Sunday, 3 June 2018

CURE (1997)

When the boom in Japanese horror took off in the West during the early 2000s it apparently arrived fully formed, attracting attention largely on the back of the landmark statement made at the time by Hideo Nakato’s Ringu, its various sequels and offshoots, and the franchise created with Takashi Shimizu’s extensive roster of Ju-On (Grudge) movies. But, from very early on in the critical discussion surrounding the distinctiveness of the J horror scene, it became de rigueur to refer back to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s unnerving 1997 psycho-thriller Cure as the ground zero of the phenomenon; a template that set the style and tone for what was to follow despite very marked differences to most other entries in the sub-genre. Oddly, though, given its importance to the development of this branch of horror, the film always remained quite hard to see. Devotees of Asian genre cinema had to actively seek out region three or region one DVD releases in order to view it. And UK fans had a particularly hard time of it when it came to the availability of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work in general. Only in the last year or so -- with his award-winning films such as Tokyo Sonata having by now acquired the director some measure of arthouse respectability -- have Kurosawa’s career-making horror masterworks from the nineties and early 2000s started to filter into the UK market; and this new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release of Cure (definitely the director’s career breakthrough) from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema imprint, marks the film’s debut in this country … a bewildering state of affairs for a film that stands up now as well as it ever did, and which can also be said to have transcended its original role as midwife to the J horror explosion and become just as essential to any consideration of the emergence of the modern form of what, these days, might be referred to (for better or worse) as arthouse horror. In a new interview included with the Eureka release, Kurosawa himself muses on why the film has endured and concludes that it is “a unique combination of art film and genre film”, before going on to compare it in style to the work of David Cronenberg.   

Cure does not deal in overtly supernatural phenomena like most of its J horror cousins: there are no wronged, long-haired female ghostly spirits here, spreading unstoppable curses passed along through the conduit of technological communications. If anything, it’s far more profoundly disturbing on a philosophical level for being much harder to pin down just what exactly is supposed to be going on during large chunks of this picture’s narrative, precisely because we are not afforded the luxury of being able to label any of it supernatural. Although suggestive allusions to ‘occult ceremony’ are made near the end of the film, they are all the more unnerving for remaining speculative and poetic in their nature. The narrative seemingly operates on a mythic/symbolic/metaphoric plain, despite being grounded in a series of identifiable, familiar urban locations. And Kurosawa achieves his effects by refusing to be pinned down to logical explanations, evoking instead a sense of loneliness and emptiness by his choice of settings: anonymous, semi-industrial sites on the edges of cities. Abandoned or decaying, they have often been cleansed of significant historical markers in a process of constant renewal and permanent redevelopment suggestive to viewers of a modern malaise of the psyche, as pictured in landscapes nurtured in the aftermath of the bubble economy of 1990s Japan.

The film has a quirky, tangential style, full of narrative ellipsis and ambiguous, hard-to-read occurrences much in evidence from the opening scenes and continuing throughout. Even so, it also seems at first to be a pure exercise in neo-noir rather than straight horror, essaying a mix of story elements that refer to then-recent developments in the genre such as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and David Fincher’s Se7en, rather than to contemporary Japanese ghost stories. Thus, the film appears initially to be defined by the conventions of the detective genre: a few minutes in, and we are presented with the familiar figure of the rain-coated detective, here played by Kurosawa regular Kôji Yakusho. Detective Takabe is introduced to us in a scenario straight out of a standard police procedural: he has been called to the scene of a crime in which the mutilated body of a prostitute has been found by a cleaner in a blood-splattered Tokyo hotel room … So far, then, so familiar. Forensics is being gathered by a team at the site, and clues are being amassed in the usual manner as it is established that the woman has been knocked senseless with a blow to the head from a piece of lead water pipe, then left to bleed to death from an injury to her neck caused by a large letter ‘X’ carved into her throat with a knife. It doesn’t matter if a handful of disconnected scenes or images don’t quite add up, because we expect the fragmented pieces to get slotted into place as the film progresses, and as the detective starts to match motive with suspect to reach the end of a process of ratiocination that will result in all becoming clear to us, as well as to him, at the end of the picture. Or, as Takabe puts it himself at one point “All I want is to find words that will explain the crime … that’s my job.”

Solving crime for Takabe, then, is as much about uncovering, understanding and assigning motive as it is about the identification of a perpetrator. Yet Takabe’s psychologist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) sees things rather differently; he assumes that people invariably go about their lives without awareness of what truly drives their actions, then concoct a narrative afterwards to explain their behaviour to themselves as much as to anyone else: “No-one can understand what motivates a criminal,” 
he asserts; “ sometimes, not even the criminal.” This notion militates against the very idea that criminal acts can be slotted inside a full logical system to explain human behaviour: “People like to think a crime has some meaning,” Sakuma later states … “but most of them don’t.” Instead, Sakuma assumes that we must stick to matching specific crimes to identified perpetrators, and be content with that.

This first act tension between two opposing philosophical outlooks represented by the investigative leads might be assumed to drive the thematic underpinnings of the film’s events for the rest of the narrative -- but Kiyoshi Kurosawa makes it the point of the picture instead to undermine from the start both identity- and motive-based methods for arriving at any firm conclusions. Takabe and Sakuma are dealing with a case that defies all approaches to understanding; indeed, one that doesn’t play ball at all with the very assumptions that define criminal investigation. It’s this undermining of the intrinsic ground rules of the genre that he is nominally supposed to be working within that enables – indeed forces -- Kurosawa to send his characters off instead on an experimental journey that becomes an abstract investigation into the psychological foundations of (Japanese) identity itself.

We find out early on that what has been so perplexing Takabe and Sakuma about this case comes down to the fact that the prostitute’s murder is the third killing they have investigated in the last two months to exhibit the same modus operandi, which suggests the work of a single serial killer. Yet, each time, there has turned out to have been a different perpetrator responsible, each one unconnected to and unaware of all the others and despite a news blackout being put in place on the details of the crime wave ruling out the possibility of copycat killings. The prostitute’s killer is also picked up, still at the scene, hiding naked in a service hatch in the corridor just outside the very hotel room in which the murder was committed. Like all the others, he vaguely remembers carrying out the crime but can offer no explanation for his actions. Takabe is faced, then, with the conundrum of being expected to bring to an end a continuing and escalating wave of identical murders, but with no single suspect to focus on apprehending and no motive whatsoever to explain any of what has been happening!

Eventually, Takabe comes up with a solution that appears to provide him with a way out of this head-spinning impasse, and also a means of providing closure to the case while still maintaining a rational investigative framework. A suspect is apprehended who seems to have a connection to several of the bewildered perpetrators. (Throughout the film, the viewer has also been following this man’s interactions with these various persons who later go on to kill in an unpremeditated fashion.) Takabe latches onto the idea that this man, known as Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), has somehow hypnotised all of these previously upstanding, conscientious, law-abiding citizens and one-by-one turned them into an army of killers. All that now remains to find out is how and why.

