Sunday, June 24, 2012

#135: Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001)

The following opinion may be a little hard to explain, but Ichi the Killer, a film containing extreme violence, beatings, rapes, drug abuse, bullying, cruelty, sexual perversity, and torture, is one of the most exuberantly energetic and hilarious films in prolific Japanese madman Takashi Miike's extensive filmography. Scenes in which I normally take no pleasure, such as rape, women being beaten severely, and drawn-out scenes of intense physical torture, take on a more complex, perverse meaning in this film. Nearly every character is a sadist, masochist, or combination of the two and an active participant in his/her fate. These are people with intensely strange sexual appetites and desires, freely choosing their roles and getting off on it. Well, a few people get tortured and killed against their will, but they knew the risks as members or associates of the yakuza.
A very strange, hard-to-categorize film is a fairly average description of most Miike movies, but this one is especially nuts. From the beginning, when a yakuza bodyguard is verbally berated for suggesting placing a guard outside the boss's door and a peeping tom masturbates to a prostitute taking a beating from her pimp only for the movie's title to slowly rise up out of his ejaculate, you know you're not getting a traditional Japanese gangster movie. The boss of the Anjo gang is missing (should have listened to the bodyguard), and the sickly and easily startled next-in-command orders the rest of the gang to find him. The search team is led by the charismatic Kakihara, a bleached-blonde sadomasochist with a heavily scarred face, including two slits on the side of his mouth where smoke from his cigarettes escapes in two separate puffs. Kakihara's not your average yakuza seduced by money and outlaw status. He has chosen his line of work because it presents a greater opportunity to inflict and receive intense pain. Kakihara continually pushes the pain threshold and his search for punishment is getting more and more extreme. Meanwhile, a bizarre man named Jijii is pulling the strings of a nervous young man named Ichi, reminding him of the severe bullying he received in high school and pushing him to murder several yakuza members by comparing them to his bullies. Ichi doesn't want to kill, but goes crazy when the memories come back. He dresses up in a fairly Batmanesque superhero costume with blades in his shoes and murders the shit out of some gangsters. He has some weird rape fantasies of his own and develops a sadomasochistic/voyeuristic relationship with a prostitute and her violent pimp. Meanwhile, rival families are conspiring against each other, sadists and masochists are finding each other, a little boy starts idolizing Ichi, and Kakihara realizes Ichi may be the one to give him the ultimate release.
Miike presents this material in a heavily stylized, energetic sprint that never lets up for the film's two-plus hours. Somehow, it doesn't get exhausting and instead reveals more layers for each character. I'm usually not a fan of hyper-stylization, but Miike is such an intensely personal, inventive filmmaker with such a varied skill set that he always wins me over. He picks the techniques that best match the tone and feel of his story and never uses stylistic tricks just because he can. He's as equally capable of a meditative pace and classical Hollywood and Japanese storytelling as he is extreme shock and gore and sexual depravity and flashy editing and camera tricks. He will try anything and is unafraid of pushing his characters and stories as far as they will go. He's funny as hell, too.
It's hard to explain what's funny about this movie, but I'll try. In one scene, Kakihara slices part of his tongue off in graphic closeup as tribute for torturing a rival gang member without permission. After he finishes the job, his cell phone rings and he answers it, casually having a chat as his mouth gushes blood. In another scene, a rival gangster is cornered at his apartment. He is stuck inside his TV stand, with his head in the busted-out television screen. Some recently arrived members of the gang look at the early arrivals quizzically. "He was already in there when we got here, we just taped him up," one says. In another scene, the boss's girlfriend falls for Kakihara when she sees him stretching the skin of a club owner's cheek. She grabs the other cheek and starts stretching it, the club owner howling in pain. She begins moaning in pleasure. "I want to be your woman," she tells Kakihara, digging her fingernails into the man's cheek. Okay, maybe you have to see it, not read it, but these scenes and many others had me laughing. If this kind of black humor appeals to you, you'll be happy to know the film is loaded with these moments.
(By the way, the woman playing the boss's girlfriend was Miss Singapore and a contestant in the Miss Universe pageant. I wonder how a country that banned chewing gum feels about one of its prominent representatives appearing in one of Miike's most infamous films.)
So is this ultra-violent gangster/horror/action/gore/sex comedy ultimately a heartwarming tale of how none of us are truly alone, no matter how bizarre our tastes and proclivities? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe it's just an adolescent provocation, a collection of fucked-up people doing fucked-up things in deliberately offensive and stomach-turning ways. And is there something wrong with me for enjoying it so much? Am I a masochist, too? I doubt it.
I first saw this film on the big screen at an Alamo Drafthouse midnight show. I ordered a beer and some chips and queso while watching it and made the mistake of wiping my eye, accidentally wiping salt from the chips and a bit of spicy queso on my eyeball. It stung like mad for 20 minutes and sporadically throbbed for the remainder of the screening. Watching it again from the comfort of my home last night and not accidentally wiping salty, spicy food particles on my eyeball at any point, I have to admit I strongly preferred the pain-free viewing experience.
In conclusion, all church youth groups and scouting troops should screen this film at your next gathering. You'll love it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

