1/29/2010

THE INTERNATIONAL FILM GUIDE 2008, 44th edition

Editor: Ian Haydn Smith

Wallflower Press, 2008

422 pages


Ever since 1963, when it was first published, the International Film Guide has enjoyed the unrivalled reputation as the most authoritative and trusted source of information on world cinema. For a good while Variety stood behind it, then Guardian briefly, and now, after one year's pause (there was no 2007 edition), with Turner Classic Movies acting as sponsors, Wallflower Press is relaunching this invaluable publication.

The new editor, Ian Haydn Smith, admits in his introduction that he has a daunting task to fill the shoes of his predecessors, but judging from this new volume it seems that he managed to live up to the expectations that the tradition and title merit.

The 44th annual volume bridges the last year's gap by covering the international film production from both 2006 and 2007. It assesses the movie industry developments and more than 1,000 films from 98 countries across Europe, North and South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Like the previous volumes, this one is organized on country-by-country basis, each entry written by a competent, authoritative correspondent from that country. The accounts include news, reviews and stills (most of them in color), festival information, movie going trends, box office and more.

A matchless guide to anyone interested in international cinema, it is the single place where one can find information from countries that may be blank spots even on the maps of most adventurous cinephiles. Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Ecuador, Iceland, Kenya, Peru, Serbia, Tunisia and Ukraine are just some of those rarely trodden paths, mapped out by this volume. Of course, there is also plenty of coverage from the cinematographies of countries we're more accustomed to keep a watch on, like Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, etc. including the revelation of the last few years – Romania. Romania's last year win of Palme d'Or in Cannes for 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS brought to our attention a fresh vision, also found in CALIFORNIA DREAMIN' (by the prematurely departed Cristian Nemescu) and numerous other titles from what this guide accurately recognizes as "one of the vital cinemas at the moment".

It is revelations like these that make this book invaluable to anyone willing to explore the possibilities of cinema beyond their nearest multiplex. I have already marked several dozens of titles for my personal 'wanted' list, and the wide range of possibilities will provide a good deal of potentially interesting titles for the widest range of interests. It is impossible to find so much important data about the most recent film production compressed and collected in one place as it is in the International Film Guide.

The volume includes information on film festivals (50 pages of basic info + cream of the crop coverage), top-grossing films, major film awards, film schools, film archives, worldwide box-office reports, 10 pages of DVD releases of cinema classics, and more.

This is not to say that this book covers only the 'serious' and 'art' cinema: while a good deal of attention belongs to the titles one could only see at film festivals and (if one is lucky and persistent) on DVD, this guide also represents the basic trends in the world cinema, including genre filmmaking: for example, Guillermo del Toro is selected as one of the five 'Directors of the year' – a special part of the book which details the careers of the most promising directors in the world. The New Zealand entry does not skip titles like BLACK SHEEP, PERFECT CREATURE or THE TATTOOIST, and horror films from other unlikely places (like Norway) are also revealed.

Other parts of the book worth mentioning are the 'In Memoriam' section (paying respect to the great stars and directors that passed away in the previous year), 'Country focus: Germany', Industry focus on documentary, and the special focus on DVD market.

Both entertaining and informative, easy to follow, with entries brief and to the point, with a sharp and reliable critical evaluation of titles and authors covered, this heavy volume will certainly deliver your money's worth of guidance through the farthest reaches and the cutting edges of international cinema. Indispensable to film critics and other professionals, the International Film Guide is at the same time essential to any serious cinephile and any curious, investigative film viewer in the world. Roger Ebert once wrote: "The day I was hired as a film critic, I went to the bookstore and came home with a copy of the International Film Guide, and the current edition has been on my shelf ever since." Check out to see why.

For the sheer number of intriguing titles I first heard about here, this book can not be compared to any other!


1/23/2010

ART OF THE DEVIL 2

Country: Thailand

Year: 2006

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 100'

Producer: Kiathamon Iamphungporn

Director: The Ronin Team

Cast: Napakapapar Nakaprasit, Namo Tongkumnerd, Hataiwan Ngam Sukonpusit


GHOUL RATING: *** (3)


Story: Six youngsters, friends from high school, re-unite two years after graduating in order to pay respects to the deceased father of one of them. They travel to his home, deep in the jungle, but pretty soon forget all about the dead father since their own lives are at stake. One by one they are afflicted by a black magic curse (that's the 'art of the devil' from the title) which makes them die in many colorful ways. Since they're trapped in the shack and its immediate vicinity by surrounding swamps all they can do is run around, scream a lot and accuse one another for various tresspasses from the past. It's payback time now. So, sit back and enjoy making bets as to 'who gets it next and what will be left of them'.


Review: There are at least two good things to be said regarding ART OF THE DEVIL 2. For starters, it's completely unrelated to the dull soap opera with some gore thrown in, known as ART OF THE DEVIL (see the review here). Distancing itself from that half-assed product is certainly a good thing. The second quality: promo materials did not lie! If you were salivating when the first graphic posters appeared, gorier than anything that's allowed in the emasculated USA posters, you'll be happy to know that all of the stuff depicted on them is really in the film. If you were excited by the film's trailer promising some copious torture, I'm glad to inform you that it's really there, in glorious color and in endless sequences which put to shame their western equivalents from SAW or HOSTEL.



Oh, yes, there WILL be blood! And not just the usual red stuff splattering walls; no, friends, the 'Ronin team' is more inventive than that. It took seven directors to come up with the gruesome stuff, and while the film is not seven times better than are those directed by a measly one director, at least it delivers the gore and dismemberment which is its sole purpose. Therefore, expect to see the best, most explicit and prolonged scenes of hooks through skin since HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER 2. Prepare yourself for some non-traditional Thai food with human flesh in 'chicken' broth, face boiled on the stove and raw-meat diet (both human and animal). Look forward to some nail-clipping and teeth extraction (both with pliers). Learn the customs of different cultures: see an unorthodox teacher punishing his students for drinking after school (the moral lesson actually becomes oral). Learn some new ways of revenge via always handy old wise men who place curses for money. See exotic animals, like baby-crocodiles, emerge through a man's skin (the posters promised some centipedes and other creepy-crawlies too, but the 'Ronin team' decided that some restraint in this regard might be called for).



