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Spoilers incoming

There are three routes you can take if you want to be a film-snob, these routes of course often intersecting at grotesque and pretentious crossroads. They’re arthouse, indie, and foreign, the big bad three. F the first two, but let’s pause for a moment and examine the last. I’ve seen a few foreign films in my time, mostly Korean as of late (representin’*), and I’ve seen a lot of shit because of it. Granted my least favorite film of all time is American-made, and science-fiction, but a lot of Takashi Miike movies would be up there, as would Irreversible if I were in a crass enough mood (it’s got moments). We tend to view foreign films as a higher form of film art because the mainstream stuff is filtered in. We get Shaun of the Dead and In the Mood for Love because they’re so good they deserve international release. But I don’t think they put the live-action Wicked City on the Criterion Collection yet (I know because I’m looking for it).

These foreign films most Americans see, in addition to simply being good, don’t steep themselves in their culture to the extent where we might not fully appreciate what’s going on. Then there are movies like Audition, which is perhaps the most well-known, or second well-known after Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike flick — a good movie that can be enjoyed on a base level, but requires minor, but further, knowledge of Japanese culture.

The reason Audition makes it to US shores is because it’s one of the most acclaimed horror movies in recent times, its claim-to-fame being a climactic torture sequence, as well as a particular limbless guy-in-a-bag who eats vomit. Gnarly stuff, the kind of stuff that American teens (and Eli Roth or James Wan) would definitely be into. For me, I wanted to see if this would be another Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance — a comparison that will be revisited later — and I was interested in seeing a Miike jab at feminism. Here’s a spoiler: it involves a lot of needles.

Without speaking down to you (because this is basically trivia), the thing to be aware of going in is that Japan, historically, has been behind the times on the whole ‘women’ thing. They like women, as most of us do, but seeing them as equal I believe wasn’t instant — like… it was here. Characters treat women as objects in a game in this movie, which is the premise, so we aren’t totally lost going in, but knowing context is helpful to pick up what Miike’s putting down.

Is it possible that after years of being assholes to women, there will be repercussions? That’s the question being asked here, and it seems to have a pretty straightforward answer, as you might imagine. It fucks people up, bottom line. Also, burning little girls’ legs with fire, that fucks em up too. I was interested to see this movie because it is Takashi Miike, a man who deals heavily in violence against women and movie rape, things I’ve given up on — mostly because of him. This must be his penance or whatever, though there do remain those uncomfortable moments. The difference here is that they’re supposed to be uncomfortable.

Also uncomfortable is the cutting off of limbs; the torture scene isn’t nearly as hard to watch as really any moment in Ichi, or the more extreme bits in Chan Wook Park fare, but it’s worth the price of admission, even for non-torture-porn fanatics. The movie truly shines though in its first and second acts. The setup to the darkness we know is ahead in my mind takes greater directorial strength than the 2001-like trip through layers of unreality, or the transcendent pain — it’s a slow-boiling family drama, one with humor and small, touching moments.

This is where I was engaged the most, because as ghastly as holding wife auditions is, I couldn’t help but feel for the character, his supportive friend Ishikawa, and his son. I actually liked them — Miike characters. But then the movie goes a bit haywire and a dream sequence of sorts takes us out of the emotional realm and into the depths of hell.

The character is drugged, and as he’s falling to the floor he gets visions of backstory for the girl character. I take issue with this sequence for many reasons, but chiefly, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. We’re led to believe that he’s experiencing all of these things, that he now knows that the uncle tortured her. It’s possible he inferred it all in a fever dream, which also saw his late wife returning, but it’s hard to say. At this juncture, I was really lost, and it took me out of the movie. I knew what was coming next, so every time there was a false ending to this sequence I was getting more and more frustrated. Not necessarily because I needed to see the torture, but because I assumed it’d be up next.

