Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It's a Living: "Living Hell" (2000)



Japanese director Shugo Fujii pays homage to his cinematic idols in this sometimes effective, and often slight, horror flick.

The opening scenes show a crazed older woman Chiyo (Shiraishi Yoshiko) and her granddaughter Yuki (Mori Naoko) feeding on a family pet before killing a man and wife. Yuki escapes, and Chiyo is sent to an insane asylum for a year before she vanishes, too.

Cut to a normal Japanese suburban family: Father (Suwabe Hitoshi) works in another town, and only comes home on weekends to his three grown children: older brother Ken (Yashiro Kazuo), wheelchair bound middle son Yasu (Honda Hirohito), and cute as a bug's ear daughter Mami (Rumi). The family gets some new houseguests in the form of Chiyo and Yuki, who claim to be distant relatives. Everyone is inconvenienced, especially Yasu (once the stun gun torture begins).

Tabloid reporter Mitsusake (director Fujii) begins looking into the case, and turns up enough plot twists to make M. Night Shyamalan proud. The old woman and the hideously thin granddaughter continue to make Yasu's life a "living hell," until the gory finale.

I cannot delve any deeper into plot points because the twists are impossible to reveal, and sometimes comprehend. Fujii has written a strange concoction of DePalma and Robert Aldrich's "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," with shades of the original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," but not a whole lot of it makes sense.

The cast is very good, if not over the top (especially in the final scenes). I really enjoyed Koji Tabuchi's musical score, it reminded me of early John Carpenter. The film does run rather long, I think a trim would have helped the pacing and suspense. The lack of tension throughout the film is noticeable. Yasu's open mouthed reactions to some relatively tame stuff is unintentionally funny. I could not get a grasp on what Fujii was trying to do. Is this a suspenser along the lines of DePalma's "Sisters," or an out and out bloodbath like "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"? The film cannot make up its mind, and both sides of the question suffer. There is SOME suspense, and SOME blood, but nothing this jaded reviewer would find particularly scary or revolting.

In addition to the main feature, the DVD includes four short films also directed by Fujii:

"Blackhole" (1998) 14 min. (4/5*)
This short black and white film has a mysterious stranger (Sutomu Sogo) coming between a happy couple, with deadly consequences. The photography is gritty, the music sad and appropriate, but I wish the idea had been fleshed out more.

"Seesaw Game" (1997) 29 min. (3/5*)
A man becomes obsessed with a woman he glimpses through a window, and becomes involved in a crime as soon as he invades her private life. This film is also in black and white, and borrows a couple of elements from "Blackhole." While the film has plenty of visual interest, the story gets more convoluted as it goes on, and more weird. This would make an interesting character study if turned into a feature length film.

"Grief" (1994) 18 min. (3/5*)
Woman becomes obsessed with man, and decides to off inconvenient girlfriend. Yet another riff on all those "Fatal Attraction"/"The Crush" flicks, but for a few minutes I thought the stalker and the girlfriend were the same person, they look and dress alike!

"Dead Money" (2001) 20 min. (4/5*)
Fujii shows up in the only color short film, as a found briefcase full of cash and a claustrophobic elevator bring out the greedy conscience of a regular Joe. This was more fun than the others, with some dark humor that works.

In addition to the short films, Subversive Cinema has done a bang up DVD job. "Living Hell" is presented widescreen (Japanese language with English subtitles), there are trailers and previews, storyboards, a director's bio, and deleted scenes (no subtitles!). Fujii's director's commentary is self-effacing and honest, when he was not happy with a shot or sequence, he says so. The film was shot and edited in about two weeks' time, and the budget was around $100,000. This amount would be a lot to any independent film maker, but I remember how expensive it was to live in Japan (four and a half years back in the 1970's), and Fujii confirms that everything there is much more expensive than when he used to live and film in the States.

"Living Hell" is not a total failure. If anything, after watching it and the four short films, I am looking forward to Fujii's next project. He is definitely one to keep an eye on.

Subversive Cinema wants to bring a Criterion-type presentation to edgier fare, and I think that is a spectacular idea. Their company logo is the most memorable since MGM's lion first roared. We'll see what happens. (* * *) out of five stars. Get this movie now!: Living Hell: A Japanese Chainsaw Massacre