But don't worry, there's nothing resembling restraint in the final scenes in which a wicked lady goes Anne Wilkes on a poor guy's ass, providing much MISERY and pain. Her methods include a syringe in the neck, blow-torch depilation of hairy legs and harsh-cloth removal of scorched skin. If you're worried that none of this will provide your money's worth of splatter and torture, let me assure you that there is also some self-inflicted eye-gouging, sharp-stick impalement, decapitation, shots in the head and then some.



That's the meat of this film, and that's all that should matter. The acting is barely competent, but at least the teenagers are not in their early thirties as they usually are in American horrors. The script has its problems: after too many flashbacks in the beginning it takes awhile to get things going with uninteresting 'characters' and shallow 'drama', while the ending piles up so many 'unexpected' twists you'll stop caring long before the last one. Technical credits are all around passable, even decent, although not much above average in any way. The flick is well shot and competently scored, but nothing exceptional there. Make up effects are the main asset, and luckily, most of them are very good, done on the set, with a minimum use of CGI (mostly in the baby-crocodiles scene).


Essentially, the tiny plot is a variation of classic Hong Kong sleazefests (CENTIPEDE HORROR, DEVIL FOETUS, KILLER SNAKES and, of course, BLACK MAGIC 1 and 2) where copious vermins crawls out of black-magic infested bodies: worms, snails, snakes, centipedes, bugs etc. are vomited forth in order to animate otherwise silly 'plots'. This concept is added some local flavor (Cambodian curses, for example) and then superficially modernized by adding some teen nonsense derived from the likes of I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER. It's quite obvious that no one is going to watch this expecting great story or serious drama, or even spooks and scares. ART OF THE DEVIL 2 proudly and unashamedly wears its cheeziness on its sleeve, and should be commended for being honest in its attempts to deliver some imaginative shocks and disgust. It is what it is, and if this kind of thing appeals to you, you'll swallow it hooks and all.

DVD [ NTSC, Region 1 ] : Good, sharp image in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), atrocious English dub available in 5.1. and 2.0. and (recommended) Thai in 2.0. with decent subtitles and extras. The latter consist of a 'making of' segment, which repeats a lot of scenes from the film and mostly deals with actors, while as another extra you can enjoy the trailers for this film, as well as those for the original ART OF THE DEVIL, GARUDA, DEATH TRANCE and ZATOICHI (TV). The package comes in a regular plastic one, placed in a carton slipcase: they have different covers, thus sporting more gruesomeness than a single cover could. All in all, this is a good presentation of a must-have flick for any self-respecting gorehound. Others, beware.

1/20/2010

PORNO GANG in Germany

The best Serbian film in many years, THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG, was shown at the Berlin Porn film festival in October 2009.

The December issue of the SPLATTING IMAGE magazine from Berlin has an interview with the director, Mladen Đorđević. Its English translation can be found here.

Also, the magazine has a review of this film (in German, of course), which is here presented in its English translation:

Review by Jochen Werner

English translation: Barbara Heitkamper


THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG

(ZIVOT I SMRT PORNO BANDE)


Serbia 2009

Director & Writer: Mladen Djordjevic;

Kamera: Nemanja Jovanov;

Editing: Marko Glusac, Milina Trisic;

Cast: Mihajlo Jovanovic, Ana Acimovic, Ana Jovanovic, Predrag Damnjanovic, Radivoj Knezevic, Srdjan Jovanovic, Ivan Djordjevic, Bojan Zogovic


Marko is a young, ambitious film student and all he really wants to do is art films. Not as complaisant arthouse cinema but rather exploring Serbia’s national myths through horror and science fiction scenarios. Of course he can’t find any financing for his zealous projects, and so he takes what he can get: to start with, the money of Cane, a sleazy porn producer. He uses it to shoot a surreal and pretentious art porn film which finds little enthusiasm among his employer and his buddy, an unscrupulous cop. Marko gets fired, threatened and brutally beaten up in the end. He thereon decides to change genres and founds Serbia’s first porn theatre. As this gets thrashed by the police even during the premiere, the motley crew around Marko decide to tour the villages of rural Serbia.

Right from the beginning, director Mladen Djordjevic, who already explored the sad realities of the Serbian porn industry in his documentary MADE IN SERBIA (2005), embeds his first fictional film deep in the present of his devastated and traumatized country. Marko shoots his first porn take during an air raid on Belgrade, and everything that follows must be understood with an almost post-apocalyptic post-war period in mind. First and foremost, however, the crew of THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG aim for generality: a bizarre array of social outcasts come together through free love and its artistic/commercial applicability. Broken up porn actors, drug addicts, an HIV-positive gay couple, a zoophilic transvestite  all the while captured very tenderly and taken seriously in their effort to escape the corrupt apparatus and start a hippie-esque life as sexual bohemians.

Needless to say, they are doomed from the start: the villagers insult and ridicule them and chase the »Porno Gang« away. The situation finally escalates: after being taken into police custody where they get barbarously tortured and humiliated, the winter forces them to travel on and the crew encounters an armed mob of farmers in a forest. In a sequence of brutish violence, all protagonists get brutally raped by the unleashed villagers, men as well as women, straight as well as queer, doesn’t matter. This moment is also a turning point for the film itself: the sexual utopia, as exaggerated and campy as it might have been sketched, has ultimately collapsed. Raw, ugly life infiltrates the artsy dreamery and destroys it irretrievably. The moment of humiliation, the forceful annexation of their bodies and the artistic ideas which they and their liberation stood for is at the same time a moment of insight: the humiliated protagonists’ faces, contorted with pain, turn into a roaring laughter  a moment to make one’s blood run cold. The joy of life which they had wanted to stage with liberal sex and absolute tolerance for every kind of sexual anomaly has become something deeply desperate. Reality has taken them down and subjugated, and reality is cruel.