This idea recalls the central concept behind Fritz Lang’s sequel to his 1922 film of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr Mabuse, the Gambler) where, at the end of the original story, inspired by Norbert Jacques’ novel, the German criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse -- who has exerted such dominance over an entire nation by personally presiding over a vast network of fraud and conspiracy -- goes insane and is confined to an asylum indefinitely. In the sequel, made ten years later, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse), Mabuse is still quite mad and has by now become totally incoherent. He continues to be confined to his cell and has no access to the outside world. Yet, his criminal network seems to be back up and running, and Mabuse’s identifiable personality seems to be all over a series of crimes that are once again sweeping the German capital. Halfway through the film, Mabuse actually dies, yet his crimes continue unabated -- as though his will has somehow transcended his physical form. It transpires that during the course of his obsessive study of his patient, the director of the asylum has taken on Mabuse’s characteristics through a process of transference akin to possession, and now continues to carry out the Mabusian program of destruction in his former patient’s place. Lang was tapping into the mood of his time as German democracy collapsed into fascist tyranny, and predicting how the will of a strongman leader could corrupt an entire nation by shaping and distorting the zeitgeist. In the end, it doesn’t matter if that leader is even around anymore: the environment and the culture he shaped continue to impose his will without him. The main difference with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s formulation is that at the centre of all the criminal activity in Cure, there appears to be the very opposite of a Mabuse-style dominating personality to impose his personal will on others through overpowering charismatic force and mesmeric influence. Instead, Mamiya appears to have no personality at all; no identity or recall of his own past, and barely any short-term memory.

While Mabuse captures the notion of powerful ideas turning into social contagions that can take on a life of their own, Kurosawa’s more ambiguous, abstract take on the concept strips out all sense of their having an origin in a personality or personal doctrine, and jettisons any ego based foundation that might ground such a contagion in a firm sense of continuing identity. It seems a specifically Japanese take on the subject: the approach of an anonymous, modern but conformist consumerist society that ranks cohesion of community above the needs of the individual. The film was made against the backdrop of the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin subway attack, not long after Japanese society had experienced a profound moment of existential crisis that led it to ask itself how so many educated graduates and apparently stable citizens could have been drawn to a doomsday cult espousing the mass slaughter of its own people. In the mid-1990s, the Japanese Government’s Cultural Affairs Agency registered 183,470 groups as religious corporations (reported in Damian Thompson’s The End of Time: faith and fear in the shadow of the Millennium, published in 1996). Yet these were essentially home-made religions – or what in the West we would dismiss as ‘cults’ -- which were springing up with such frequency precisely because Japan had become the type of society where, as Thompson reports, ‘there was no stigma attached to joining them.’ Indeed, sociologists of Japanese society have apparently identified four waves in the expansion of interest in such doomsday groups and small-scale religions, each one associated with a period of social upheaval caused by rapid industrialisation, natural disaster or war.

So, in Cure, we have what appears to be a detective story. But it is a detective story in which we are presented with a crime wave that has no explanation reducible to individual psychology, merely an endless series of perpetrators with no motive, and the correlation each of them has with an amnesiac who has no sense of self and no understanding of the social setting in which he exists. Takabe repeatedly attempts to progress his investigation by conventional deductive means, but each time he appears to be making progress in uncovering a piece of information that might be used to build a psychological profile of the blank space that is Mamiya, all he actually ends up doing is highlighting the ambivalences that underlie his own sense of identity, emphasising the double life he leads as a carer for his young wife (Anna Nakagawa) while being forced to watch powerlessly and to accept the consequences, as her identity slips away due to some sort of early-onset dementia. His stoic existence outside of work is contrasted with his persona as a cop who, as a requirement of his job, is under constant pressure to establish identity, forge motive … in short to produce meaning. “The detective or the husband; which is the real you?” Mamiya taunts, at one point, as detective and suspect play out a tenuous variation of the prison cell confrontation scene so familiar from countless examples of the genre Kurosawa is experimenting with here: “neither one is the real you … There is no real you.” The two incompatible sides of Takabe’s character are constantly being brought into conflict by the very interrogation process on which Takabe must rely when assessing Mamiya’s involvement with the case, causing an internal existential crisis of Being that can only be soothed with the ‘cure’ Mamiya’s solution offers to all those he encounters.

Takabe’s interactions with Mamiya put him in the same perilous situation as the perpetrators we have seen committing terrible crimes after they also have encountered this anonymous person, in a variety of earlier contexts. The feeling of unease and the mounting sense of dread Kurosawa establishes throughout the film, as Takabe is being inexorably drawn towards an indefinably disturbing new understanding of himself and the world around him, is achieved with a technique dependent on Kurosawa’s masterful formal control of compositional elements, and a suite of visual components all working together to bring about a profound effect on the viewer that seems far more than the sum of its parts, and is almost impossible to put into words. Key to Kurosawa’s method is how he completely marinates all aspect of his visualisation of the narrative in a soup of Jungian archetypes, to such an extent that the movie doesn’t just reference them in passing but is dependent on a fictional landscape completely constructed out of them. During the film, a breakthrough in the case with implications for the development of Takabe’s attitude towards both his job and his wife’s condition, comes when he discovers Mamiya’s decaying apartment on the grounds of a run-down construction site: it’s stuffed with text books on the treatment of personality disorders and works by Carl Gustov Jung, and appears to bear out Takabe’s theory concerning how Mamiya may have influenced the spate of crimes by confirming that he was indeed once a psychology student who at one time studied the animal magnetism of Franz Anton Mesmer. The astute viewer might feel at this point that they have also been made the subject of an attempt by a master of suggestion to bring about a trance-like hypnotic state of mesmerism, this time carried out by the director. The film is suffused with Jungian symbols, particularly those of fire and water, all suggestive of the idea that the surface personalities of the perpetrators of the various murders Takabe has been tracking are indicative of the eternal narratives of the unconscious, built from an intertextual web of character types, images, story structures and genre types that constitute the stuff of all storytelling. As, of course, Kurosawa’s own narrative itself demonstrates in its own construction.

Mamiya’s first appearance in the film occurs on a desolate beach, where he encounters a polite teacher, who takes him back to his beachside house after becoming concerned by Mamiya’s amnesia and apparent confusion. Kurosawa positions Mamiya in the beach landscape in such a way as to frame him standing alone against the backdrop of the ocean, which stretches away into the horizon. The ocean in Jungian semiology stands for an undifferentiated pre-conscious primal state, while the horizon stands for the limits of the conscious mind. Water is fundamentally a symbol of the unconscious in Jungian thought, while fire stands for the light of consciousness, but also for its more passionate emotions related to fury and to sex. Another important Jungian symbolic motif that recurs constantly throughout the film is that of the cave or some kind of darkened enclosure that can stand for a womb-like space. Takabe’s first fraught encounter with Mamiya takes place in the unlighted basement of a hospital, and the first murder of the film is preceded by an image of water gushing after the killer breaks off a piece of water pipe in an enclosed darkened underpass. This is followed by the image of a flashing electric light made faulty by a short in the circuit caused by the sudden outpouring. It's as if Kurosawa is setting out at the start the symbolic alphabet from which the rest of the film’s narrative will be composed. After he has murdered the prostitute with the pipe, the killer washes off in an overflowing shower and hides naked in an empty service hatch in the hotel corridor, where he is discovered later by Takabe, curled up in the foetal position.

