Thursday, November 16, 2006

My Introduction to Takashi Miike (Spoiler Alert)

Since I rented Oldboy last year, I've become more and more fascinated with the Asia Extreme subgenre of film — everything about those two words, from their drawn-out vowel sounds to the mistranslation of the predictive adjective "Asia" instead of "Asian" is such a spot-on description of the genre — especially as the MPAA gives movie studios on this side of the Pacific relatively free reign to cram as much gratuitous violence on the screen as possible and American horror directors have essentially resurrected the exploitation genre, added some mindless plot twists, and sold it as "art" to idiot teenagers paying ten bucks to see pretty actors and actresses die in mildly clever and wholly implausible ways. Watching Asian film, the modern Hong Kong gangster film and the J-horror genre, you still get that visceral puerile thrill of knowing there's gonna be a ton of stage blood on screen and the only questions are when, where, and from whom, but you can also play the wine-drinking Film Forum cultural effete or the whiny, suicide-poetry writing goth chick dreaming about the erotic entanglements of on-screen sex and death.

It's not just a foreign film thing or an independent film thing, and the Asian cinema translates so well to dim-witted American studios and audiences because, like most of the horror genre, to be honest, they're fundamentally pretty inane. The Asian storytelling tradition tends to be more about the character of society and less about the character of, well, the characters, leaving room for all kinds of random ghosts or curses or deus ex machina hypnotists. We import them, we give them some pop psychobabble motive and suddenly there's The Grudge 2 playing at a multiplex near you. This frustrates me to no end, no matter where it originates, as if there aren't enough actually frightening things in the world, now someone's telling me I have to be afraid of a cursed videotape too. No, what redeems these Asian films is that unlike their unintentionally ugly American counterparts (and remakes), Asia's movies are intentionally beautiful, even in the midst of their grotesquerie. It's not merely the images that I've never seen before but also their juxtaposition with the story and the admittedly crudely-drawn characters.

I've been meaning to check out the work of Japanese gore-auteur Takashi Miike, although I was never totally sure whether I had the stomach for it. Among Asia's modern crop of violent movie directors, Miike, in particular, gets singled out for comparison when some American hack makes a movie like Hostel or Saw, where the only selling point is its myriad gratiutious, overdone death scenes. I figured that one's first taste of Miike should sort of be like one's first taste of wasabi or first taste of Pynchon: start off small and see how much you can tolerate. There's two options I saw: the Showtime Masters of Horror episode "Imprint" or the "Box" story in Three... Extremes. My video store doesn't have Three... Extremes, even though they've got like sixty copies of Stay Alive, so I went with the Masters of Horror series.

A comment about Masters of Horror: I've said this many times before, although not actually to anybody, but Masters of Horror is not scary. The series is the brainchild of Mick Garris, who directed a some horror movies with Roman numerals in their titles and also directed a bunch of Stephen King adaptations, but not any like Shawshank, or Misery, or the version of The Shining anyone actually remembers. The idea was to give so-called "masters" of horror carte blanche to make a short direct-to-DVD film in exchange for working on a small budget and tight schedule. Then Showtime came along, bought the shorts, imposed a couple of rules on the directors (which, at least for the rules I read about, probably didn't take too much away from the films), and showed them as a series without an episode-by-episode narrative but with a common theme.

The first twelve episodes, which I saw sort of as an unnecessary prelude to "Imprint," are generally pedestrian, although I did enjoy Joe Dante's political satire "Homecoming," if for no other reason than the Karl Rove character gets his head smashed to bits by a zombie. The problem is that when the horror story isn't scary, it just degenerates by default into a chance to see blood and gore, and frankly, there's not too much of that in Masters of Horror, either. "Imprint" is, supposedly, the exception, all the more tantalizing after Showtime decided it fell on the wrong side of their standards and practices line, even though Showtime doesn't have a standards and practices line. The DVD box proudly proclaims that it's "Banned from Cable Broadcast," and the Masters of Horror U.K. distributor goes a step further, saying (misleadingly) that it was "BANNED IN THE USA!" Garris said, in a New York Times interview, that "Imprint" is "definitely the most disturbing film I've ever seen," but I don't know how much of that is just posturing for the delight of horror fans and how much is Garris being a big pussy but now I've got to see this movie. (Let me say that "Imprint" is far from the most disturbing film I've ever seen; that title would go to Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream, or, if we're not limiting ourselves to the land of fiction, maybe the video from the Superdome post-Katrina or the Twin Towers collapsing.)

Loosely, "Imprint" takes place in the nineteenth-century, on an unidentified Japanese island of brothels and syphilitic midgets. Billy Drago plays an American journalist searching for the prostitute he once loved... but I think a better way of describing the film is by listing the elements that Showtime found so opprobrious, and I'm sure you can piece together the story from there. So, we have:

  • Incest. Which isn't an uncommon trope in Asian storytelling, so I was pretty much prepared for this.
  • Child rape. I thought one of the scenes of child rape (and yes, there's more than one) was gratuitous, but at least Miike has a shred of sensibility to put these off-screen.
  • Aborted fetuses. Plenty of aborted fetuses to go around. I was aware of Miike's bizarre fetishes before watching "Imprint," so I was expecting them.
  • Man eating an aborted fetus. Not so much expecting this.
  • Torture. So you're about half an hour into the movie wondering why Showtime refused to air this. There's been some violence, but it's been tamer than some of the other Masters of Horror episodes. We see a prostitute with a deformed face, but we've seen worse in Dario Argento's "Jenifer" episode. And then, almost out of nowhere, there's this scene, which... eeek. It's (too) long, sadistic and explicit, but I don't think that's what makes it the grisly shock that it is. What makes the scene work so perfectly is that distinction between ugly American horror and beautiful Japanese horror that I was talking about before: the contrast between the close-up shots of the victim screaming and struggling and the gorgeous wide shots with overtones of kinbaku-bi and playful bondage, and how quickly the scene goes from disgusting to erotic when you can't make out on film the needles stuck under the poor girl's fingernails and inside her gumline.I cringed while I was watching the scene — "Oh, you're gonna show another finger? What is this, like, twelve so far?" — but I'm also a little annoyed at just how histrionic, and consequently a little condescending, it is. There's this thing called subtlety, and it's like the aftermath of a car crash. No matter how bug-eyed you are when it happens, eventually the experience gets lost in the filing cabinet of your mind. Frankly, I think a torture scene like the one in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, where the setup happens on-screen but the actual torture occurs off, will haunt me for a much longer time.
  • Conjoined fetal twin. Gotta say, did not see this one coming.
I don't know if I'm going to check out the rest of the Miike oevure because "Imprint" is just sort of a vehicle for watching stylized violence. I think the story itself got more street cred than it deserved simply through that trendy non-linear narration, and the characters in particular were flat. But again, it's horror, and they can't all be Se7en, can they? The real loser is Masters of Horror, because twelve more stories like "Imprint" are really what I was expecting from the premium cable series. I'm not saying it's great filmmaking (it's not), but at least here we've got something that challenges you to watch and eventually rewards you, both narratively and viscerally, and I'd like to see the Masters of Horror second season take a few more risks and be a bit more genuinely provocative.