With this loss of ideals under which Marko had brought the Porno Gang to life, the way is paved for the subsequent development which drives its heroes as well as the film itself ever closer to the heart of darkness. Marko meets Franz, a German who started off a profitable business selling his self-made videos of genocides and massacres as a war correspondent and successfully carries it forward after the war as a producer of snuff movies. He’s not lacking victims for his films, either: those whom the war left physically and psychologically crippled, war criminals eaten up with guilty feelings, and finally some simple, poor people who hope to help their surviving families with their »fee«, and who have nothing to offer but their own lives. Franz offers Marko to go an essential step further: »Pornography remains, death is added.« He could become the first snuff artist, says Franz, and Marko eventually gives in. His fascination for pornography has been explained earlier in the movie: the fight between Eros and Thanatos, the forces of love and death, of which Thanatos turns out to be the stronger in the end. Marko’s way to snuff is therefore as consequently predefined as Franz’s way from the executions of war to those of peace  all pretended motives aside, like making money in order to be able »to do right«.

Mladen Djordjevic translates the murders which follow (staged as extremely bloody set pieces) and the subsequent corrosion of the group documentary style: in pictures of a raw directness that hasn’t been seen on a movie screen for a long time. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG is nothing but the rebirth of the socio-critical splatter films in the spirit of the early Hooper, Romero and Craven  combined with a European art film tradition. The result is a work of most brutal force, constantly breaching taboos in its blunt and consciously border-crossing description of acts of extreme sexuality and extreme violence. This uncompromising film debut hits like a punch in the gut and brands itself inextinguishably upon the brain. The film has an urgency which is almost physically palpable, fuelled by a political conscience as well as by the tradition of exploitation cinema  it might even, just at the dusk of the decade, open a new and exciting chapter in cinema history.


Original text, in German, available HERE.

1/19/2010

LEPTIRICA (THE SHE-BUTTERFLY, 1973)

Runtime: 63'


Country: Yugoslavia


Language: Serbian


Color: Color


Sound Mix: Mono


Directed by

Djordje Kadijevic


Writing credits

Djordje Kadijević based on the story "Posle devedeset godina" by Milovan Glisic


Cast

Mirjana Nikolić....Radoika

Petar Božović.... Strahinya

Slobodan Perović.... Živan

Vasja Stanković

Aleksandar Stojković

Tanasije Uzunović....the priest

Ivan Djurdjević

Dragoljub Petrović (as Boban Petrović)

Branko Petković

Toma Kuruzović .... Vule


Cinematography by

Branko Ivatović


Music and Sound:

Milan Tričković


Make up:

Lepa Prvanović


Film Editing by

Neva Paskulovic-Habić


Production Design by

Stevo Škorić


Costume Design by

Mirjana Kuruzović


Few Serbian films can claim a cult status. Leptirica is certainly one of those whose very title brings back memories – sweet memories of one of the scariest horror films ever, and of nightmares it caused in our youth. It's enough just to think of those images and sounds: the Mill, the spooky cry of the Owl, black Claws touching white flour, a beautiful Girl who reveals Vampire teeth...



TV film Leptirica is, historically, the first horror made in Serbia. Alibi for its creation was a respectable source - the story 'After ninety years' (1880) by Milovan Glisic. This writer was known mostly for his realist stories, but he also had a few which included motifs of Serbian folklore and superstition.



If anyone in then-socialist Serbia thought that the themes of vampires and witches were 'outdated', they got a wake-up call: a man in Skopje (Macedonia; at that time, one of the six republics of Yugoslavia) died of fright while watching the premiere of Leptirica on TV. Some papers used this as an excuse for a series of attacks directed at the director, Đorđe Kadijević, accusing him of making a 'terrorist film'. Not to mention those who claimed that a revered classic of Serbian literature was 'desecrated' by a very free (actually, completely original) ending. In spite of those attacks, however, Leptirica remains a revered cult classic whose nightmare-inducing power is undiminished.



In Glišić's story the main character is Strahinya, a poor lad in the 19th century rural Serbia. He falls in love with a lovely daughter of a wealthy but ill-tempered Živan. He is almost driven from the village when the village boss, the priest and a few village elders see an opportunity for Strahinya. The village is plagued by a vampire attacking millers in an old mill: since no one dares to stay the night over there, the people are on the verge of famine. Strahinya agrees to do the job, and manages to survive the night hiding in the attic.



After some troubles, the villagers manage to discover the vampire's grave. They pierce the (unopened) coffin with a stake, but due to clumsiness and fright of one of the company, a butterfly escapes from the coffin before it is sprinkled by the Holy water. It represents the soul of the vampire which remains undestroyed. Everybody thinks it's all over now, but in the end – the real horrors await Strahinya during his wedding night.



Kadijević's adaptation largely follows the story's spirit, including its apparently ironic stance toward peasants' superstition. While this is true for the bulk of the film, it is complicated by the fact that in the very first minutes after the prologue we are shown a rather gory vampire attack on an old miller, so that for the viewers there's no doubt about the real cause of the horrifying events even if the characters joke about alleged "vampires". After such an opening Leptirica continues quite innocently, almost like a romantic comedy tinged with some hints of the supernatural, but gradually it gets more and more creepy. Kadijević cleverly uses humor to disarm viewers and more efficiently shock them in the later sections in which the supernatural is no longer treated with ridicule.



