A Tale Of Two Sisters

by Kim Ji-woon (2003,

South Korea

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Todd over at Twitch has been raving about this film almost nonstop, so much so that I picked up a copy when I was in Toronto (gotta love those 6 DVDs for $30 deals in Chinatown)... and promptly set it on my shelf where it has been gathering dust ever since.  I’m not really sure why I took so long to watch it.  I’m sure part of it has to do with the fact that I’m not much of a horror fan, though A Tale Of Two Sisters is most definitely not a retread of the Ring/Ju-On formula that’s been done to death these days.  And I also suppose part of the reason is my natural skepticism about films that have received heaps of praise, and that is definitely the case with A Tale Of Two Sisters.

But in all honesty, it does deserve quite a bit of that praise.  For starters, the film is just absolutely gorgeous to watch.  Writer/director Kim Ji-woon (who first burst on the scene with The Foul King) shoots some beautiful film, especially inside the house in which the film is set.  He loves to capture the textures and patterns throughout the house, leading your eye into the background where the scares often happen.  And unlike many horror directors, he’s not afraid of suffusing his scenes with bright sunlight, creating cheery, nostalgic scenes that are promptly turned inside out.

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Shaun Of The Dead

by Edgar Wright (2004, United Kingdom)

Perhaps one of the greatest travesties of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival was that Shaun Of The Dead didn’t play during the Midnight Madness program.  Apparently, everyone except the distributor wanted it to happen, which meant it didn’t.  But if it had, I swear it would’ve owned every single person in the room.  I finally got a chance to see Shaun, and it’s simply terrific.  And I can only imagine how insane it would’ve been to see it in the Ryerson along with 1300 other cult film fans in the wee hours of the night.

I just got in my Spaced Definitive Collector’s Edition, which I’ve already begun showing off to people.  Seeing as how Spaced and Shaun Of The Dead were made by the same people, it’s only natural to make some comparisons.  However, as the movie progressed, I found it more difficult to do so.  Sure, you see Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Jessica Stevenson (to name but a few) running through the streets of London taking the heads off of zombies.  But whereas Spaced had this endearing, very juvenile sense of glee about it, Shaun Of The Dead feels remarkably mature and adult.  At least, for a zombie movie.

Shaun (Pegg) looks and acts like Spaced‘s Tim… only all grown up and completely disillusioned.  He’s a good bloke, but he’s stuck in a dead-end job, lives with a friend who is sucking him dry, stuck in a relationship that he just can’t seem to be responsible enough for, and unable to communicate with the rest of his family.  And yet when the chance arises to become a hero, a chance that could only come in one of those comic books that Tim illustrated, he’s finally given a chance to really live.

Although Spaced had plenty of solid character moments, I was completely unprepared for the depth of character on display throughout Shaun Of The Dead.  Sure, there’s plenty of buffoonery, thanks to the relationship between Shaun and Ed (his irresponsible roommate, played wonderfully by Frost), but there are some genuinely heartfelt moments that blew me away, moments when Shaun is desperately trying to save his loved ones, is desperately trying to be a hero.

Even secondary characters feel fleshed out.  In one scene, Shaun meets up with Yvonne, an old friend (played by his Spaced co-star Stevenson).  Just the way they interact, their nervous glances and embraces, implies a shared history, even a hint of regret.  The same goes for Shaun’s relationship with his step-dad, which starts out as the inspiration for some of the movie’s funniest scenes, but ends up with some real emotional clout.

However, this is not what you expect from a zombie movie.  You typically expect the characters in these sorts of movies to be mere fodder, tools to help further the movie along to the next munching scene.  However, Shaun Of The Dead brilliantly slips one past you by making these characters you actually care about and root for.  When something bad happens to one of them, it actually hits you and means something, and when the slapstick comes, the laughs are that much more enjoyable.  As such, the movie quickly rises above being a mere excuse to splash some gore across the scene.