So he goes all David Lynch, which stretches what could’ve possibly been a short film to feature length, and is an interesting move from an artist. It’s not something you see a lot, especially in a movie like this, which could’ve been just as satisfying with a pared down A-to-B-to-torture structure. I appreciate it, but didn’t really buy into it as fabric in the greater movie.

It’s not a huge problem, didn’t ruin the movie for me. I think the reason why I enjoyed Audition as much as I did is because I was able to see a real master work his craft without being demented by his own weirdly-o sigs. It’d be like watching Pulp Fiction for the first time after seeing Kill Bill and Death Proof — given you aren’t a fan of feet like QT is. Miike puts a lot of weight into detail. Notice the torture tools the girl uses — needles, wire, syringes — they’re feminine in that they’re finesse, less about blunt force and more about pinpoint tactics. She’s engineering his pain, talking him through it and being methodical. Half of the terror is psychological warfare, which trickles down to the audience very effectively: this chick is totally nuts (“deeper, deeper, deeper“).

As wild as this scene is, it really isn’t as bad as I imagined. I went into Audition as anyone would — anticipating some hardcore fuckedupperies. I wanted this to be another Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a movie you could show to a friend, preferably a female one, and be like, “This is the charming tale that gets a little dark. It’s about these guys who kidnap a little girl, and then things go south.” When they go south in Mr. Vengeance, they go south and never let up. Movie gets pretty rude. Audition doesn’t really, and I don’t think it’s the director holding back, rather it’s a measured dose of violence, despite its craziness — and tameness.

Miike doesn’t want to chance the ending becoming tongue-in-cheek. Every time Ichi kills somebody, it’s a gore-fest, but he’s being a bastard screeching and running around like a jerk, so it’s madly challenging to take seriously. Or handle, period. It’s almost an affront to the institution of cinema violence, but that’s why we have the blonde dude, I suppose. Audition doesn’t need the blonde dude, because it isn’t really about the violence, though that is the clear centrepiece. He’s using violence this time, not being used by it. So this time I didn’t really feel had by Miike. I think that this time, he was simply trying to do a good movie.

This isn’t to say that he doesn’t every single time set out to make a good movie, it’s more that he isn’t full of himself in this case. Let’s go back to white Takashi Miike for a moment: Audition is like the Reservoir Dogs of the Tarantino canon. It’s a solid movie, and it isn’t bleeding with Tarantinoisms. I happen to like Tarantino, so I liked Death Proof and even Inglourious Basterds. I don’t like Takashi Miike, but I did like Audition. If you’re looking for a place to start with the dude, duck his latest effort and go straight to this one. It’s low-key horror, chilling and intense while intelligently stopping short of lame-o torture porno.

*Not really. I might be Korean in flesh, but not in spirit, which is good, because it’s opened my eyes to the stupidity of taking pride in one’s heritage

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We’re familiar with the old filmmaking trick of revealing the monster slowly, hiding it in the shadows as Ridley Scott did so famously in his 1979 sci-fi horror classic. I suppose that principle is what holds Event Horizon back so frustratingly, even though there is no ‘monster’–there isn’t much of anything. The problem with Paul WS Anderson’s horror outing pre-Resident Evil days is not within its premise necessarily, but the filmmakers’ treatment of it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the ‘hide the monster’ principle, as it worked so well in Alien, but the principle becomes an applicable principle to me when it descends into an irreversible part of film history, and filmmakers continue to carry on the tradition forever, so what we get is no monster at all until the third act. Ridley Scott would inadvertently spawn a legion of SciFi Channel Original Movies, which waste so much time with characters and plot and brief monster attacks scattered now and again, all leading up to a CG monster-filled third act, which to me says: this movie is an unforgivable but entertaining thirty minute film, stretched out into a 90 minute eye-gouge fest. Speaking of eye gouging…

It’s filmmakers who believe they understand how to work a proven formula, but are lost at the first sign of inadvertent complication, as in the case of Event Horizon, where they scramble with ideas and never really reach the sanctity of cohesion. The premise is summed up in three market buzz words: haunted house spaceship. Gothic horror in space, and remember folks, in space–no one can hear you scream (nudge nudge). From where I’m standing, which is typically outside the horror genre, haunted house movies should be about weird things going on, and the characters never really figuring out what’s happening, because it’s paranormal. Like in Paranormal Activity. It’s the classic case of characters not understanding the enemy threat, because they wouldn’t, and that makes it scary.