The opening murder of the miller is a good example of Kadijević's sense for detail. Instead of presenting its whole figure, the vampire is rather implied by the large number of close-up shots: bulging eyes under thick eyebrows seen through a gap in the boards of the mill's wall; vampire's hairy fingers with claws going through the white flour; close-ups which reveal rodent-like teeth but no face under the hood... An excellent detail is also blood of the miller mixed with flour spilt on the floor. The vampire iconography which the director uses comes from the Serbian tradition, and owes nothing to Western vampires in the vein of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee.



Kadijević makes a radical departure from Glišić in his special emphasis on the character of Radoika, Strahinya's love interest. In Glišić's story she is merely a plot-device whose sole purpose is to motivate poor young man to go through a horrible ordeal and, in the end, to become his reward for a manhood proven. In the film version, Radoika (played by the beautiful Mirjana Nikolić) embodies the angelic-demonic aspect of the female, with a strong eroticism completely absent in the story. Kadijević resorts to a subtle treatment of Eros and Thanatos closer in spirit to the classics of European fantastic fiction from the 19th century. This is beautifully presented in a scene which suggests an invisible seducer. It seems that the entire forest is imbued with an ancient, demonic presence...



Instead of copying the genre formula from the West, Kadijević cleverly uses authentic Serbian tradition and draws from it the energy which makes his vampires indigenous, local, alive and above all - convincing creatures. Leptirica also corresponds with local, Serbian and universal archetypes of demonic powers. These scenes are directed with a skill which evokes archetypal forces and thus exceeds the lame, puerile, unconvincing Hammer films made at the same time (early 1970s). The film is rightly carved into the memory of generations of Serbian viewers and it is sad to see that Leptirica is still unavailable on a legal DVD, either in Serbia or abroad. The producers and owners of the film, Radio-Television Serbia, stupidly and selfishly sit on a gem which remains largely unknown to foreign viewers.



*

Leptirica is featured on the cover of book on Serbian horror films: IN THE HILLS, THE HORRORS by Dejan Ognjanović (see details here: SERBIAN HORROR FILM ).



1/16/2010

R-POINT (2004)

Country: South Korea

Genre: Horror

Running Time: 107'

Director: Su-chang Kong


Cast: Woo-seong Kam, Byung-ho Son, Tae-kyung Oh, Won-sang Park


GHOUL RATING: 3+


Story: A long-lost unit of Korean soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War dispatches a distress signal six months after everybody considered them dead. A squad of nine men is sent to investigate the situation, especially since the call came from a non-combat area. They come to the R-Point area, and in the midst of a vast field they discover a solitary mansion, empty and dilapidated. The area of a massive burial ground was considered sacred by the Vietnamese, and an inscription on the stone says that no one who’s got blood on their hands will leave the spot. But – they are soldiers; of course their hands are bloody. And that’s a good starting point for a lot of spooky, scary and gory goings-on…

Review: War is horror. It’s a truism, I know, but it’s still a good starting point to discuss this particular scary flick, since it takes a real-life fact (Korean involvement in Vietnam) as the background for its fictional, supernatural horrors. Horror is a genre in which one can, if so inclined, deal with serious social, moral and even metaphysical issues in an unpretentious, unobtrusive way. The imagery at hand is at the same time visceral and universal enough so that widest ranges of people from different times and places can relate to the archetypal motifs of this genre. Still, surprisingly few horror films ever tried to use a real war as their background, and among those only one (JACOB’S LADDER) can be called excellent and one (DEATHWATCH) is very good. The rest are forgettable.

Where does R-POINT stand in this small sub-genre? In short, its potentials, together with the qualities of its first half, make it very close to JACOB, but its somewhat confusing second half brings it closer to DEATHWATCH. The result is a schizophrenic mixture of higher goals and not-so-special ultimate achievement. Pretty soon it becomes obvious that the film’s real interest does not lie with the characters (sketched, but never fully developed), drama (thin and existent only in traces) or ideas. For example: the leader of this unit, and the film’s protagonist, is notorious for having most of his previous units killed in action – yet nothing much is made of his personal demons, or anyone else’s for that matter. The idea of ‘having blood on one’s hands’ is left unexplored, like a cliché curse from some minor ‘thou-shalt-not-steal-from-the-mummy’s-tomb’ flick. This is sad, since one of the opening scenes, in which the soldiers destroy a sniper, only to find a Vietnamese girl behind the gun, is reminiscent of the FULL METAL JACKET’s climax. The emotional resonance of the horrors of war is very soon left behind, and more conventional horrors of supernatural kind become dominant.


This, in itself, is not too bad. R-POINT would’ve been a whole lot better if at least it had exploited its spook potential to the maximum. This, however, is not the case. Which, is a pity, since the premise is good and original, the setting pretty much unexplored, and a lot of the scary sequences actually work. They are treated as witty and effective set-pieces: in isolation, they range from OK to very good and powerful ones. Nonetheless, they just don’t add up to any coherent and powerful whole. Too many good ideas are thrown in, glued together by plot holes and underdeveloped ‘mystery’. There is a difference between ‘subtle suggestion’ and ‘lazy plotting’, and I’m afraid R-POINT’s script can be blamed for the latter. R-Point of the title seems to be the site of some previous massacre: yet, we never learn anything about it, and the notion of concentrated mass of ghosts hungry for vengeance is never fully explored.