Mamiya seems to be a personally blank manifestation of the unconscious forces that shape human behaviour and give rise to wider epidemics of mass hysteria that shape the cultural reaction to vague psychogenic maladies, given credence when they’re packaged into medical syndromes and disseminated throughout our culture. In the teacher’s beach house, the pulsing sound of the tides sets up a drowsy, rhythmic, hypnotic effect and reinforces this idea of a womb-like space that will bring forth a new consciousness leading to murder becoming a casual activity that, as one killer explains it, “seemed like the natural thing to do.” A flickering flame from a cigarette lighter is Mamiya’s hypnotic cue that allows him to bring to the surface the buried passions and resentments of his previously placid-seeming subjects-cum-murderers: the educated teacher who viciously murders his wife; the policeman who suddenly calmly shoots dead a colleague; a young female doctor who walks into a men’s restroom and murders a former patient, then performs an impromptu autopsy on the corpse as though re-living the circumstances of her time as a medical student, when she suffered from the institutional sexism of the medical profession.

How does Mamiya exert such control over these people? Here, Kurosawa foregoes logic and allows the narrative’s content to be shaped by the abstract Jungian idea of the collective unconscious: “All the things that used to be inside me … now they’re outside,” Mamiya tells the young female doctor. “I can see all the things inside you, doctor. But the inside of me … is empty.” Mamiya has no internal self but is the external manifestation of the suppressed emotions that exist collectively in all of us. Water overflowing a sink basin in a restroom, the spread of a pool of liquid across the floor when a glass is spilled in a hospital clinic or the sudden appearance of a damp stain on the ceiling of the cell where Takabe interviews Mamiya, denote this permeable state of consciousness – no longer confined by bodies but percolating through the culture at large. Takabe himself lives near a harbour; his sick wife sometimes gets lost on the bridge that spans it: a metaphoric representation of the slippage in her sense of identity and of Takabe's futile efforts to preserve it. There is no way of escaping or of existing outside this symbolic system of self-identification, not even for him. Kurosawa allows Mamiya to weave his spell on the viewer as well, to a certain extent: a scene in which he is put before a hearing of officious Japanese authorities at police headquarters is played for broad absurdist comedy as Mamiya’s blankness unravels the pomposity of his interrogators in a way that leaves them completely flummoxed and allows us to feel, just for a moment, a measure of sympathy towards him.  

Kurosawa suggests an origin for this peculiar state of affairs in the practices of a nineteenth-century clinic that, like so many of the locations seen throughout the film, is now disused and has been left in a state of permanent dereliction. Naturally, when Takabe and Mamiya meet there in the final Act of the film, the old building is letting in rain and has become semi-flooded, as befits a centre for Jungian tropes. An old scratchy piece of film has led to this site, discovered by Sakuma before he committed suicide to prevent himself succumbing to the syndrome that he and Takabe have now inevitably been exposed to because of their interrogations of Mamiya. It shows an unseen clinician hypnotising a female subject called Suzu Murakawa, who was institutionalised for murdering her son by also carving the ‘X’ sign, found carved into all of the bodies of the recent victims, into his neck. Not only does Kurosawa anticipate a popular motif in J horror with this scene (think of the videotape curse in Ringu), he also refers back to the history of hysterical epidemics and their origins in the medical professions of the 18th and 19th century, when Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud founded schools of thought that intended to explain human behaviour and to cure it of its most burdensome psychic maladies. Charcot and Freud’s efforts in some sense also shaped the medical culture by providing a narrative – that of hysteria -- that helped to create our notion of an unconscious self. Charcot first established his clinic at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the 1770s, when it was part poorhouse, part medical establishment, and part prison for women. As Elaine Showalter describes it in her 1997 book Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture: ‘this old hospital was an ideal environment for the manufacture and marketing of hysterias’ and it became a place where ‘doctors, patients and culture came together for the first time’.  Charcot gave popular demonstrations every Friday morning in which he brought the medical concept of hysteria – stripped of its previous religious connotations -- to wider recognition by publicly demonstrating how hysterical symptoms could be stopped or created using hypnosis. Patients ‘flocked from all over the world to his consulting room’ and the Salpêtrière became a popular tourist attraction, before Charcot's reputation was largely eclipsed by Freud's ideas in the nineteenth century.

 Kurosawa leaves the original objectives and identity of the anonymous therapist at the centre of the film’s particular institutional ‘cure’ as a mystery: all we ever see or hear of this figure is an enlarged but blurred photographic portrait, hanging behind a sheet of plastic in the abandoned clinic, and an old Edison gramophone recording in which an incantation of nonsense phrases is repeated ad infinitum. After all, in Kurosawa’s diffuse and haunting world, identity can never be pinned down and is, in any case, illusory (a provocative and disturbing thought in an age where Identity with a capital ‘I’ has become one of the defining political and cultural issues of the day). It seems this mysterious figure was regarded as something of a heretic during the Meiji period in the late 1860s when Japanese society began to industrialise and to adopt a more western style of governance. Hypnotism was thought of as ‘soul conjuring’ during this period and suppressed as a form of occultism by the Government. The film is thus drawing an interesting and ironic parallel between the activities of medical practitioners in the 19th century, grappling with the secrets of the psyche and invoking nervous diseases that involve both the body and the mind, and the methods of the witch hunters and the priests they were trying to discredit and replace. Showalter also points out in Hystories how Charcot’s techniques echoed those of the witch-hunt and involved searching the bodies of his patients for signs of hysterical “stigmata” and pricking or writing on their skin. Kurosawa’s film suggests that when a conservative, authoritarian society suppresses these investigations into the unconscious and attempts to replace them with a purely surface concern with the pursuit of consumerist pleasures, it causes a mass societal neurosis to take root, much as the repression of trauma is said to lead to the physical manifestation of hysterical symptoms in Freudian psychoanalytic theory. The semi-urban world at the edge of the city depicted in Cure, with its degraded, sub-Gothic landscapes of perpetual Jungian liminality, is itself an expression of the sense of dislocation and unconscious anomie its characters experience at a subconscious level as part of their daily lives. Ironically, the final scene sees Takabe, at last, finding a place of healing and calm only previously experienced in short bursts of fantastical heavenly flight when riding on a bus with his wife on her way to her appointments at her mental health clinic. Yet it provides a bitterly bleak coda to this entrancing but stark view of the modern human experience.

 Cure finally arrives in the UK via a dual-disc edition from Eureka Entertainment featuring some worthwhile extras taking the form of an excellent video overview and critical appraisal by Kim Newman and two interviews with Kiyoshi Kurosawa: one an archival piece, and the other brand new. Plus, there’s a trailer, and a collector’s booklet featuring an extended essay by Tom Mes. It is the film itself that ensures, though, that this will be an essential purchase.                             


Wednesday, 16 May 2018


One of the things I hope for when reviewing the new Blu-ray and DVD releases is finding that what has dropped through the letterbox is a previously unsuspected perfect masterpiece that I hadn’t been aware of before. Legend of the Mountain is a film that falls into exactly that rare, much-appreciated category. It is an extraordinary fantasy-horror epic, made by wuxia supremo King Hu in 1979 -- and it now finds its way to UK shores in a definitive Masters of Cinema dual-format edition released thru Eureka Entertainment, having been fully restored to perfection in 4K back in 2016 by the Taiwan Film Institute.