Unfortunately this movie exists in the hard realm of science-fiction. Trust me, this isn’t an endorsement of the stickler mindset of hard sci-fi, but for all SF stories, there is a requisite element of science. For those who don’t often traverse the speculative fiction genres, it might come as a surprise to find that science-fiction and fantasy actually mix very poorly. Star Wars is an anomaly. That’s what paranormal activity is, it operates on the principles of fantasy, and those simply don’t gel in a scifi setting, which implies more than ‘spaceship.’ Characters in this film, these scientists, can’t comprehend the hellish ongoings of the titular spaceship, the Event Horizon, so an explanation, except for a really shitty one at the end, is never given.

Though they try, and that’s the bulk of the movie’s action. Characters speculate and argue while being picked off one by one in different, usually pretty dumb, ways. What we have here is frustration born out of so obviously missed opportunities. The movie seems to struggle to figure itself out as the characters do, and we want it to get there, otherwise we’ve been investing somewhat in a pretty neat story idea for nothing. To have “Spaceship that’s gone to the end of the universe and back, who knows what it’s picked up” as a setup and reach no conclusion–or worse, the conclusion is somewhere between “this spaceship is actually a portal to hell,” and “this spaceship is alive, and hell,”–is incredibly jarring. You get to a point in watching the movie where you realize that the story’s actually done unfolding, and you’re disoriented, confused as to where you are.

What’s going on? You really missed it guys; the horror only comes out of guessing and imagining the setup’s payoff for so long; eventually the payoff has to come, and further horror exists in the payoff’s implications, or for its creation of further setups to Ten Little Indians death scenes. Because honestly, that’s what we came to see–an Alien ripoff. We have a crew in space, and they’re on a creepy spaceship. Instead of aliens, or demons, or biological military test experiments, we get something very intangible, something very close to ‘nothing.’ And Ichi the Killer, although Jason Isaacs hanging from hooks was actually kind a of neat effect.

Remember the good old days, buddy

So Event Horizon is broken as a horror movie, and long gone as a scifi movie. Does it entertain? Somewhat, but for incongruous reasons that aren’t even just ‘so bad it’s good.’ It’s another eclectic mix, which is a common thread I’ve found in the Paul WS canon. Take Resident Evil for example. Compared to its sequel, and I’d assume the rest of the sequel thrillogy, it’s practically the greatest movie ever made. But restrain yourself–it’s not. It’s a solid zombie movie with a few horror elements outside the shambling horde, like laser hallways and dogs, and one Licker, a mutant frog, if I remember correctly and icon of the games. It’s a pretty entertaining movie, but it’s not really a great film. I find that I enjoy it because of the laser hallway, the Licker, and Colin Salmon, but know that the story and art direction and everything is derivative, but not quite as slick as Doom. Good parts and bad parts, like a comedy movie that you laugh with and at, like 17 Again, if you’ve ever seen it. One or two surprisingly good jokes, but the rest is, you know, fucked.

Event Horizon has a great cast–Sam Neil, in one of his few roles, Laurence Fishburne right before The Matrix, Sean Pertwee from Dog Soldiers, and Jason Isaacs, from just about everything. There’s also the absurd stereotype black guy, who establishes himself very early on as the absurd stereotype, and never lets up–“I’m comin’ back, motherfuckers!” as the immortal line goes. Interestingly, this guy was played by Richard T. Jones, who you might remember as James Ellison, the best part of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. In this movie, he plays a much less serious, much higher-pitched voice character, who must have decided that Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element was, I don’t know, a good idea.

