shock, jolt and, if you let it, drop lightning bolts of serious thought into your mind. Visitor Q is such a film. Not every palate will appreciate it but those with an appetite for serious satire may find themselves enjoyably challenged by it if they dare to chew on it for a bit.

Once again, another take.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Miike Marathon :: Audition (1999)

Perhaps it was always inevitable that I would make my way to the films of Takashi Miike, not only because he is one of the most important names in horror today but also because his films, like David Lynch's, are often experimental, are usually drenched in surrealism and metaphor, and are constantly pushing the thresholds of the medium past their normal tolerances, all of which are elements that, in the hands of a competent artist - dare I say, auteur - like Miike, results in some truly spectacular cinema. Though his chosen grammar may contain a slightly more than healthy helping of arterial spray, Miike is a legitimate filmmaker who deserves to be taken seriously not only by the horror hounds but by serious film critics everywhere.

The Japanese precursor to (and one of the primary inspirations behind) such films as Saw and Hostel, Takashi Miike's Audition stormed onto the world's cinematic stage while the North American film industry was still trying to tell us that self-parodic films like Scream were scary. While not really a horror film, though its final act is rather horrific, Audition laid waste to many Western ideas of what was frightening and redefined what it meant for a film to be scary or disturbing.

A lonely Japanese man, Aoyama, is told by his son that he should remarry. His friend, a movie producer, offers to stage an audition that would allow Aoyama to pick and chose the kind of woman he would like to be with. Almost immediately he is drawn to Asami, even though his friend is unnerved by her and even though she seems to be lying about who she is. Aoyama and Asami begin a courtship that is awkward and charming and which, except for a few hints dropped to the audience, appears normal enough. Aoyama, it seems, is genuinely a decent man and he is more than a little ashamed of the false pretenses that brought them together. However, while he may have some skeletons lurking about his closest, they are nothing compared to Asami's, which include abuse, torture, murder and a very monstrous idea of what it means to love someone.

Unlike most horror films, Audition takes its time. Not worried about filling the screen with a constant barrage of blood and guts (Miike will do that in other films... but that's another story for another time), Audition is a slow burn. The first two acts simply smolder, laying the foundation and dropping the occasional and disconcerting hint about what might actually be going on. Even when its final act does begin and Miike's trademark penchant for nerve-jangling shock images takes over the style remains surprising restrained and deliberate, especially when compared to the outright psychosis and strobe light editing of Dead or Alive, which Miike also released in 1999.

While it may sound like an exercise in sensationalism (and this is one of his less sensational efforts), it is hard to ignore Miike's mastery of the medium. In one of the film's more daring sequences, Aoyama, drugged, is thrust into a dream-like altered reality in which he hallucinates things that we as an audience are already aware of but which he himself has not yet learned. Miike, in an act of dizzying virtuosity, has crashed the walls of dramatic irony and actually used the device as a narrative point.

This brash willingness to ignore convention, coupled with a wicked and bloody sense of humour that borders on - but never completely gives itself over to - sadism, defines Miike's work and makes him an important director not only in Japanese horror but also in all of world cinema. If I were to make a comparison, I would compare Miike with Canada's own David Cronenberg since both of them feel free to use often shocking or extreme images but they use them within a very specific and metaphoric context. William Blake wrote "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." While Audition may not lead to the palace of wisdom, or to any palace for that matter, its excesses and the excesses of many of Miike's films are artistically justifiable, I think, and make for a breathtaking, if somewhat unsettling, cinematic experience.

Here's another take on the film.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Of Our Elaborate Plans... The End

It's the end of another school year. I just wrote my last final. Some people listen to Alice Cooper's "School's Out" when the year ends. I listen to "The End" by The Doors.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mini-Review :: Black Sunday (1960)

One of the first films by Mario Bava, the original master of Italian horror, Black Sunday (1960), though tame by any and all of today's standards for modern horror, was and remains a cinematic landmark. Nearly every gothic convention ever used in horror is being brought to life here, possibly for the first time. This is pure horror, before it became a stale victim of its own conventions. Like a more macabre and slightly less restrained Hitchcock, Bava executes his tale of vampires and satanic curses with great confidence and success. And while it may not be genuinely frightening anymore it's still damn entertaining.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Retro Review :: The Quiet Earth (1985)

It's been a while. I've traveled to the edge of the world and back (or at least finished another year of university) and let me tell you... the maps are right: there be dragons. With a little extra time on my hands for the moment, however, I've decided to catch up on some movies I've been meaning to watch.