The Chinese film industry had been mining its rich history of folk tales, legends and ghost stories since way before the release of this picture at the end of the seventies. Notably, King Hu’s first employers -- Shaw Brothers Studios -- from his days as a jobbing actor, had a run of successes in the Horror genre and even teamed up with Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1974 to co-produce The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. But Hu’s film, produced, like most of his better known pictures in Taiwan, and starring many of the key names from his repertory of Taiwanese actors, belongs in a special category all of its own, despite deriving from the same literary source materials and incorporating similar shenguai elements as many of the earliest efforts in a genre that would in later years become better known to western audiences with Ching Siu-Tung’s 1987 hit A Chinese Ghost Story. In many ways, Legend of the Mountain represents a throwback to a more elegant cinematic past, and has more in common in its artful approach with classic Japanese arthouse supernatural cinema from the '50s such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s transcendent Ugetsu Monogatari, than it does with the increasingly sleazy materials that were being produced in China at the time under the Shaw Brothers umbrella -- like Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic (1975) and Black Magic II, or his bizarre follow-up Oily Maniac (1976).

King Hu was a masterful filmmaker, noted for his blending of western film editing techniques with the choreography of traditional Chinese martial arts, the resulting aesthetics replicating the formalities of the Beijing Opera he had loved since childhood. King Hu’s retinue of skills as an editor, production designer, costume designer and visual artist facilitated a combination of influences that resulted in outstanding new school wuxia classics such as his breakout film Come Drink With Me (1966); the record-breaking box office hit Dragon Inn (1967); and its follow-up (in which the director’s style-conscious thinking-man’s-action-movie approach to direction reached its zenith), the critically acclaimed A Touch of Zen (1971): all of which married great artistic visual beauty with dynamic camera work and complex plotting. Although the latter also featured representation of the metaphysical as understood through Buddhist philosophy alongside the swordplay and intrigue, a straight ghost story in the style of China's traditional folk tales such as Legend of the Mountain represented new ground for King Hu’s cinema.

By 1979, though, Chinese horror pictures were, in general, becoming more exploitative. Yet King Hu’s uniquely beguiling, ambiguous yet baroque creation seems to display some affinities with the idiosyncratic ‘70s cinema of Nicolas Roeg and even takes inspiration from visual imagery found in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents over and above the high profile western horror pictures that had started to exert an influence on the direction of Chinese horror. Rather than following the pack, this film represents King Hu continuing to move away from mainstream commercial concerns. Like A Touch of Zen a full eight years before it, its extended run time -- in excess of three hours! -- worked against the film attracting a large audience; and in the west, its runtime was severely truncated. After spending so many years on A Touch of Zen, Hu made some effort with the work that followed to get back to producing the commercial hits of his early career by adapting to the new Kung Fu style pioneered at Shaw Brothers. But he found it increasingly difficult to attract funds for his favoured form of historical swordplay epic. Interestingly, the circumstances surrounding his decision to make Legend of the Mountain at that precise point in time, and the reasons it turned out as it did, had less to do with Hu's pre-existing artistic proclivities and everything to do with the  practicalities of his professional and personal life coming together to interact in a very specific way during this stage of his career.

Firstly, Legend of the Mountain was the second of two movies Hu was contractually signed up to make back-to-back on location over the course of a single year, requiring him to utilise largely the same cast and crew and shoot at the same locations in South Korea: a production method very similar to one famously employed by England’s Hammer Films in the mid-sixties for the purposes of cost-cutting. In this case, the approach was driven by Hu’s need to attain funds from the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation: a body set up by the Korean authorities to make it attractive for foreign film production to come and invest in Korea by shooting on location there. A primary condition was that a minimum of two films had to be made in the county in order to qualify for this generous funding subsidy. So, with this in mind, King Hu wrote Raining in the Mountain: a film about life in a Ming Dynasty monastery, which he conceived after visiting a Korean folk village  - a kind of living museum that seeks to preserve historical monasteries, buildings and artefacts on site and in their original condition – while on a scouting mission in the mist-shrouded mountains, realising that the location could easily double as a Chinese historical setting since the architectural style showcased by its Buddhist temples was very similar to that which was developed in the 11th century by China’s song dynasty. This film was to be made for Hu’s usual Taiwanese backer. But Hu still needed to come up with a second film, which he would produce himself and own the exclusive distribution rights to. For this reason, Legend of the Mountain had to be made very cheaply by going straight into production on completion of Raining in the Mountain and utilising the same re-dressed locations and sets, as well as retaining largely the same cast and the same crew.

At around the same time, King Hu married a Chinese writer and scholar called Ling Chung, who had written extensively about Chinese literature and had been teaching the subject for several years at the State University of New York in Albany. Chung gave up her academic career in the States to come and work with her new husband -- and was delegated the job of writing the screenplay that would form the basis of the second film Hu planned to make after completing work on Raining in the Mountain. Hu nearly always scripted his films alone, so suddenly having someone else generate his material (even if it was his own spouse) was undoubtedly a new experience for him. Working from elements of legend found in the much-mined 18th century text Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling -- specifically the short story A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountain, which provides the basic framework of the screenplay -- Chung came up with a tale that was very different from anything Hu had written and filmed before, presenting unique challenges for a filmmaker with a style underpinned by his talent for shooting complex action rooted in the real world.

Chung’s story, although an original variation on a traditional tale set in the culturally sophisticated Song dynasty, nevertheless remained true to the poetic spirit of Chinese folk tales and legends of the supernatural, while actually containing barely enough plot to fill a half-hour short. However, Ling Chung imbued her modern interpretation of the story with references to the many religious traditions that had co-mingled in China for centuries, informing its intellectual and spiritual life, its philosophy and everyday superstitions. This presented King Hu with the interesting conundrum of how to present such a context on screen with characters that largely stand for metaphorical ideas, and have motivations rooted in the indefinable abstractions of their historical milieu. For his solution, King Hu took the counterintuitive and daring approach of actually extending the film’s running time rather than reducing it, experimenting with duration to reinforce an ethereal atmosphere and create a concentrated  film texture full of poetic allusion that does not need to busy the screen at all times with concrete incident and complex plotting. A dreamlike state is induced by extending moments in which nothing much is happening while collapsing events that would normally take place over a great period of time (such as the courtship before a wedding) into mere seconds. The approach was in no way intended to provide padding to make up for the sparseness of the story source; Hu was attempting instead to give expression to the mixture of Taoist and Buddhist thought which provides an illustrative intellectual backdrop to the kinds of folk beliefs this story and others like it inherently rely on for their appeal.

