May 26, 2005

A Whiff of SIFF: Asian Gore Galore!

At one point last weekend, as we watched a madman merrily whacking off a concert pianist’s fingers with a hatchet, each blow punctuated by a jangle of piano keys, Seattle Maggie wondered exactly how we got into these types of films. There was a more innocent time when we have gone for a bit of Freddy Prinze Jr. fluff or maybe even some Disney ballads. It is probably our own fault for booking a double header of the latest and greatest Asian horror goodies that SIFF has to offer; after we purchased our tickets, we plaintively asked ourselves, "How the heck did we become such sickos?"

dumpling.jpg Starting on Saturday night, we caught Three...Extremes, a collection of short horror films: Dumplings by Fruit Chan, Cut by Park Chan-wook, and Box by Takashi Miike. Of the three, Dumplings proved to be the best offering. A middle-aged TV actress turns to extreme measures to regain her youth - all we can say is, you won’t be having a hankering for dim sum anytime soon. With the sinuously sexy Bai Ling as dumpling dealer Mei, Dumplings will shock you even if you’ve already guessed the horrible secret ingredient. Master cinematographer Christopher Doyle once again flexes his keen eye to capture the thin line between the grotesque and the painfully gorgeous: the quivering translucent gleam of the dumpling skins, the careless porcelain smudge of flour across the delicate base of a woman’s throat, the restrained rage of a boiling pot of water, the tiny trickle of blood that whispers of the final descent into madness. Kudos to the sound engineers for capturing the perfect squishy crunch of the hideous dumplings, an indescribably awful sound that is enough to make your skin want to crawl away and hide under the covers.

In Cut, Park Chan-wook once again exercises his familiar brand of poetic brutality. A famous director is kidnapped by a disgruntled extra and forced to make an agonizing choice: murder an innocent child or watch as his wife’s fingers are cut off, one by one. While the tension does run high in a “What Would Jesus Do?” sort of way, it seemed a little too staged and unlikely for our tastes (don’t they have security guards in that studio? And where did he find the time to string up all that elaborate piano wire?) Also, the plot is slammed with a random twist at the end that left us feeling more annoyed than anything else. However, Cut successfully manages to weave in some very black humor with its gore, and we giggled even though we felt kind of dirty about it.

As a horse of a different color, Takashi Miike’s Box is a slow meditation on a more personal horror. A withdrawn writer suffers from suffocating guilt over the unwitting part she played in her sister’s death as a child, when they were both acrobats in a rustic circus. A mysterious invitation calls her back to face her past, and her nightmares, once and for all. After making it through Miike’s shocker Audition, we were surprised by the quiet beauty of this film. Many of the scenes were shot in the silent snow, leading to an effective use of sound; noises felt more startling and insistent after the muffled serenity of the swirling white flakes and frozen meadows. Unfortunately, even though we could appreciate the beauty of Box, we found ourselves puzzled by the increasingly inscrutable plot, perplexing characters, and bizarre conclusion. In the end, it seemed safest to declare, “It was all a dream!” and not ask too many questions.

joanallen.jpg The next evening, Seattle Maggie came across two of the perilous pitfalls of film festival screenings: a 45-minute delay and being trapped in line behind an especially flatulent film enthusiast. We should have known what to expect when the tall fellow in front of us announced to his buddies, "Man, I've been burping up chili all day!" Unfortunately for us, that was not the only escape route that the chili was employing. The minutes ticked on, interminable and stinky; it seemed a screening of Joan Allen's new movie Yes was running over schedule. Suddenly, a chauffeured car pulled up out of nowhere and hovered expectantly in the street. Imagine our surprise when the side door of the Egyptian opened and Ms. Allen herself magically appeared, radiant and impossibly tiny, clutching a mournful little dog. She swept into the waiting car and was driven away before we knew what hit us. We silently cursed our missed opportunity to act like celebrity-crazed fans, perhaps bursting into hysterical tears or rubbing our bodies against the tinted car windows, screaming, "Joan! We love you! But why did you hold up our movie?!"

Once inside, seated far, far away from our chili-loving friend, we were treated to The Ten Steps, a surprisingly effective little horror short from Ireland. We still get a delicious shiver up our spine thinking about the truly eerie climax, as a young girl counts the ten long steps into the darkened cellar. Simple, but still a damn good scare.

marebito.jpg This was followed by the feature Marebito, a film that Seattle Maggie shamelessly admits being seduced into seeing by the word "Lovecraftian" in the festival summary. While we are sadly aware that most movies labeled Lovecraftian usually just throw in some tentacles, a passing Necronomicon reference, and call it a day, Marebito does not fail our Cthulhuian sense of a good time. Directed by Takashi Shimizu of The Grudge cycle, the film uses digital video has a diary device, much as Lovecraft’s protagonists would use a journal or a series of letters. Masuoka is a cameraman obsessed with recording every aspect of life. One day, after recording a horrific suicide in a subway station, he decides to investigate the ultimate terror he captures in the dying man’s face. This leads him on a fantastical underground journey to the Mountains of Madness (‘nuff said) deep below the Tokyo city streets, where he discovers a strange young girl shackled to a cave wall. He takes her back to the surface, and things start to get really peculiar as he becomes consumed by his quest for the ultimate terror. The creeping, oppressive, obsessive, elusive horror is classic Lovecraft, and we found this film to be a refreshing change from the usual Scary-Hair-Girl Japanese fright fest. Instead of being helplessly chased around by mysterious evil forces, Masuoka walks into it with both eyes open and camera at the ready. He becomes a victim to terror by choice and eventually becomes comes to embrace it, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. While the somewhat slow pacing, jittery camera, and occasional hokey voiceover may not be for everyone, we applaud Marebito for truly embracing the Lovecraftian spirit. Although some of our questions remain unanswered, the terror remains very real – we’re pretty sure old Howard Phillips would have approved.

Meet us back here again next week for more updates from SIFF!

Posted by seattle maggie at May 26, 2005 6:41 AM