My heart is weeping at the wasted potential of this: just imagine dozens of ghosts rising and doing what they do best in such a fine set-up. Instead, we’re treated to a single, trite ‘long-black-haired-ghostgirl-in-white’ – and even she does not do much. She seems to be the guardian-ghost of the R-Point (she’s the same as the sniper girl shot in the beginning) – but if that is so, it’s not clear how come she was so material behind the gun, how come she was bleeding? There are also ghosts of American soldiers (used in one very nice scene - and then forgotten) and ghosts of French soldiers (used similarly), but none of them ever do much for the whole. Considering the amount of solid ideas and gimmicks, perhaps R-POINT would’ve worked better as a TV-series in which every episode is devoted to one particular kind of presence haunting the same premises but different units of soldiers. As it is, in a single film that R-POINT is, the ghosts, ideas, potentials, gimmicks and set-pieces are overcrowded to the point of standing in one another’s way and subtracting from the film instead of adding to it.


What works in the film is very, very good: the huge decayed mansion is a masterpiece of production design, and the same goes for the temple, graveyard, and even the spooky old radio. The photography is excellent and provides numerous powerful images and an unforgettable atmosphere (further enhanced by a very fine score and elaborate sound effects). Unfortunately, the script’s lack of ambition, together with its inconsistencies, bogs it down from a potentially great horror film to merely a solid, occasionally scary but ultimately empty and underwhelming one.

DVD [NTSC, Region 3] : The Korean limited double disc edition is a good example of elaborate promotion: fancy card slipcase contains replica of the R-Point map, several quality print movie-postcards, and a booklet with at least one excellent image that is NOT in the movie. Disc one of this edition contains the film itself and the audio commentary with the director, producer and chief of production department. Pity it’s in Korean, with no English subtitles – and the same goes for the entire supplemental material on the disc two: unless you speak Korean, you’ll be lost in the (otherwise excellent) animated menus. While roaming through those, you can come across Making-of featurette, various interviews –including the special-effects guy who explains some of the gore effects- trailers and the like. The dual layer disc presents the film in 1.85: 1 ratio, with an excellent, sharp image that only the greatest nitpick-fetishist can find faults in. The same goes for the sound, which rocks in Dolby Digital 2.0, D.D 5.1 and DTS 5.1. and will definitely creep you out if you dare to watch it alone in the middle of the night.


1/08/2010

ID (2005)

Country: Japan

Genre: Horror / Surreal

Running Time: 104'

Director: Kei Fujiwara

Cast: Kei Fujiwara, Kimihiko Hasegawa, Kenji Nasa, Tojima Shozo


GHOUL RATING: **(*)

3-



Story: Story? What story? The film's title refers to the part of the psyche residing in the unconscious that is the source of instinctive impulses that seek satisfaction in accordance with the pleasure principle and are modified by the ego and the superego (in those of us that have such subtle super-structures!). Now, that's a perfect alibi to throw away any linear storytelling, logic, motivation, characterization and the like down the drain and indulge in the succession of irrational imagery which may or may not be linked with perverted sexuality, voyeurism, rape, cross-dressing, masturbation and… mutation into giant pig-men? Some of the highlights include: the giant retard with pigtails, dressed like a schoolgirl; a 20-something playing the 9-year old boy; a transvestite whose attempted rape ends in beating after his 'unexpected parts' are discovered; a rather convincing-looking 'taking a crap' scene; a face peeled off; a giant bloody vagina-like orifice in a woman's belly; more bloodied and mutilated corpses than you can count and more male asses than you'd care to see; men masturbating with spring-rods instead of their fleshy members; and so on.



Review: "I wanted to describe the agony of a wounded soul of someone decaying from the inside." This is how Kei Fujiwara described ORGAN (1996), her debut feature. This description could also be applied to ID, her (only) second film in ten years. Transgressive and shocking imagery abounds here, as well, but there is a new element added: the idea of redemption. ID is about a tortured soul looking for salvation. That's why the film opens and closes with invocations to Amida Buddha, the savior of all who invoke him (not only the righteous, but the sinful as well).


Yes, ID is the second part in the trilogy announced on the ORGAN disc, in the feature with preview scenes from (what was then called) 'Organ 2'. Sadly, it's not included on the ID disc, although that feature shows off some shots that ended in ID, together with a lot of alternate takes on the existing scenes, and the stuff that's not in ID at all. From Fujiwara's rambling comments there one can see how much ID changed (for the better) until its final phase. One can assume that ORGAN was fully devoted to the hellish misery of existence, summed up in the line: "This world is Hell!" while ID seems to be depicting a purgatory, with a promise of light. It would be interesting to see the third film and Fujiwara's vision of Heaven. I wonder if there would be as much blood, piss, vomit, and all-around degeneration as in her first two films.



To call ID bleak would be a major understatement. I cannot think of an author with an equally dark vision. Men are described as "breathing masses of flesh", compared to "pigs born for the sake of being eaten", completely governed by their biology (eating, pissing, shitting, f**king…). The original Buddhist view of life is bleak in itself (this life is illusion, physical existence is pain, salvation is only in getting out from Samsara, the cycle of rebirth…). In Fujiwara's films the Buddhist vision is merged with Freud's anthropological pessimism, presenting people not only hopelessly entangled in their messy biological functions, but also irreparably damaged by their childhood traumas. To be born is hell. Yet, as the final lines remind us, "even this form of existence struggles to return to the light."


In such a world, memory is a burden; the selected few amnesiacs should pray never to remember. Ignorance is bliss. Knowledge is pain. These are the views that few would share, or even be ready to humour for a while, for the duration of the film at least. But, you knew what to expect, right? Those who have seen ORGAN (which is a MUST for any shock-cinema fan!) know that Kei Fujiwara takes no prisoners. The extremeness of her vision, and of modes of its expression, overshadow both Miike and Tsukamoto, in whose TETSUO she played the female lead and was a DP, too! Even within the standards of modern Japanese film's storytelling, notorious for its ellipses, murky plotting, entangled sub-plots, twists out-of-the-left-field and esoteric, head-scratching endings, ID remains the pinnacle of disregard for even the most basic linear plotting and conventional logic. Be prepared to 'not get' this film on the first viewing. A lot of viewers might not even finish it, let alone desire a second (or third) serving of the outrageously weird, spicy dish.