This intent won’t perhaps be apparent to the unwary viewer who comes into this world without prior knowledge of it -- at least until some way into the film; and neophytes may initially feel bewildered by the apparent indifference to issues of pacing or plot development. Indeed, at first it seems all Hu is really interested in depicting at great length is his protagonist -- a naive clerical copyist played by frequent King Hu collaborator Chun Shih -- wandering a series of arresting otherworldly mountain passes and various landscapes of outstanding natural beauty, usually framed as a tiny fragment amidst the splendour, whilst serene Chinese woodwind musical cues float forth, interlaced on the audio track with the profound eeriness of wailing mountain winds. The film begins in this graceful, relaxed register and returns to evocations of such moods at several junctures to show how key narrative events and the characters associated with them also have profound implications for interpreting the landscape. Implicit in such an approach is the philosophical assumptions of the Taoist religion, where an enchantment with nature and its ineffable, ungovernable forces exists alongside a belief in the harmonious creative energy that lies unseen behind everything, connecting all living things and inanimate objects in a matrix of potentialities for transformation. Couple this with the ideas of reincarnation and karma that come from a pervasive Chinese Buddhist strain of thought, and you end up with a -- to western eyes – strange and idiosyncratic ontology, with everything having resonance with something else: animal spirits can take on a human form, and silent meditation or ritualistic incantation (even the act of playing a musical instrument and the creation of melody) express the modes of a life force that also regulates the development of ecosystems and the weather through an all-enveloping teleological wholeness functioning across multiple plains of existence. Even without any prevailing knowledge of Chinese religious thought, viewers will find they have soaked up this metaphysical context perhaps without even realising it, thanks to an extensive series of powerfully allusive montages, edits and pillow shots King Hu expertly weaves throughout the picture … not to fill out time, but to imbue the interactions of his characters with a textural spiritual resonance that’s embedded in a belief system incorporating an immanent supranatural agency.

The film’s hero, meanwhile, embodies the more practical, rationalistic traditions of Confucianism. Clerical scholar Yunqing Ho (Chun Shih) is a man with his feet planted firmly in the real world. He has been charged with a specific practical task he must travel a great distance to accomplish: to carry a scroll, containing a written sutra that releases the souls of the dead, to the Mudra Temple, high up on a plateau of the Gaya mountain, where he is to copy it for General Han in the wake of a great battle on the frontier that has resulted in the loss of many soldiers who, according to Buddhist belief, cannot pass on to the next stage of their existence without it. Ho does not reject the supernatural. Indeed, he leaves armed with prayer beads given to him by a monk to ward off any demons he might encounter along the way. They have been blessed in a sombre temple ritual, composed of elaborate hand gestures and earnest genuflection, treated with the same amount of gravity as later outright manifestations of supernatural power by way of a heightened and discordant audio design emphasising striking idiophonic percussive sounds. Ho assumes, though, that such realms are distinct and separate from the ordered rational world informed by the six senses, and so is surprised and disconcerted to find his lonely journey across the vast, overwhelmingly beautiful terrain, not so much interrupted by as infused with uncanny sights and unsettling encounters: a glimpse of a spectral woman in white who shimmers in the mist that perpetually floats above a mountain lake; ghostly flute music with no player, emanating from a deserted rest-stop pavilion; and an inscrutable Lama in orange robes who seems regularly to appear out of nowhere as Ho makes his way between eerie empty staging outposts (with their perfectly preserved but now-empty monasteries and religious statuary) and the serenely picturesque mountain trails across which he tenaciously treks inbetween.

This portion of the narrative echoes the opening act of many film versions of Dracula (as well as Stoker’s novel itself), and recalls Jonathan Harker’s journey into the wilderness of Transylvania, where he too is expecting merely to complete a straightforward clerical task, before finding himself immured by the irrational forces of a great supernatural evil. Here, though, Yungqing Ho's journey seems to find its resolution in a destination that appears at first far less threatening and uncanny than his route getting to it, despite initially falling foul of a shambling oddball mute manservant on the outskirts, called Old Chan (Feng Tien) -- the story’s equivalent of an Igor figure from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Arriving at General Han’s deserted fort compound to be told that his host (Yueh Sun) is in fact already dead, Ho is offered sanctuary in the already-prepared rooms of Han’s favourite concubine by the General’s smilingly friendly chief advisor Tsui Hung-chin (Lin Tung), and introduced to the only other residents of the complex: a raspy-voiced but voluble busybody housekeeper by the name of Madam Wang (Rainbow Hsu) and a young maid-servant called Quing; but most significantly, Wang’s beautiful daughter Melody (played with relish by Dragon Inn heroine Feng Hsu), a former court musician whom the cajoling housekeeper seems unusually eager to pair-off with the bookish visiting scholar. Instead of a horror story or fantasy epic, we appear to have stumbled into a domestic comedy of manners-cum- sex farce in which Madam Wang and her maid-servant conspire to have Yunqing Ho act as tutor to Wang’s daughter in the hope of getting the two close enough for long enough to marry them off. Rainbow Hsu, as the domineering Madam Wang, here provides the film with one of its more unexpected highlights thanks to her enjoyable turn as a comedy grotesque, but we soon realise (although Yunqing Ho does not) that supernatural machinations are afoot when Melody’s recreational drumming skills turn out to have hypnotic properties that allow her to put the young copiest into a memory-erasing trance, thus allowing her to claim the next morning that he has had his way with her while drunk and is now honour-bound to agree to Wang’s terms of marriage! This is particularly unfortunate, because no sooner has Yunqing Ho tied the knot and consummated his marriage to the sinister Melody for real (a love scene overlaid with nature imagery in a montage that combines scenes of sunsets and mountain lakes, and cuts from phallic images of fish swimming to a spider’s web being spun) than he falls in love with the daughter of the widow of a frontier magistrate, called Cloud (Sylvia Chang), who lives in a simple dwelling with her mother outside the fort.

The jealous love rivalry that ensues between Melody and Cloud unleashes a multitude of outlandish supernatural interventions, and it becomes more and more apparent to Ho that he is in fact surrounded not be people but by earth-bound spirits, who are the very souls he has been called here to help pass to the next stage of their existence. All the relationships that have heretofore been established between the characters are revealed, therefore, to be entirely false. In truth, Melody is the chief instigator of all preceding events: a serial murderer during life who killed Wang, Quing and Cloud before being tried for her crimes at General Han’s court where she was exiled to die alone. Seeking to settle her scores, Melody's wandering spirit was granted occult powers by a misguided Taoist priest (Hui-lou Chen) and she became a powerful demon who has enslaved the souls of Madam Wang and Quing to help her steal the sutra and use it to resurrect herself in the world of humans. The Taoist priest and his Lama assistant (the traveller who shadowed Yungqing Ho’s journey across the mountains) are trying to stop her, but her powers are growing too strong to resist. All of this is later explained by way of the priest’s prayer shrine, which has the ability to function as a cinema screen that explains to people what motivates their actions by reflecting images of events from their past lives back at them (thus allowing King Hu to deliver convenient info dump flashbacks to his own characters as well as to the viewer). These revelations also mean that Ho’s love for Cloud is as doomed as his marriage to Melody, for, as the laconic Lama magician points out: “an affair between a man and a ghost can never work out.”

