Category Archives: East Asian Gothic

Tokyo Tribe (Sono, 2014)

 

Sono is one of the most prolific Japanese directors, although not up to the standards of Miike who manages more than one film a year without a noticeable drop in quality. Ever since Suicide Club/Jisatsu Saakuru (2001) and Exte/Ekusute (2007), I have been a big fan of his work. Suicide Club has perhaps the best opening sequence in horror.

Unfortunately, I found the overt misogyny of  his 2010 film Cold Fish/Tsumetai Nettaigyo (2010) very hard to come to terms with. Humour, black or not, around rape is highly problematic. I didn’t feel that I could watch it again, and therefore never wrote a review as films need repeated viewing in order to write a proper review – at least for me it is the case. I suspect that part of my problem with it was culturally located as rape itself, is unfortunately, a common component of Japanese cinema. Since then, I have avoided Sono’s films but the trailer of Tokyo Tribes was interesting and I felt that perhaps I had been too hard on Sono. After all missteps are common in any field of the arts and most great directors have one or more turkeys in their back catalogue.

So back to Tokyo Tribe, a film that sets out – consciously  or unconsciously – to offend women and members of the LGBTQIA community in the first 10 minutes. The overall concept is great. A hip-hop musical about competing tribes in a dystopic Tokyo, who eventually come together in peace against a common enemy, is both inventive and innovative. Tokyo Tribe is based on the best-selling manga by Santa Inoue (1987-2005) which was published in Boon, a street fashion magazine which is now published by Shodensha, and feels like a throwback to the mid to late 1980s. The fact that Sono choose to introduce the tribes to the audience by having Mera – the boss of Bukuro Wu-Ronz – trace the geography of the different tribes over the half-naked body of a policewoman (who tries to arrest him on her first day on the job) alerts us to the insistent discourses of male voyeurism and fetishism than run throughout the film. The fact that the female tribe members, are either prostitutes, or dressed up like 2000s Missy Elliot and coded in non-normative terms,  is highly problematic. In addition, the schoolgirl heroine, Erika, who has some kick ass moves – we are told that she comes from Wong Kong (Hong Kong) – is often freeze framed or in slow motion as the camera pans in up skirt to linger on her white underwear is even more troubling.

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Not another panty shot please!

While as other critics have argued, Tokyo Tribe like other Sono films, embeds a social critique of Japanese society, politics and patriarchy, it seems to me that the film simultaneously constructs figures of female empowerment and strips them off that empowerment by overt sexualisation through the use of  terms ‘cultural scopophilia’. I use the term ‘cultural scopophilia’ here to foreground the othering of cultural and ethnic difference in Tokyo Tribe through the visual lexicon of fashion as signifier of Otherness. Erika’s innocence – or sexualized innocence as connoted by her schoolgirl uniform at the beginning – is the opposite to the hyper-sexuality and non-normative sexuality of the Kabukico Gira Gira girls. In addition, while the Mushashino tribe might be all about love and peace, there are limits to this love and peace – as the transcribed lyrics go “No homos, we ain’t Kissing Dudes”. While homophobia, unfortunately, remains at the heart of contemporary hip-hop and rap, Sono did not have to replicate and foreground this homophobia.

Nkoi gets his ‘freak on’

Further the son of the film’s bloated baddy, Lord Buppa (Riki Takechi), Nkoi (Yosuke Kubozuka) keeps slaves that they don’t eat for dinner and pleasure, as his personal puppets cocooned in an ivory room in which his harem have to position themselves as furniture or perform for him in order not to incur his wrath. Once again, suppressed homosexuality is coded as inherently deviant and monstrous, in its opposition to dominant heterosexuality which is capable of ‘peace and love’ but not, as I pointed out previously, to all.

There is much to be enjoyed in its visual excesses and poetic raps, it is just necessary to be aware of what problems such excesses may mask. Excess is not necesssarily subversive. Here excess functions as licenced rather than unlienced carnival, the former  of which props up the dominant ideology by allowing space for subversion and by controlling that space. While I always enjoy Sono’s visual mastery, I was uncomfortable with the gender and sexual politics on display here. As much as it could be claimed that Sono is critiquing such politics, in the end he reinforces such politics at the level of image and sound. In repeating the visual and aural legacy of hip-hop which is predicated on the oppression of women and non-normative sexualities, the message of ‘love and peace’ rings rather hollow.

