2/11/2010

BLACK KISS (2004)

Country: Japan

Genre: Thriller/ Horror

Running Time: 133'

Director: Makoto Tezuka

Cast: Reika Hashimoto, Kaori Kawamura, Masanobu Ando…


GHOUL RATING: *** (3+)

Story: Asuka is a model and dancer, left without a place to stay in Tokyo. She starts sharing an apartment belonging to a frind's friend, Kasumi, who at the start is not too friendly, and obviously has a baggage of problems of her own. The troubles begin when Asuka witnesses a gruesome killing across the street from Kasumi's apartment: through the window she spots a lean woman dressed in black leather slicing a tied-up man with a scalpel. When the police arrive at the scene, they find a man meticulously disemboweled, with voodoo symbols carved into his skin. An inspector follows the psycho-cult lead by going to a mysterious expert on such matters, while a young paparazzo (Tatsuo) is always near the death scenes. Other bodies appear (some sent by regular mail directly to the police), all cut and decorated into morbid works of art, with a kiss left with black lipstick on white paper next to each body…

Review: BLACK KISS tries to be too many things at the same time and, naturally, fails because of its schizophrenic approach (and muddled script). However, the manner of its failure is somewhat interesting and makes for a fine viewing experience. It opens with several in-your-face Hitchcockian references: the characters go to a club called VERTIGO and the first murder takes place in BAT'S HOTEL (instead of BATES MOTEL). Asuka witnesses the murder peeping through her (rear?) window in a scene that is quintessentially Hitchcockian, but which also recalls his disciples, Argento and de Palma. The killer herself looks like Argento's leather-clad psycho who's at the same time an SM dominatrix with a fetish for (Batman's) Cat-woman. Thrown into the mix are photographs which, when enlarged, add new pieces to the puzzle (another Argento touch) and outrageously gruesome murders – shown not as Argentoesque set-pieces, but mostly in their aftermath, more akin to SE7EN. The director even goes so far to steal the famous jump-scare from SE7EN (when a 'corpse' is suddenly re-animated for one last gasp), but in this instance it feels just like a cheap (and unconvincing) trick, since the corpse in question is actually a torso cut up so badly there's no way in Hell it could live long enough for this brief resurrection.

Logic is thrown out of the rear window, but that's to be expected from someone inspired by Hitchcock filtered through sensibilities of Argento and de Palma. Old Hitch always claimed that his ideal film was not a 'slice of life', but compared it to a cake from which all boring parts are deleted. BLACK KISS, however, is a cake with too many layers of cream and sugarcoating for it to be edible: it's like one of those artificially colored cakes which are nice to look at, but are not nearly as tasty. The film is all over the place, lacking unity of tone and purpose: it opens with a strong sex scene more at home in a pinku flick, but its sensuality is irrelevant for the scene and is never returned to. The opening murder suggests a splatter, but later scenes lack gore and are beautified so much that any sense of gruesomeness is entirely lost: corpses are turned into mannequins and teddy-bear toys. From its pinku start and splatter opening it continues with a lot of drama, then goes into mild, un-thrilling thriller, then some more drama, sprinkled with an occasional, brief horror of new-found corpses of irrelevant side-characters.

Essentially, BLACK KISS lacks discipline: it is too inconsistent to work as either horror, thriller or drama, because horror loses its edge when its promising premise is treated as an intrusion into a quirky drama-thriller. It feels almost out of place and is diluted by the disproportion that drama gets. On the other hand, both drama and thriller are pointless since there are no real characters in this stew: they are either empty clichés (like the bland aspiring model Asuka, poorly acted by Reika Hashimoto) or they remain enigmas until the very end, like Kasumi. It must be said that the latter at least shows signs of promise due to exquisite features and body language of Kaori Kawamura, who perfectly embodies someone who's been around and tasted some of the bitterness of life. However, even these two are lost for a long while during the dead-end police procedural subplot, particularly with an insecure detective's pursuit of psycho-cult leads. The same can be said for the thankless role of the paparazzo: Masanobu Ando (memorable as Kiriyama from BATTLE ROYALE) is practically wasted as a two-dimensional red herring in the silly excuse for a plot.

The director, Makoto Tezuka, is the son of Osamu Tezuka, a legend of Japanese animation thanks to titles like ASTRO BOY and KIMBA THE WHITE LION. Tezuka Jr. has yet to fill his father's shoes: in his previous film, HAKUCHI THE IDIOT (1999), he has already expressed a tendency towards rambling, over-long, self-indulgent exercises in style, unsupported by any real substance or coherence, and BLACK KISS is all that, too. Tezuka has a good eye for visuals, and his films are a joy to watch: however, his lack of interest for storytelling or rhythm is a serious deficiency. You cannot but be mad when, after 2 hours and 10 minutes, you reach what must be one of the most frustrating 'revelations' in any Japanese horror/thriller I can think of. I won't spoil it for you, but will only say that, once the killer's identity and motives are revealed (or are they?), little if anything in the preceding plot makes any sense. With all this in mind, BLACK KISS remains a mixture of occasionally interesting parts which never coalesce into a meaningful or at least effective whole – watchable, but unremarkable, except for its flamboyant style.

DVD [NTSC, Region 2] : Uplink delivers a special, 2-disc edition, and its technical aspect is matchless. The film itself is in 16:9 ratio, with vibrant colors, deep blacks (where needed) and sharp image. The sound is in Dolby Digital, only in Japanese, with no commentaries or other sound options, while English subtitles are quite decent. The second disc offers the usual extras: short interviews with the director and two main actresses (but, strangely, not with Masanobu Ando, top-billed and prominent in the advertising material). Of course, none of this is subtitled, so I have no idea what they had to say about the film. There are also some (deservedly) deleted scenes, a brief feature about (not really top-notch) CGI sequences, but, sadly, there is no alternative ending. I was hoping for a more meaningful one, but it seems that the nonsense which ends BLACK KISS was the best and only thing they could come up with.

BLACK KISS (NTSC, R1)

Here comes MEDIA BLASTER'S DVD of BLACK KISS, and I'm happy to say that its visual presentation (anamorphic widescreen 1.85 : 1) does justice to the rich color scheme and vibrant visuals of the film. Audio (in Japanese) is available only in Dolby digital, and the English subtitles are fine. In terms of extras it's not as rich as the previously reviewed Uplink's 2-disc edition (which had no subtitles in the extras department), but it has some meaty features to offer. The highlight is the interview with the director, which goes into many details about planning and making the film, and reveals his devotion to details (hints about the killer's identity in the very first shot of the film; esoteric meaning of the numbers 4 and 9, etc.). You'll learn that the ending was hidden in the script even from the main players, and that may be the reason why the interview is divided in two parts: "Mystery of Black Kiss" (about the general idea of the film, with no spoilers) and "The Truth of Black Kiss" (discussing the ending and killer's motives: better watched after the film). This last feature must be the most valuable, and certainly clarifies the muddled ending. It does not make more sense, but at least you finally get to learn what they were thinking! Other extras include: a solid trailer, scene selection, Tokyo Shock trailers and an extremely poor Stills gallery (made of photos which look as if they'd been captured off a pirate VHS copy).

All in all, if you're not speaking Japanese, this is a solid DVD version for the English speakers.

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