But it can certainly leave a strong impression -- as Hu demonstrates repeatedly throughout the colourful three hours-plus of this by-turns visually poetic, awe-inspiring, comedic, and hallucinogenic audio-visual experience. (And that is, in the end, the best way to think of the movie – as an experience!) Lengthy digressions in the form of serene montages appreciating both the beauty and pitilessness of nature, also suggest oblique ties to the ghostly affairs that play out on the spiritual uplands of human relationships. There are several extraordinary hypnotic scenes in which religious and demonic forces battle each other with opposing rhythmic drumming and lots of coloured smoke. All the skills for shooting action Hu demonstrated in past full-throttle wuxia films are here brought to the service of bonkers gladiatorial supernatural showdowns between Melody and her various antagonists which, in other hands, could’ve looked rather weak given the poverty of the special effects budget. Here, through a combination of effective editing, precisely choreographed gesture, showy camera movement and lots of that coloured smoke, alongside a clamorous audio track of thunderous drumming and discordant janglings, they are rendered utterly strange and compelling.  Only one short sequence relies on the sort of wire work more usually prevalent in the wuxia genre, but it’s a good one – and infused with a peculiar fantastical mood that’s equal parts fairy tale and nightmare. It involves Quing the maid emerging from a sort of earthworks in the middle of a sunlit clearing that Ho and Cloud encounter after having trekked through a darkened gothic forest of crooked burnt tree trunks while trying to escape the malign influence of Melody. With the uncanny sound of fluttering feathers high up in the audio mix, the evil spirit swoops and acrobatically dive bombs the couple from above like a bird of prey, at the same moment demonstrating all the fragile grace and beauty of a gravity-surfing butterfly. Astonishingly, this sequence was one of the things cut from the film when it was originally released in the west in a shortened even more incomprehensible form!

 It is not until the concluding act, though, that King Hu finally allows the film to register a fully recognisable Gothic mode that fully embraces the irreducible irrationality of its subject matter; by which point, because of its now total disdain for anything approaching narrative logic, combined with a determination to bombard the viewer with a full sensory overload of uncanny supernatural stimuli, the movie begins to resemble, in both visual style and textual tone, the neon-soaked nightmare fairy tale of Dario Argento’s Suspiria: with a delerious coloured light-drenched showdown that involves multiple doppelgängers and plentiful psychokinetic pyrotechnics, it concludes with a splendidly gooey body horror meltdown, at which point the film apparently cycles back to the beginning in a Dead of Night-style coda.

This amazing piece of work gets a very nice treatment for its UK outing, with extras featuring a video essay by David Cairns, an insightful talk by former King Hu associate and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, and a noteworthy booklet featuring informative writings by King Hu and screenwriter Ling Chung, a splendid essay by Glenn Kenny, and a plethora of behind-the-scenes photographs featuring the cast and crew filming on location in South Korea.      

Saturday, 17 March 2018

RE:BORN (2016)

Back in the year 2000, Tak Sakaguchi became a notable new star of Asian cinema thanks to a vibrant, low-budget zombie-Sci-Fi-action-gore flick called Versus, which burst upon an international genre distribution scene that was, at the time, hungry for all things Japanese in origin. Its director, Ryûhei Kitamura, discovered in his good-looking young choice of lead-actor, not only martial arts skills honed by years of street-fighting, but a certain charisma that belied the young performer's lack of experience with acting. His was a magnetic screen presence born of a personality that lit up the screen through elevating his frenetic fight choreography and compelling martial arts moves above an ability to convey emotion or develop a character with more standard acting skills. Fast-forward fifteen years, and Sakaguchi (having in the meantime nurtured a cult following of sufficient magnitude for him now to be able to afford to ditch the last name on his screen credit) has come out of a semi-retirement previously self-imposed so that he might concentrate on his burgeoning career as a director and writer, to team up with his former action coordinator on Versus, Yûji Shimomura, for this stripped-down action flick, appropriately titled Re:Born. Shimomura here assumes the role of director (this is the couple’s second collaboration following on from 2005’s Death Trance) but has also worked with Tak and the film’s other main combat supervisor Yoshitaka Inagawa (who also plays one of Tak’s main antagonists in the movie) to come up with a special new form of close-quarters combat utilising quick-motion knife play, which they call Zero Range Combat. The film is essentially a showcase for this technique, and its lightning-fast moves are deployed from the very first scenes, which take place in an underground bunker where a special-forces unit armed to the hilt with night-vision goggles and machine guns, etc., is, nevertheless, entirely taken down by a single shadowy panther-like presence known as Abyss Walker (Yoshitaka Inagawa): an apparently invulnerable hitman who lurks in hidden corners and appears to harbour the fleet-foot ability to materialise in opposite sections of the same facility moments apart.

As far as plot and character motivation may be of any concern at all in this picture, we don’t get much more of it here than the barest minimum necessary to convey a sense that this is a narrative film rather than merely a collection of action set-pieces and fight scenes strung together. Although Sakaguchi’s co-screenwriter, Benio Saeki, uses Tak’s character Toshiro’s PTSD as an effective device for presenting his intrusive memories of past traumas in the form of tantalising flashes of backstory, these have to be pieced together and interpreted by the viewer over the course of the film and then placed in context alongside Toshiro's personal history, which is explained half-way through by one of his still-loyal surviving comrades, played by Orson Mochizuki. 

At the start of the movie, Toshiro is a blank canvas: a former elite killing machine who has to self-medicate in order to dampen down the violent impulses that still linger in his psyche. Despite the fact that he has given up his former profession to run a convenience store in downtown Tokyo, his instinct for violence is still liable to be re-activated by memories of the harm he has perpetrated during past missions. Many of the faded scars still visible on Toshiro's face and body appear to have been self-inflicted, suggesting a degree of self-harm has also occasionally been enacted as a means of controlling his inner destructive impulses. Tak presents Toshiro as someone who cultivates a calm, placid Zen-like surface that he uses to suppress a steely core he does not want to bring to the surface, unless he is presented with an unavoidably lethal situation -- at which point the old skills snap back into place and the Super Solder operative that has never truly gone away is called upon to fight once again. Toshiro does everything possible, though, to avoid confrontation of this sort in his day-to-day life, knowing the results could be catastrophic if he were, for example, to react violently when his store gets held up by a gang of small-time hoods. When this does, in fact, happen, instead of taking the malefactors down like one would expect him to do, Toshiro serenely hands over all the cash in the till and then replaces the day's take with his own money!

Although Tak Sakaguchi -- now looking considerably older than the fresh-faced youth of Versus, if still very much better than most of us -- is not required to display demonstrable signs of emotion at any point in the movie, and has only minimal dialogue, his character Toshiro is provided with a support network of devoted former comrades and a cute adopted child daughter called Sachi (Yura Kondo) to do the work that is necessary in order to make this otherwise insular character appear sympathetic. Help is provided by the sentimental music cues composer Kenji Kawai provides, particularly during Sachi's scenes with Toshiro. Toshiro's former comrade Kenichi (Takumi Saitoh), permanently injured and facially scarred during the course of saving Toshiro's life on an older mission that occured some years back, continues to receive regular visits from his loyal pal; and the portrayal of Toshiro's devotion to little Sachi certainly helps humanise him, as well as provide the mythical basis for his reputation as the "reborn ghost" -- which is hinted at in the book Sachi is shown reading from throughout the first part of the film, titled The Beginning of the End of the Legend.  