 

 


PAINTED SKIN (HUA PI: GORDAN CHAN: 2008)

As part of my research for my forthcoming book on East Asian Gothic Cinema, I have been watching as many mainland Chinese films as I can. Of these, Painted Skin is one of my favourites. Directed by the prolific Gordon Chan, Painted Skin is based upon a short story by Pu Songling in Strange Tales from A Chinese Studio about a beautiful sixteen year old woman who turns out to be a monstrous demon, whose abject interior is concealed through the use of a carefully painted human pelt.

In Chan’s film, the supernatural elements are downplayed as the dominant communist ideology of China allows no space for what are seen to be archaic beliefs at odds with a secular society. By replacing the monstrosity of the original folktale with a melodramatic love story between a human and a fox spirit, known as Huli Jing in China, Painted Skin domesticates the monstrous other and in the process foregrounds filial loyalty and patriarchal values around appropriate femininity.

In the film, Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) – a fox spirit – who keeps her beauty and youth through a diet of human hearts, is taken into the household of General Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) and becomes obsessed with him, desiring to take the place of his much-loved wife in both his bed and his household. However as in the original story, her disguise is discovered and she is cast out from the household. But rather than being killed and trapped by the forces of good, she sacrifices herself in the name of true love in order to bring both Wang and his wife, Peirong (Zhao Wei/Vicky Zhao) back to life.

Like many Chinese films, the narrative is considerably more complex than this short synopsis suggests. There is an inexperienced demon hunter, Xia Bing (Betty Sun), who joins forces with Pang Yong (the ever present Donnie Yen), an ex-general in Wang’s army who is in love with Peirong, to vanquish Xiao Wei. In addition, there is Xiao Wei’s chameleon companion, Xiaoyi (Qi Yuwu), who serves his mistress by bringing her hearts and tries to prevent her sacrificing her humanity for Wang.

Despite the presence of Donnie Yen, Painted Skin is not a typical martial arts fantasy with fight scenes few and far between. Rather it focuses in on female subjects, who attempt to escape from predefined, constraining stereotypes of womanhood through agency and activity. However such agency and activity is limited, and in the end both Peirong and Xiao Wei must conform to the age old archetype of the self-sacrificing woman: an archetype which is not limited to East Asian cinema but can also be found in Western cinema. Yet, it is the performances of Zhao Wei and Zhou Xun that make Painted Skin so compelling and an engrossing watch. As anti-feminist as the ending might at first glance seem to be, the image of Xiao Wei confined to eternal life in her original form as a white fox lingers in the memory encapsulating her inability to be truly human suggests the difference between the demonic and the human is not so clearly defined as in the day when the original story was written. Further, beauty, we are told, is only skin deep. A necessary reminder in an age of selfies which promotes unrealistic images of beauty and plastic surgery which offers us the tools to become as unrealistic as those images that we are perpetually bombarded with.

 

Notes

The best translation of Strange Stories of a Chinese Studio, is in my opinion, the Penguin Classics version, which is translated by John Minford (2008).

East Asian Culture has many variations on the fox spirit, including the Japanese Kitsune and the Korean, Gumiho.

This review is subject to copyright. I am happy for it to be shared but please do not cite without permission from me as portions of this will appear in my forthcoming book.


12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 (OH Inchun: 2015)

 

 

BiFan 2015 Review: 12 DEEP RED NIGHTS: CHAPTER 1, A Competent But Unremarkable Practice Run

English Language Trailer

Director OH’s 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter I might not be particularly original, especially in terms of South Korean horror, but it is effective. A low-budget take on the vengeful ghost narrative, OH manages to create a suspenseful and interesting tale of office politics, spurned love, suicide, and alienation. The omnibus structure – 12 Deep Red Nights is composed of four short films – works well here producing short, sharp spurts of horror in which horror is mainly generated through the operation of the fantastic (cf. Todorov): the fantastic is that which is generated through uncertainty – in which explanations for events can either be supernatural or psychological without the narrative foreclosing on one or the other.