ID's shot in grainy 16mm, and the cinematography is deliberately murky and plain, with very little colored lighting or other stylization. The sets are cheap and ugly: mostly shot in poor workers' sheds and tool shops, with the pig-farm providing the visual (and aural) background. The acting is amateurish. Most of these people are not professional actors, and majority of them do not have anything else listed on imdb. Those that have are mostly those who also appeared in ORGAN (although there is no apparent connection between their roles here and there). Too much over-acting may have worked in Fujiwara's 'Organ Vital' theatre, but in the film it tends to be jarring. The music is poorer than in ORGAN: for a better part it consists of an irritating endless loop. Nothing like the memorable theme from the 'caterpillar scene', and, for that matter, there is no set-piece in ID to match the greatness of the larval rebirth from ORGAN. The make-up effects are shoddy, especially the appliances in the climax having to do with the giant pig-men (it sounds better than it looks!). Still, the gore effects are plentiful and quite convincing.


Frankly, ID is a film easier to respect than to actually like, or enjoy. While ORGAN did possess a certain level of coherent plot (jumbled with the flash-forwards, flash-backs, visions, dreams, hallucinations, ellipses for the sake of ellipses, etc.), ID discards any semblance of sense and dives deep into its author's obsessions and traumas completely disregarding if anyone else would want (or be able) to follow. Such extremism is both commendable and frustrating. The film is obviously a personal affair (perhaps a kind of self-therapy?), and the devotion and energy invested are to be respected. In an age of 'let's cash in on the most recent trend', in an age governed by 'yet another long-haired vengeful ghost' flicks, ID is blissfully non-commercial. There's no pandering to audience expectations. There's no 'let's add an unnecessary romance sub-plot to appeal to the teenagers' attitude. There's no 'let's cut down the bloodshed so we can sell it to TV'. With all its strengths and weaknesses, ID is a rare remnant of auteur cinema in the strictest (and some would add: most self-indulgent) sense of the phrase.


All in all, this is a film for those who thought that ORGAN was too mainstream and that it did not go far enough. ID goes all the way but, will you follow?



DVD [NTSC, Region 1] : Media Blasters (under their Tokyo Shock label) should be praised for buying and offering to the English-speaking world this decidedly offbeat title. The image is full screen, 1.33:1 (that's how it was filmed) with all the expected murkiness and graininess one must expect from a film shot on 16mm film. This is probably the best it'll ever look, so don't wait for the digitally re-mastered director's cut. Japanese audio is available only in Dolby Stereo, the film is obviously post-synched later, but it is not too apparent. My greatest complaint is the lack of any real extras. I'm sure that a director's commentary would be too much to expect from a reclusive Fujiwara, but is there any Japanese film expert out there who might come in handy to provide some kind of background to her film and its context? Couldn't anyone find her and film at least a brief interview? Even some liner notes would be appreciated, since very little is known about this artist, and this disc sadly misses the opportunity to present her in full glory. Other than that, this is a must-have DVD for all those who are not easily shocked, and who welcome extremes and transgressions.

1/05/2010

SERBIAN HORROR FILM

Serbian contribution to horror genre, both in literature and film, is pretty small. And yet, what Serbian horror cinema lacks in terms of quantity, it more than makes up for in quality. It can be argued that more than a dozen of existing Serbian horror titles belong among the most original works made in this nation's cinema in the past decades, and they deserve to be wider known.

The low number of horror films does not mean that Serbs are intrinsically unable to enjoy a good horror film, or even to make one. But the general cultural climate has always required a strong rationale for using such motifs: fear for fear's sake was not generally accepted as particularly entertaining. In order to be taken seriously, Serbian filmmakers needed an alibi for making what basically is horror by advertising it as a "literary adaptation", "satire", "drama", even a "thriller" — anything but the degraded term horror which everyone avoided.

As it turned out, this was not entirely detrimental: it only meant that, when horror motifs were used, it was in the context of either "respectable" films with artistic pretensions, or comedies/parodies which provided a vent for Serbia's inherent ironic stance towards vampires, madmen and other monsters.

In the few instances that horror motifs are found in this nation's cinema, they are used loosely, for telling stories that are far from exploitation. While Western horror often forces the story into the pre-existing generic mold, using every opportunity to create suspense, fear and shock, in Slavic horror elements of the genre are used to fit the story, not vice-versa.

In spite of all the obstacles— cultural, political, psychological, commercial— those horror films that managed to get made in Serbia have been surprisingly effective. Most have never been properly presented to audiences abroad, and this is an opportunity to shed some light upon the best ones and recover them from undeserved obscurity.


NOTE: Click on each film's original Serbian title to see its IMDb page!



THE SHE-BUTTERFLY

(LEPTIRICA, TV, 1973)


It is based on a revered classic of Serbian nineteenth-century literature, the short story 'After Ninety Years' by Milovan Glisic. Its hero is Strahinya, a poor lad in rural Serbia who falls in love with the local landowner's daughter: in order to prove himself worthy of her love, he has to spend a night in an accursed mill. It is said that a vampire is sucking the blood of unfortunate mill men, thereby bringing the village to the verge of famine. Strahinya manages to survive the night (more through clumsiness than courage), but the vampire escapes. Luckily, the lad learns the vampire's name and, following a prolonged search, the creature's grave is found. A group of villagers seemingly dispatch him with a stake through the unopened coffin, but the young man has yet to meet the real horror - on his wedding night...


THE PROTECTED

(ŠTIĆENIK, TV, 1973)

Arty, gothic atmosphere pervades a TV film about a young man haunted by a mysterious follower who claims to be his protector. Not even the baroque asylum where the man escapes can protect him from his doom.