But all of this is merely the set-up for the true business of the movie, which is to present viewers with a set of tense scenarios that can only result in a series of close combat fight scenes that frequently culminate in showers of arterial gore spray emanating at regular intervals from innumerable blade-shredded throats. The motley group of foes and villains Toshiro must combat and overcome over the course of the picture have even less depth and personality than he does, but nonetheless endow events with a certain flamboyant comic-book exuberance otherwise eschewed by the muted tones of Tetsuya Kudô's digital photography, despite the shallow motivation for conflict between these antagonists and Toshiro producing little in the way of the moral ambiguity or divided loyalties that we've recently come to associate with the Marvel or DC Comics universes from their transitions to the cinema screen. 

Toshiro, in his previous life as a combat veteran, was known as "The Ghost", and has, we learn, earned the lasting enmity of his nemesis "The Phantom" (Akio Ôtsuka) and  former partner Abyss Walker, simply for leaving their surrogate family-cum- military unit because of moral concerns he'd acquired, concerning The Phantom's penchant for kidnapping little children and brainwashing them to become agents of international crime and mass genocide! Silent assassin Abyss Walker -- in his black, shroud-like cloak and goggles; and criminal mastermind The Phantom -- puffing on cigars whilst sporting dark glasses that partially mask the vertical scar across the left-hand side of his face -- couldn't look more villainous if they each walked around with placards around their necks proclaiming: 'I am an evil villain'; but some of their underlings are even more deranged and exotic-looking, and include a short-skirted schoolgirl killer and a sword-touting teenage whiz kid.

Toshiro initially effortlessly identifies and dispenses with multitudes of anonymous heavies sent by The Phantom to ambush him by stealth as they emerge from the crowds in the public squares of Tokyo. The fighting style reportedly created for these clashes is actually based around short, sharp fist jabs and quick-fire blocking body stabs rather than the more demonstrably cinematic martial arts moves of many other fight movies. They require additional sound effects and a jagged editing style in order to allow the eye even to fully register their existence. Toshiro's abilities are presented here as though they were equivalent to a superhero's special powers rather than falling within the normal range of a human skill, since he seems to enter a highly focused yet closed-off state of consciousness just before a fight that allows him to move quickly enough to dodge bullets while disposing of half-a-dozen assailants at a time, each one felled with a quick blade slash to the jugular. His weapons also include, at one point, a shovel, as well as the usual collection of lethal knives; and one would-be assassin is dispatched with a chopstick through the throat which Toshiro wipes down afterwards to continue using with his food after the assailant interrupts his meal! The centrepiece of the movie, though, is a forty minute fight scene set in a forest, with two-hundred enemy troops and trained assassins Toshiro and his two pals have to slash, kick and punch through in order to reach the Phantom's military base, where Sachi is being held hostage as a lure to draw "The Ghost" out into the open. It's a kinetic tour de force of bone-crunching, throat-slashing and neck snapping, delivered with convincing aplomb before the inevitable double-stand-off occurs at the climax, first between Toshiro and Abyss Walker and, finally, Toshiro and his old boss The Phantom: a concluding scene that’s played for deliberate Kill Bill-like anti-climactic pathos rather than the expected blood-letting catharsis nurtured by the build up to it. 

In truth, there is little in the concentrated, laser-focused simplicity of this movie that will really surprise or win-over anyone not already persuaded by the silent professionalism of Tak Sakaguchi's particular brand of stoic screen machismo, but this bare-bones dual format release from the UK's Eureka Entertainment label should adequately satisfy his cadre of fans, acting as it does as the ultimate feature-length demonstration piece for his many physical talents, his poise and prowess, and his charismatic screen presence.   

Saturday, 17 February 2018


It is no surprise that colonialism should have such an important role to play as the thematic lynchpin in Derek Nguyen’s debut feature The Housemaid (Cô Haû Gaí). The film, set in Vietnam in 1953 during the French Indochina War, positions itself as a traditional Gothic romance, a genre with many established literary antecedents in the 19th century that set a textual precedent for dealing with issues that arise from the fact of colonialism and the social dynamics of Empire -- including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, or even Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. When it comes to the Gothic in cinema and on screen, none have mined the post-colonial guilt of a faded empire nation more effectively than Britain’s Hammer films in the 1960s and ‘70s, especially when it could find ways to combine the theme with Freudian notions of the return of the repressed; for example, in the sexually charged exoticism that underscores Jon Gilling’s The Reptile. However, Nguyen’s approach to the Gothic and to colonialism have much more in common with the work of Guillermo Del Toro in his films The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and, more recently, Crimson Peak which set creepy, fantastical goings-on in a closed location defined by a particular milieu, and use familiar tropes related to the Gothic genre to provide metaphorical context and commentary on specific historical events.

Writer-director Nguyen was born in what was then Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1973. His family left South Vietnam for the United States two years later, along with 130,000 refugees who also fled the country during the US evacuation, fearing retribution from the forces of the invading North Vietnamese. In The Housemaid, Nguyen reaches back several decades to before the Geneva Accords and the ensuing communist insurgency, to when the Viet Cong’s predecessors, the Viet Minh, were fighting a war which had been raging since 1946, for independence from French colonial forces. The complexity of the historical detail matters little to the arc of the story but is used merely to provide an anchor for a tale that seldom strays beyond the borders of a once grand but now gone-to-seed French colonial estate on the grounds of a rubber plantation hiding a very dark and violent history of abuse and oppression. This decaying mansion and the forbidding forest of rubber trees on its outskirts provide all the Gothic menace one could hope to derive from such a tale, as Nguyen turns for his Gothic model to a recent successful update of the recipe that recently helped revitalise Hammer Films: namely the 2012 adaptation of The Woman in Black

Originally, that story took the form of a novella by writer Susan Hill, and aimed to capture the essence of traditional fireside ghost stories like those that once might have been told by M.R. James to his Cambridge students over a glass of Christmas sherry. For the updated film iteration, imagery and more forthright jump-scare techniques borrowed from modern J Horror were also brought to the table. This is the style The Housemaid slavishly seeks to imitate, although after commencing with a strong but imitative prologue that reproduces a vision of the threating, darkly veiled spectral entity familiar from the source of its inspiration, the film later drifts into waters apparently more sedate, but with a stronger focus on areas of dark romance and sexuality. It becomes a fable-like exploration of the unequal but ambiguous erotic power dynamics that lie behind the master and servant, oppressed and oppressor relationships so intrinsic to a colonial set up, but will probably mystify or bore western horror fans who aren’t also up on their Poe or Daphne Du Maurier -- although this aspect of the tale doesn’t appear to have harmed its reception at home. However, this "third-highest-grossing horror film in Vietnam’s history" (a nice publicity line, but how many horror films from Vietnam have there actually been?) can’t resist for long the urge to unleash its own budget version of a ‘kitchen sink’ finale, as the last act presents a veritable torrent of enjoyably over-the-top pyrotechnic set-pieces and unlikely plot twists in a bid to hold its own with contemporary western fright flicks along the lines of Insidious or The Conjuring and its ilk. 