Of course, there is plenty of gore, including decapitations, torn flesh, nasty zombie bites, and oodles of entrails strewn about.  It’s definitely not for the squeamish.  Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright have their zombie lore down pat, and the movie works quite well as a fanboy’s homage to all things undead (just as Spaced did for comic books and sci-fi geekery).  And there’s even some social commentary thrown in there as well, about how modern life with all of its mass media and drudgery turns us all into zombies.  Of course, it’s all done tongue-in-cheek, and never gets in the way of the movie’s sense of fun and heart.

I was also impressed at just how professional and confident this film felt.  Mixing romance, comedy, and zombies could easily have made for a very chaotic and uneven flick, but Wright handles it all with considerable skill.  There’s one sequence in particular, as Shaun, completely oblivious to the walking dead, takes a morning stroll that’s choreographed so brilliantly and executed so naturally that it’s truly jawdropping.  Throw in some of Pegg’s pratfalls and the best use of Queen in a zombie movie ever, and you’ve got quite a lot of icing on the cake.

Truth be told, I’m pretty surprised that this movie is playing in Lincoln, and in the mainstream theatres to boot.  Part of me wishes this wasn’t the case, although I’d love to see Pegg, Wright, and Co. get all the acclaim they deserve, and then some.  But part of me wants to keep this to myself, and give it all of the love any true cult film deserves.  I’m curious to see how this plays, because it’s so much more than we deserve from your typical zombie movie.  And yet, it’s almost subversive at the same time, the way it blends such solid characters with plenty of gore and some wicked humor.

Whatever the case, I can’t wait to see it again.  Only this time, with a bunch of mates as we all get treated to a full dose of RomZomCom.

Gozu

by Takashi Miike (2003, Japan)

I have mixed feelings about Japanese shock director Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi The Killer).  On the one hand, he is undoubtedly an incredibly creative man, capable of shooting stunning film and telling perfectly crafted stories when he reins in some of his baser instincts.  The man’s vision of the world is absolutely, 100% unique.  You could never confuse a Miike film for anything else.

On the other hand, several of Miike’s film cross the line into misogyny and you often get the sense that he’s painted himself into a corner by building a name as a shock director.  He now has to keep upping the ante to maintain the interest of his fans, and his films often degenerate into sloppy, messy affairs that don’t seem to have much point other than cramming as much bizarre and unsettling imagery onto the screen as possible.

I wasn’t planning on seeing Gozu, one of Miike’s latest films (he releases 3 or 4 in any given year), but when it turned out that Gozu was the last film I was working on my last volunteer shift of the festival and they needed somebody to sit in the theater to watch out for video pirates, I quickly volunteered my services.  I was rewarded with a prime seat right next to the film’s local representative who could be seen shaking his head and muttering “This is so messed up…” at several points throughout the screening.

Gozu is billed as a yakuza horror film, and though it certainly involves a good number of yakuza, it is absolutely not a horror film.  There is no attempt made to scare the audience here and the local distributor would do well to rethink their marketing.  Heh… who am I kidding?  This thing’s never going to get out there on any scale where marketing’s going to matter.

Gozu is a thoroughly bizarre, Jungian excursion that would make David Lynch blush at the straightforwardness of his own films.  Trained yakuza attack Chihuahuas, wildly lactating innkeepers, conflicted loyalties, a disappearing corpse, sexual repression, a strange cow headed figure, a yakuza boss who can only get an erection if he has a soup ladle inserted into his anus, and a graphic adult human birth scene—that would be an adult human giving birth to another adult human—that puts Udo Kier’s birth scene at the end of The Kingdom to shame all figure prominently.

Some of this is old ground for Miike (the excessive lactation pops up in a few of his films), but what separates this one is an absurd sense of humor that Miike has only really exhibited before with The Happiness Of The Katakuris. While he normally tends to get bogged down in attempts to shock and disturb, with Gozu Miike is working with a nod and a wink, acknowledging that he’s putting together something utterly bizarre and confounding and inviting the audience to simply sit back and enjoy the ride.

As far as narrative goes, Gozu is primarily the story of Minami, a low level yakuza gangster, and his immediate superior Ozaki to whom Minami is intensely loyal.  However, Ozaki has fallen out of favor with the gang.  The boss feels Ozaki is losing his grip on reality (see above comment regarding trained yakuza attack Chihuahuas) and orders Minami to take Ozaki out to a gang-run autowrecker and execute him.  Minami agonizes over what he’s going to do throughout the entire drive until he suddenly comes to a washed out bridge and slams on the brakes, sending Ozaki flying headfirst into the dashboard, breaking his neck and thus doing Minami’s job for him.