MAIDENLY MUSIC

(DEVIČANSKA SVIRKA, TV, 1973)

A young man comes across a castle in which a solitary maiden lives. A sort of romance builds between them, but in the end the man will discover the real, nightmarish source for the strange "music" heard around the castle…


THE DREAM OF DR MISIC

(SAN DOKTORA MIŠIĆA, TV, 1973)


A bachelor doctor in the countryside is haunted by a dream in which a dead girl leads him to his death. He pays no heed to stories about spirits, omens and premonitions, but his fate will prove that there's more to life than his science taught him.


THE DAMNED THING

(PROKLETINJA, TV, 1975)


Based on the well-known story by Ambrose Bierce, this unusual TV film takes arty approach which stresses the metaphysical dread of a man encountering an invisible entity which slaughters people in the marshes.


GASP! aka THE BACKBONE

(KIČMA, 1975)


A series of unexplainable suicides haunts a modern high-rise block in Belgrade. A young doctor traces the source of the stinky, yellowish mist to the nearby gothic crematorium, but it does not stop the disaffected, alienated people from killing themselves.


A MAN TO BE KILLED

(ČOVEK KOGA TREBA UBITI, 1979)


Satan is directly involved in human affairs and political shenanigans in Montenegro in 18th century. He sends a devil in human form to become leader of men, but the devil starts liking the people he's supposed to deceive. Satan won't accept such betrayal…


VARIOLA VERA, 1982


Inspired by a real event from early 1970s, when a Moslem brought smallpox from his pilgrimage to the Middle East to a Belgrade hospital and created a small-scale epidemic. The gruesome disease is a metaphor for the sick socialist state, but the claustrophobic feel of a quarantine and gory images are not to be forgotten.


STRANGLER VS STRANGLER

(DAVITELJ PROTIV DAVITELJA, 1984)


Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, only became a metropolis when it got its first serial killer. The said killer is a big, fat, shy and mother-fixated man, played to deadpan perfection by one of Serbia's greatest comedians, Tasko Nacic. He lives with his cruel mother in a gothic apartment resembling those from Mario Bava's films. He sells flowers and lives by the motto, 'Those who don't like carnations don't deserve to live!' His victims are the young women who refuse to buy his flowers and humiliate him in public. The film follows the exploits of three main characters: the strangler, the incompetent and highly neurotic inspector on his trail and the nerdy rock singer attracted to the killer's exploits. The latter's oedipal desires and sexual angst turn him into a promoter of the strangler's crimes (through a song devoted to him) and a potential strangler in his own right.


DÉJÀ VU aka REFLECTIONS

(VEĆ VIĐENO, 1987)


Déjà vu concerns a troubled piano teacher, Mihailo (Mustafa Nadarevic), and his efforts to come to terms with reality through a love affair with a poor but industrious girl, Olgica (Anica Dobra). When she dumps him for a younger boyfriend (hoping to make a political career in the Communist Youth organization), Mihailo is overrun by the ghosts of his past and begins a killing spree. Flashbacks which explain the killer's motivation are intrinsic to the film's central idea. The apparent contrast between the past and the present becomes a parallel, thanks to the clever transitions between shots. Mihailo becomes unable to distinguish the 'reflections' of the past upon his own present, and is thus driven over the edge.

This is the only Serbian horror film to be included in the second edition of Phil Hardy's Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror (1994). It is also the only Serbian horror film included among 100 EUROPEAN HORROR FILMS in the eponymous book published by BFI and edited by Steven Jay Schneider.


A HOLY PLACE

(SVETO MESTO, 1990)


Loosely based on Nikolai Gogol's story VIJ, this is a gothic masterpiece in which Slavic folklore is effectively merged with a decadent, erotic subtext about disturbed psyches in an isolated farm. A young priest is forced to spend three nights locked in a church, singing psalms over the dead body of a woman who was a witch while alive. Now she's something much worse.


FULL MOON OVER BELGRADE

(PUN MESEC NAD BEOGRADOM, 1993)


A rather unsuccessful attempt to use the war-torn Serbia in the mid-1990s as a background for a story about zombies from the battlefields and vampires pulling the strings behind the horrors of war. It looks and feels clumsy and is mostly laughable.


T.T. SYNDROME

(T.T. SINDROM, 2002)


A group of young people end-up locked in the old Turkish bath inside the Belgrade fortress, and a mysterious person clad in black leather jacket starts killing them one by one. It seems to be somehow connected to a strange, rare disease. This is a derivative, but pretty effective homage to B-horrors with solid amounts of gore and a decent score.


SHEITAN'S WARRIOR

(ŠEJTANOV RATNIK, 2006)


An old book of spells. Ancient Arabic demon (Djinn) awakened in today's Belgrade. Horny teens. Parties. A nerd hungry for revenge. Lots of blood.

This is a very low-budget effort (even by Serbia's standards), but it is full of energy, humor and action, and make-up effects are well above-average. The youthful cast gives their best.


THE LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG

(ŽIVOT I SMRT PORNO BANDE, 2009)


The Life and Death of a Porno Gang exposes the underbelly of contemporary Serbia and pulls no punches in the process. The film throws away almost all taboos, such as group sex, murder, full frontal nudity, violence to animals, homosexuality, bestiality, snuff… only here they come with a socio-political context. What Naked Lunch by William Burroughs was for America in the 1950s and 1960s, Porno Gang is for post-Milosevic Serbia. See the full review here.


ZONE OF THE DEAD

(ZONA MRTVIH, 2009)


Made in co-production with Italy and Spain. Its international cast is headed by Ken Foree, the star of George A. Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) in his first chance in three decades to slay some more living dead. He is accompanied by Kristina Klebe (HALLOWEEN, 2008), Ariadna Cabrol (REC, 2007) and Emilio Roso.