Between Anchor Bay and The Criterion Collection, many sci-fi and horror classics have been deservedly saved from the abyss of cinematic obscurity that has been created by a society that seems to have no long-term memory whatsoever, at least (or maybe especially) when it comes to art or entertainment. Anchor Bay, in an effort to save even more films, has recently unrolled a Cult Fiction series of DVDs, a set dedicated to obscure and beloved films. The series isn't themed. Digging deep into the vaults of many different genres, such horror, sci-fi, grindhouse crime and exploitation films and even camp spoof, the series includes such gems as The Wicker Man, C.H.U.D., and even Werner Herzog's great Fitzcarraldo. Yes, it's a strange collection. However, many of these films deserve to be seen, if for no other reason then that they show us just how derivative much of our modern cinematic endeavours have become.

One of these Cult Fiction films is The Quiet Earth, a 1985 New Zealand-made apocalyptic tale about the last man on earth. Sound familiar? Sure, especially with a certain blockbuster currently cluttering up our mental airwaves. However, this is the movie I Am Legend should have been, wanted to be, but never had any hope of actually being.

At precisely 6:12 in the morning, Zak Hobson (Bruno Lawrence, who I'd never heard of before but who is astonishing here) wakes up to discover that everyone else in the world as disappeared. The buildings are all empty, the roads are littered with the wreckages of suddenly abandoned vehicles, and fallen aircraft take out entire city blocks in flaming death dives. There are no bodies; everyone has just vanished. Not even animals or insects remain. What follows is a character study of mental deterioration. With no other living being around him, Zak descends into madness. Remember those scenes in I Am Legend where Will Smith was running around, making friends and talking with mannequins? Remember how interesting they were compared to the poorly fabricated digital escapades that followed them? The Quiet Earth is like those scenes... only much, much better. Though those scenes can shamelessly harvest the organs of The Quiet Earth, they can't even begin to breath the kind of life into them that suffuses The Quiet Earth.

While other movies try to portray isolation and madness they so often do so by watering them down for us and by giving us a sanitized version of them. It's the Wilson effect and it assumes that an honest depiction of human madness would be too uncomfortable for an audience to handle, at least in mainstream cinema. Zak, however, has no volleyball. Neither he nor the filmmakers give us a buffer between Zak and his madness; they gives us no anthropomorphic crutch to temper Zak's isolation. So he rages about in a silk dress, brandishing his shotgun. He repeatedly, and without any real explanation, shoots a crucifix. While assuming the role of President of the Earth before an audience of cardboard cut-outs that include Hitler and Nixon, he confesses his crimes. In fact, for the first act of the film there are hardly any sci-fi or thriller elements to the story at all. What we get instead is a very convincing character study in effects of pure isolation on the human mind.

Unfortunately, the following two acts are not quite as interesting. The narrative is fleshed out a bit more and Zak eventually rebuilds himself and begins to piece together a theory of what happened to everyone. A few predictable plot devices ensue: yes, Zak isn't entirely alone; yes, humanity is probably too self-destructive for its own good. Nevertheless, despite a few missteps, the film is a triumph. While it is not "Quite simply the best science-fiction film of the '80s," as the quote on the box would have us believe (that honour goes to Blade Runner, after all), it is a film that deserves to be seen, not only by science-fiction fan but by anyone who loves good movies.

In the holy pantheon of science-fiction, there are only four films that, as far as I'm concerned, have achieved a full apotheosis: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Andrei Tarkovsky's Solyaris (1972), and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982). While The Quiet Earth is not quite as good as these films, it is perhaps one of those rare films that comes closes to matching their greatness. This of course means that it is by leaps and bounds better than almost any sci-fi flick you're likely to see coming out of Hollywood any time soon. Seeing The Quiet Earth has actually upset me a bit. 'Cause if I missed this one, what other great sci-fi films have I missed only because they have unfairly slipped out of sight and out of our short-termed, pop-cultural minds?