#134: I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)

I Walked with a Zombie. I don't even know where to start. There is so much here, so much worth visiting and revisiting. It's an instantly hypnotic, magnetic film containing great mystery and formal beauty, and its portrayal of female and black characters is still years ahead of current Hollywood. The film somehow manages to combine such disparate elements as Jane Eyre, Tennessee Williams (probably inadvertent, he hadn't written his most famous work yet), German expressionism, Gothic horror, Caribbean calypso and voodoo culture, subtle political critiques of American and British colonialism and imperialism, a strong personal story about family, and doomed romance into a unified, efficient whole that builds to a beautifully earned conclusion in less than seventy minutes. Just another one of Jacques Tourneur's masterpieces, and a whole lot more. All that, and the movie inspired a great Roky Erickson song.
I Walked with a Zombie appeared during the middle stretch of that exciting run of RKO atmospheric horror films guided by artist-friendly producer Val Lewton. Tourneur was probably his strongest collaborator. I've already written about Tourneur's career in a previous post so I'll just recommend you check out his work  because it's fucking great. He was one of those filmmakers who made each frame personal, poetic, and of immediate visceral interest to the eyeballs of any attentive audience member. He didn't generically shoot a screenplay or try to dazzle the audience with a lot of flash. He was a genuine filmmaker.
Our story begins with a young Canadian nurse hired to care for the ill wife of a small, wealthy American/British family on their plantation in the West Indies. The island is populated by the black descendants of slaves brought over by the British, and the film constantly reminds the viewer in both subtle and overt ways that the island's beauty is married to tragedy and death. The nurse, Betsy, arrives to find the four-member family inextricably connected yet isolated from each other. Much of Betsy's interactions with the family take place separately, and all four primarily live apart from each other. The mother, Mrs. Rand, is an American woman who married a British man, the father of her oldest son Paul. The British man died young and Mrs. Rand married an American, now also deceased, and gave birth to her second son Wesley. The boys attended private schools in their respective home countries and have a troubled relationship, complicated by their shared interest in Paul's wife. Wesley is a depressed alcoholic trying to masquerade as a sardonic, fun-loving man of leisure. Paul is just depressed, prone to brooding and lacking the energy to pretend he's happy. He's also a kind man, and he develops a mutual but not acted upon attraction toward Betsy. Mrs. Rand, a manager of the local hospital, is better adjusted than her sons but has some dark secrets of her own, including a secret attraction to the indigenous religion that she tries to hide with a colonial Christian veneer. Paul's wife, Jessica, is a "mental case," locked in her own mind, a pale expressionless beauty, wandering mute around the grounds of the plantation, lying motionless in her bed, and isolated in a tower separate from the main house. She doesn't utter a word the entire film, but you can't stop looking at her when she's onscreen.
Into this hotbox of brooding, post-colonial decadence comes our sweet Canadian nurse. Of all the characters in the film, she is the single character who captures the most audience sympathy. Tourneur likes her, too, but he also recognizes her limitations. In an early scene, a black coach driver gives her a brief history of the island population and its origins in the slave trade. Betsy replies, "Well, it was a beautiful place they brought your people to." The camera gives the driver the larger part of the frame and shows his half-smile. His reply: "If you say so, miss." Tourneur has great sympathy and respect for every person in the film, no matter how small the role, and though Betsy gets the most camera time, the film has a way of turning our perspective from her to the island's black population as a whole. Calypso singer Sir Lancelot has a small but pointedly important role, and the island's people, religious customs, and music are given a real respect far from condescending liberal platitudes and fetishization or conservative fear of the other. The film is pretty complex on the colonialist side of the fence, too. Tourneur is sharp enough to see good people conditioned by privilege and culture rather than cardboard heroes and villains.
Okay, I'm getting pretty serious here, but the film also works as a creepy, atmospheric horror story. I'm a whore for expressive uses of light and shadow, and Tourneur had a great eye and a knack for picking some of the best cinematographers in the business. Christine Gordon is perfect at capturing the haunted look of the ill-fated Jessica. The film also features one of the best depictions of unarticulated dread in the medium. I'm probably throwing around too many superlatives here, but I consider this one of the best films of the 1940s and probably the whole damn century, so it's hard not to get flowery. Every character is complex, the setting is a complicated character of its own, the film has room for multiple voices and perspectives, and the damn thing just looks great. Some idiots are remaking it for release next year, adding all kinds of ridiculous subplots about ancient curses and other bullshit. See the original now before an inferior product marginalizes another old classic in the teenage marketplace of cheap amnesia.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Flashback: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

The next movie on the list is another one I've already written about. Here's the link to my old review.