Visibly rattled, Minami stops at a roadside diner for a coffee, but while he’s inside, Ozaki’s body disappears.  The bulk of the film is then spent with Minami trying to track down Ozaki’s corpse, which increasingly appears to have been reanimated.  Eventually, he tracks down a young woman who claims to be Ozaki and who can recite, verbatim, entire conversations that only Minami and Ozaki knew as proof of her identity.

As has been the case with virtually every Miike film I have seen, I was very impressed with the caliber of the cinematography, editing, and performances. Very often this material is poorly shot on the cheap, with the filmmakers counting on the general oddity to distract the viewers from the poor quality, but not Miike.  In his case, he’s an obviously gifted filmmaker who has just chosen a very strange genre in which to express himself.

Written by Chris Brown.

Ju-On

by (2003, Japan)

Film festival Midnight Madness screenings are the absolute best place in the world to indulge in genre film mania.  There’s no experience quite like being packed into the grand old Uptown Theater (now sadly closed, this festival was it’s last hurrah) with 900 rabid fans screaming at all the right moments for whatever kung fu, horror, or other general strangeness the programmers have chosen to throw on screen.  I was out of town for Ong Bak and am still kicking myself for missing it, but Ju-On more than made up for it.

This Japanese ghost story is poised to become the next Ring.  It’s already created enough of a sensation in Asia that the sequel has already been completed and Sam Raimi is currently in Japan producing an English language remake with original director Takashi Shimizu at the helm.

This is very likely the most effective horror film I have ever seen.  Ever.  Told in an episodic fashion that lets the director throw in a good scare every ten minutes or so, Ju-On is a basic haunted house story.  A mother and her young son were murdered in their home—the mother’s corpse hidden in the attic, the son’s never found—and they now harbor a grudge against the living.  Simply put, if you come too close, the ghosts kill you.  Or drive you mad.  Then you yourself take on the curse and the circle widens.

The film’s structure is dead simple.  A single name appears on a black screen.  That person is going to die in the next film segment.  Person dies, next name appears.  Repeat.  No, there’s not a whole lot of plot—if you get too close you die, remember?  Not a lot of room for plot development, but Shimizu does such an incredible job of building up tension and then delivering the goods that nobody really cares about storyline anyway.  It’s all about getting to the next scare.

Perhaps what’s most impressive about this film is that all of the hallmarks of the American horror film—the gore, the shocking effects—are completely absent here.  Shimizu scares the pants off you using nothing more than sound and lighting effects, a killer sense of timing, and a little kid painted this odd pale purple color.

Written by Chris Brown.

Ju-On

by (2003, Japan)

I’m not a huge fan of horror movies.  I’m a complete sissy when it comes to most films in the genre.  Heck, I haven’t even seen any of the Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday The 13th movies, supposed classics of the genre, or so I’ve been told.  However, I am a huge fan of the horror movies that Japan has been putting out in recent years, at least of the handful that I have seen.

The Ring didn’t quite live up to expectations I had, though there were many elements of it that I did appreciate.  On the other hand, Dark Water scared the crap out of me, turning me into a screaming little girl the first I watched it (a good thing, mind you) while also revealing a lot more emotional and thematic depth than I had expected from a horror flick.  But they’re nothing compared to Ju-On (trans. The Grudge).

Ju-On doesn’t really have a plot per se, but rather a premise that merely plays out through a series of episodes. 

In a grainy, black and white flashback that begins the film, we catch glimpses of a man going insane and killing his family (including the cat).  He hides his wife’s body in the attic before committing suicide, but their 6-year-old boy goes missing and is never found.  Jump forward to the present, where their spirits now haunt their old house.  However, don’t expect the poor, misunderstood specters of The Sixth Sense.  Because of the violent nature of their deaths, Ju-On‘s spirits now bear a terrible grudge against the world of the living, and anyone who comes in contact with the house is subject to their wrath.

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