The film deals with an accidental release of a toxic matter in Serbia's most polluted city, Pancevo, and the outbreak of zombie mayhem which goes strictly along the déjà vu routine of Italian low budgeters from early 1980s. It is most reminiscent of City of the Living Dead (1980), Hell of the Living Dead (1983) and Zombi 3 (1987). The film is characterized by the over-use of shaky-cam which makes decent make-up effects barely visible and action scenes hard to follow. The plot does not bring anything new to the table, content to merely recycle the tired clichés of zombie cinema. Its sole selling points resides in Foree's still formidable presence and the curio of being Serbia's first zombie film. Read my full review here.


A SERBIAN FILM

(SRPSKI FILM, 2010)

Milos, a retired ex-porn star, now leads a normal family life. He is introduced to Vukmir - a shady, mysterious, menacing and politically powerful figure in the porn business who makes Milos an offer he can't refuse: the movie with no script, and performances all too real…

In a Serbian "Heart of Darkness" where life is cheaper then a candy bar, in a struggle with enemies powerful beyond belief and just as violent and pathologically evil, the chances of surviving are abnormally thin.

This film contains scenes so brutal and extreme that they are unparalleled in the history of horror. The fact that A SERBIAN FILM has decent production values, expert photography, good direction and talented, well-known actors in the leading roles makes it all the more shocking. Check out the NSFW trailer – here.



All these films, except for the 3 most recent ones, are subject of my book on Serbian horror (published in 2007, only in Serbian), whose description follows.


IN THE HILLS, THE HORRORS: SERBIAN HORROR FILM

by Dejan Ognjanović

This study deals with the reception of horror genre in Serbia and with Serbian genre productions from 1973. until 2006.

The first part of the book analyzes the (mostly negative) attitude towards horror genre, both foreign and domestic, in Serbian press, but also the evolution from old-fashioned Marxist concepts towards more modern, genre-friendly readings among the younger Serbian film critics.

The second and most exhaustive part provides a minute close reading of 14 relevant titles made for TV and cinema in which horror genre is central, or at least strongly present.

Finally, in the third part the study is substantiated by the interviews with three of the most competent names for this topic: Djordje Kadijevic (THE SHE-BUTTERFLY, THE PROTECTED, MAIDENLY MUSIC, A HOLY PLACE), the director who initiated the serious, literary approach to horror in Serbia; Dejan Zecevic (T.T. SYNDROME), representative of younger, genre directors; and Dimitrije Vojnov, film critic and screenplay writer well-known for his defense of genre filmmaking and his genre-oriented scripts.


"Let America have its simple pleasures, its cartoon mice, its candy-coated castles, its cults and its technologies, he wanted none of it. The greatest wonder of the world was here, hidden in the hills."

-CLIVE BARKER-


IN THE HILLS, THE CITIES


CONTENTS:


INTRODUCTION


1. THE HORROR OF SERBIAN CINEMA

1.1. HORROR AMONG THE SERBS

1.1.1. History and everyday life as unavoidable horror

1.1.2. The culture of irony and suspicion toward fictional horror

1.1.3. Politics as an omnipresent horror

1.1.4. Poor economy as a horror in itself

1. 2. PERCEPTION OF HORROR AND CRITICAL AWARENESS

1.2.1. ALREADY UNSEEN: Movies that weren't there

1.2.2. HORROR HORRIFIES US: Lost in THE FOG

1.2.3. THE TERROR OF DOMESTIC HORROR: Invasion of the genre snatchers

1.2.4. DAWN OF THE CRITICS: A sparkle in the dark


2. HORROR FILMS

2.1. Folklore Horror

THE SHE-BUTTERFLY (LEPTIRICA, TV, 1973)

2.2. Dark Fantasy

THE PROTECTED (ŠTIĆENIK, TV, 1973)

2.3. A Gothic Romance

MAIDENLY MUSIC (DEVIČANSKA SVIRKA, TV, 1973)

2.4 . Serbo-Croatian Gothic

THE DREAM OF DR MISIC (SAN DOKTORA MIŠIĆA, TV, 1973)

2.5. Metaphysical Horror

THE DAMNED THING (PROKLETINJA, TV, 1975)

2.6. Serbian Existential Shivers

GASP! aka THE BACKBONE (KIČMA, 1975)

2.7. In the Hills, the Devils

A MAN TO BE KILLED (ČOVEK KOGA TREBA UBITI, 1979)

2.8. Illness as a Metaphor

VARIOLA VERA, 1982

2.9. A Comedy of Terrors

STRANGLER VS STRANGLER (DAVITELJ PROTIV DAVITELJA, 1984)

2.10. Madness as a Normal State

DÉJÀ VU aka REFLECTIONS (VEĆ VIĐENO, 1987)

2.11. High Gothic

A HOLY PLACE (SVETO MESTO, 1990)

2.12. Casualties of War

FULL MOON OVER BELGRADE (PUN MESEC NAD BEOGRADOM, 1993)

2.13. Serbian Slasher: Low Budget as a Fate

T.T. SYNDROME (T.T. SINDROM, 2000)

2.14. The Warriors from Underground

SHEITAN'S WARRIOR (ŠEJTANOV RATNIK, 2006)

2.15. APPENDIX: The Tailor's Flirting

FLIRTING (FLERT, 2006) + A TAILOR'S SECRET (KROJAČEVA TAJNA, 2006)


3. SCARY STORIES (Interviews)

3.1. DJORDJE KADIJEVIĆ: Man is, foremost, a frightened being

3.2. DEJAN ZEČEVIĆ: Horror as the essence of filmmaking

3.3. DIMITRIJE VOJNOV: Only fear saves the Serbs


INSTEAD OF A CONCLUSION

BIBLIOGRAPHY

NOTES

ILLUSTRATIONS