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Searching for Sound in ‘atmosFEAR’

The four short films in order are ‘Driver’; 11:55PM; ‘atmosFEAR’ and ‘The Secret Night’. In the first, a taxi driver, In-sik, is made an offer he can’t refuse, but should have refused, by his mysterious, beautiful female passenger. The second short revolves around a translator, Young-ran, who is finishing up work for the night when her doorbell rings persistently at 11:55pm: should she answer the door or not? The third, my personal favourite, concerns an audio sound engineer who in attempting to capture ambient sound at night, records something quite different and much more menacing. The final film, takes on the office politics as a young female employee who is suffering from financial problems returns to the office at night only to run into her unpleasant superior with deadly consequences.


Office Politics in ‘The Secret Night’

For a low-budget independent film, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1 is effective enough, playing on fears of the alienation that lies at the heart of modern South Korea as a result of the economic miracle which has created an ever increasing gap between the super-rich and the working classes. By placing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, OH taps into contemporary socio-cultural anxieties around the isolating nature of late-capitalism. Purportedly the first in three anthologies, 12 Deep Red Nights: Chapter 1, is sandwiched between OH’s mainstream commercial features, Mourning Grave (Sonyeogoedam: 2014) and Chasing (Jabaya Sanda: 2016). There is enough here to create anticipation for the next two instalments if OH’s success allows his time to complete them.

Notes

See my review of Mourning Grave (OH In-chun: 2014)

OH’s short Metamorphosis is well worth seeking out. My review: Metamorphoses (변신이야기, OH In-chun, 2011)

Tzvetan Todorov  distinguishes between the fantastic, the marvellous and the uncanny in his book, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1975). The fantastic is defined in terms of uncertainty, ‘The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event’ (Todorov 1975: 25). In opposition to this, the uncanny is rooted in the psychological, while the marvellous in the supernatural.

 

Please note that the images are courtesy of HanCinema: http://www.hancinema.net/hancinema-s-film-review-12-deep-red-nights-chapter-1-84776.html (accessed 8th July 2016).


Curse, Death and Spirit (NAKATA Hideo, 1992).

Curse, Death and Spirit is a compilation of 3 episodes of the popular Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi/Scary stories that really happenedNorowareta Ningyō/The Cursed Doll; Shiryō no Taki/The Spirit of the Dead and Yūrei no Sumu Ryokan/The Haunted Inn. Although Nakata had previously directed a short thirty minute film, Natsugetsu Monogatari/Summer moon story, Curse, Death and Spirit  arguably are what brought Nakata to the attention of Hiroshi Takehashi who co-wrote the script for Ghost Actress, Nakata’s directorial debut and with whom Nakata worked with on both of the Japanese Ring films.

The episodes are pretty bog standard Japanese ‘scary tales’, but the brevity of the narratives are well suited to Nakata’s minimalist directing style – which has not changed much over the years – and the focus on horror as emanating from within the family, in particular the relationship between the mother and child, a solid foundation for both Ring and Dark Water. The now over- familiar figure of the vengeful female ghost or yurei, functioning as the return of the repressed, adds a consistency of theme as well as vision which unites the three episodes.

THE CURSED DOLL

The Cursed Doll has a doll possessed by the spirit of a young girl who returns to haunt her sister, who has no memory of her. While the theme of dolls coming to life is sufficiently creepy, the doll never appears life-like and is obviously being positioned, pulled and pushed in scenes affecting the believability of this so-called scary true-life story.

THE SPIRIT OF THE DEAD

In The Spirit of The Dead, the ghost of the past who threatens the present is a mother who lost her young son while camping in the woods, whose unquiet spirit haunts the woods attempting to be reunited with her lost son. However, unable to differentiate between her son and those of other women, she takes their lives in an attempt to have her son with her in the afterlife. While the performances are nicely realized, and the appearances of the ghost eerie, the end is a tad predictable.

THE HAUNTED INN

The best episode, or the one I like the most, is The Haunted Inn, which to me seems to have a great deal of potential as a feature length film. Here, three young school girls visit an old inn and come face to face with the unhappy ghost of the family of the previous occupants of the inn. The use of a video-camera by the girls to capture their break, and the appearance of the ghost with her long black hair obscuring her face, broken body and white costume are precognitions of the future which become fully visualized in RIng.

The three episodes are available as an extra on the Tartan release of Nakata’s  Kaosu/Chaos (1999).

Or they are available on DVD, via Amazon –  Curse, Death and Spirit