Nguyen’s screenplay admittedly does an impressive job, though, of outlining a very specific period in Vietnam’s history and making its content perfectly fit the well-defined contours of an utterly conventional ghost story cum Gothic Romance. The film’s nervous young orphaned heroine, Linh (Kate Nhung), arrives at the Sa-Chat estate on a suitably stormy night, looking for work as a housemaid after her family has been killed in air raids that wiped out most of her village. Austere head housekeeper Mrs Han (Kim Xuan) and an affable cook who claims also to be a witch (Phi Phung) are the only occupants of the otherwise-empty mansion, which is being preserved like a museum relic until the eventual return of its master -- currently away fighting communist guerrillas as an officer in the French army. Meanwhile brooding groundskeeper Mr Chau (Kien An) lives alone in one of the outer huts on the rubber plantation formerly used to house the French overseers who once made life a misery for the poor indigenous workers tricked into coming from all over the country to toil on the estate on the promise of good wages and a decent place to live. 

The estate’s dark history is defined by its troubling mixture of public exploitation and a very private, domestic form of grief: the imperialist cruelty and violence meted out to the plantation workers and their families – in the form of whippings, beatings and rapes – exists alongside the mental disintegration behind closed doors of the French estate manager’s tragic wife Madam Camille who, suffering from post-natal depression, reputably went mad with loneliness when her husband was called away to fight in the war: she drowned the couple’s baby in the bathtub but continued long after to administer to its rotting corpse in its crib, until finally drowning herself in a nearby lake. These macabre legacies of Empire (according to the kitchen cook, who tells Linh all about them) each leave their own imprint on the house and its surrounding grounds: Madam Camille’s black-shrouded ghost apparently haunts the hallways, staircases and recesses of the now-neglected mansion; while the spirits of the many hundreds of workers, murdered when the war for independence first broke out, allegedly now wander the forest of rubber trees under which their bones still lie buried in hidden mass graves.

The first act establishes Linh as a new and disruptive presence at the empty Sa-Chat estate -- with its grisly retinue of stirred up secrets and its still-uncertain future -- and falls into a pattern familiar to many traditional spook fests in which long, slow, moody sequences, where the young housemaid explores the mansion’s dark corridors by lamplight, are followed by the tension-release of a sudden jump scare. This is where the film is at its most Woman in Black-ish, with briefly glimpsed ghostly figures swishing into the frame, just beyond the protagonist’s eye-line as she wanders rooms and landings designed to showcase lush production design and set dressings highlighting a mix of Vietnamese and Western architectural and ornamental influences. These early forbidding explorations of Linh’s are also disturbed by the hollow, echoing, insistent cries of an unseen mewling baby, heard in some far-off, unidentifiable section of the house; and the inexplicable sight of a self-rocking crib, swathed in cobwebs, from which grabbing phantom hands suddenly emerge … only for Linh to wake with a fright from what turns out to have been merely a haunting nightmare. 

Such imagery is throughout complimented by Sam Chase’s rich and deeply textured cinematography, layering evocative details -- like the House of Usher-style family portraits lining the walls of Sa-Chat, or the estate's imported 1920s furnishings, both of which subliminally remind one of its rootedness in French imperialism -- in a blossoming mantle of atmospheric gloom and shadow seen enveloping the storm-lashed mansion. The estate's mix of east and west influences on its interior design can arguably be seen as a metaphor for the film itself, which has its own mosaic of influences that take on the history and unique geography of the regional setting and use them as the basis for an exercise in pure mainstream genre filmmaking that relies on story beats and filming techniques for its stylistic dressing that are indicative of the popular western forms of cinema its US-raised writer and director grew up on.

The middle section of the film is based around what happens when the estate’s French master, Captain Sebastien Laurent (Jean-Michel Richaud), turns up out of the blue, badly wounded after being ambushed by independence fighters, and in need of urgent medical assistance. He and his family have always insisted that local customs, such as the beliefs and practices of Eastern medicine, be ignored as a matter of principle and, in defence of that stand, Mrs Han forbids the witchcraft-practising cook from administering any of her potions and spells while they wait for a western doctor. However, when Han is called away to visit her sick mother, leaving Linh in charge, the young housemaid feels unable to resist when the Captain’s condition deteriorates to such an extent that death seems certain, and cook persuades her to let her try her own methods as a last resort. Here the film takes a detour away from the suggestive atmospherics of a traditional Gothic ghost story and into areas of more outright fantasy horror, as the cook’s ritualistic spell to accompany her remedies not only facilitates a miraculous recovery in the Captain, but appears also to raise the zombie-like cadaver of Madam Camille from its watery grave! 

This development (as well as the ensuing instances of poltergeist-style activity inside the mansion) at first suggest we are about to be given a straight up rollercoaster ride of spectacle-based horror, but instead the story slows down to become almost exclusively centred on a developing romantic relationship between Laurent and Linh. When the two remaining impediments to the couple embarking upon a full-blown romance – namely the cook and Mr Chu – leave for their annual holiday and hand the house and estate over to the sole care of Linh, she gradually goes from being nurse and carer for Laurent to becoming his lover, which eventually leads her to the role of mistress of the house. By the time a disconcerted Mrs Han and the others have returned, Linh has fully replaced Madam Camille in that role!

Here the film indulges in a minute examination of the shifting power dynamics at play in the relationship, making plain the exploitative aspects inherent to this historical context, and the social obstacles likely to crop up for the two lovers, which are looked at from both sides. When Laurent’s army colleagues visit the estate, they view Linh as almost subhuman; one of them even attempts to rape her – forcing Laurent to stop turning a blind eye to his countrymen’s abuses and put his cards on the table, renouncing his affiliates by kicking the group out in a fury. An even greater choice has to be made when Laurent’s English fiancée Madeline (Rosie Fellner) turns up wishing to resume their broken alliance, which leads to the melodrama of a bitter love rivalry that cuts across both class and racial barriers. 

But other class-related complications occur for Linh, too, when her employer Mrs Han returns, only to find that it is she now who has become the employee, while her former housemaid is now the mistress of the estate and her boss. Both Laurent and Linh have to face the accusation from their respective social peers that they have become “the enemy”, with Linh also having to confront the same predicament as that which once faced her predecessor, when she falls pregnant just as Laurent is about to be called away again to fight. There’s some justification to accusations that the apparent departure from straight ghost story and more upfront horror content for large stretches of the middle section of the film results in a slowness of pace, but the issue of the threat that the relationship poses to Linh’s cultural identity and the questioning of her suitability and authenticity in the role she has been called upon to assume at Sa-Chat is eventually explored through a possession subplot kicked off when Laurent opens up his former wife’s wardrobe to Linh in order to help her look more comfortably the part in her new high-status role.

There is eventually a huge twist to come that makes use of unreliable narrator tricks that are based on an ambiguity that's inherent to the status of the point of view from which we’ve been following these entire events; and the final act turns into something of an Evil Dead styled supernatural bloodbath, as bodies start piling up at the hand of the revenant Madam Camille, while the rotting corpses of the dead also rise up from their plantation ossuary in scenes highly suggestive of similar ones that were depicted in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh-Eaters. Scary pay-offs such as these ensure the film eventually delivers on its early promise, but it will be the fans of more traditional gothic fare who will be most likely to appreciate the thoughtful ruminations that lie at its heart, on the possibilities (or lack thereof) of rapprochement after colonial rule and the privations of war. This is an accomplished feature debut, with strongly committed performances from the small but convincing cast. It’s well worth a watch and is currently available in the UK on the Montage Pictures label, a sub-division of Eureka Entertainment, in a dual format double-disc edition with no extras.