Thing is, I kind of liked Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element, and I kind of liked this guy, because Event Horizon is a big dumb movie, and he fits right in. In a perfect world he would not, and Event Horizon would be an effective sci-fi horror, of which there are so few, although kudos Hollywood for Pandorum just a few years ago, which bettered this film, in my opinion, and for Sunshine, which wasn’t a slasher movie, but had that kind of spirit.

Event Horizon is compromised, but it’s a hard one to write off as a complete failure because the art direction is great, and it is generally pretty creepy. The jump-scares are lame, but otherwise I don’t know why more movies don’t go with the whole ‘people with no eyes,’ thing, because it’s totally scary. In fact, I knew there were eye-related things in this movie, which is why for the longest time I never watched it. Unfortunately I was much more frightened by the idea of Event Horizon than the actual movie. I’d rather just play Dead Space, and honestly… game wasn’t that fun.

It would be helpful, or maybe just interesting, to know what goes through our friend Takashi Miike’s head before he embarks on making one of these gangster pictures. He doesn’t seem to want to say anything, or revolutionize the formulaic genre, but he makes so many of them – there’s got to be a reason. I can’t imagine spending two years making a movie like Shinjuku Triad Society and ending up with something so bland, so unspecial. Say what you will about Ichi the Killer (it sucks), at least it was different, going all the way on the perverse meter and giving us a distinct, disturbing host of images to haunt our dreams forever.

Shinjuku Triad Society on the other hand ventures to the edge, but merely peers over. Sure, there’s more man-on-man cocksucking that I’ve ever seen on film, and a cop-on-the-edge who takes to rape and brutality whenever the chips are down, but in between all the “oh my god no” moments – the movie was practically asking for me to fall asleep. To be fair, I don’t really care about the crime-drama genre, and think that out of all of them the South Central gangsters will always be the most interesting, but there are a special few non-John Woo Asian gangster movies I really dig.

Takashi Miike is a director who I really, really want to like. Glancing over his filmography we find a range of colorful titles that pull me in – Full Metal Yakuza, Sukiyaki Western Django, Happiness of the Katakuris – and the movies of his I’ve seen all have great premises. In Shinjuku Triad Society, and by extension Ichi the Killer, we have an ultraviolent picture about some messed-up gangsters and a disturbing exploration into the pyschological darkness of Japan’s worst. Sounds good, but the execution is less like a Wong Kar Wai gangster flick and more like… mean-spirited characters I hate.

A Wong Kar Wai movie like As Tears Go By is thick with melodrama and has very little violence. Absolutely no sexuality or nudity – an experience with less (or no, rather) exploitative distractions from what it’s saying. With Shinjuku Triad Society, what begins as your by-the-numbers crime-drama descends slowly and painstakingly into a shambling, stumbling farce: aggresive but empty cinema. That’s also what I got from what I saw of 13 Assassins, a movie with an amazing trailer.

A criticism I recall regarding the films of Martin Scorsese that I totally agree with was that these characters are all jerks. Why should I care about their success? That’s exactly how I felt about this movie. None of the character appealed to me; the opposite, in fact. What is it about this movie that inspired Miike to make it? Couldn’t be the characters, or the story, or the themes, so it must be the violence. The entire movie feels like a vehicle for the gruesome violence, including one actually kind of ‘cool’ instance where the cop slams a chair down on a suspect lying on the interrogation table – we cut to big Japanese title letters on impact. Very effective.

Unfortunately the quality goes downhill from there but the classic Miike misogyny only ramps up. Boy, there’s nothing that entertains me more than violence against women. Forced sex? Color me impressed!

I’ll give the guy one more chance, but if I see another movie like this, I’m hanging it up on this dude. I hate to say “too Japanese,” because Japan is awesome, right? But

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