Snowpiercer (2013) review

Snowpiercer posterDirector: Bong Joon-ho

Starring: Chris Evans, Song Kang-ho, Tilda Swanton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner

“Order is the barrier that holds back the flood of death. We must all of us on this train of life remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.

“Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is.” (Mason, Snowpiercer)

If I had a penny for every ‘the end of the world has come and only a small number of survivors remain’ film I’d seen, I’d have about 16p to my name.

Snowpiercer takes that tired plot device, makes things interesting by sticking everyone on a train, then asks “how much would you fucking have now, Chris?”

The answer, of course, is 17p. Regardless, my point is that Snowpiercer puts a new twist on an overused idea and succeeds for the most part. Continue reading “Snowpiercer (2013) review”

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Confessions (2010) review

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima

Starring: Takako Matsu, Kaoru Fujiwara, Yukito Nishii, Ai Hashimoto

“Ms. Moriguchi… there is something wrong with this class.” (Mizuki, Confessions)

My good chum and work colleague Tamoor gave me a Blu-ray yesterday and told me: “Watch this, it’ll be perfect for your site.” I got home and gave it a watch. 100 minutes later I was on Amazon ordering a copy for myself, because Confessions is one of the best films I’ve seen in years.

Yuko Moriguchi is a teacher in charge of a class of 13-year-olds, but she’s decided to pack it in. She’s got good reason to, mind you – her young daughter has died and she knows that the two people responsible for it are two of her pupils.

Yuko’s revenge plot is bloody horrible. And once you’ve seen the film you’ll see what I did there

Rather than tell the police and send the two young killers through what she believes is a far too lenient youth justice system, she decides to plot her own revenge, a revenge that – once you learn the true story of what happened to her daughter – will have you questioning whether she’s gone too far.

The first half-hour of Confessions is perhaps the most engrossing that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s essentially one long monologue delivered by Yuko to her students, explaining to them what happened, how she discovered the identities of the killers, and her method of punishment. To say too much would be to spoil a film that really has to be seen with very little knowledge about the plot.  Continue reading “Confessions (2010) review”

Ringu (1998)

Director: Hideo Nakata

Starring: Matsushima Nanako, Sanada Hiroyuki, Nakatani Miki, Sato Himoti

“Frolic in brine, golbins be thine.” (proverb, Ringu)

Rumour has it that a dodgy video tape exists, one that’s even more dangerous to have in your video library than Jesus Christ: Serial Rapist. If you watch this mythical tape, you’ll be treated to five minutes of weird and creepy imagery – people crawling backwards out of the sea, moving mirrors, worms and the like – then a shot of a well in a field, ending with static.

When the tape ends the viewer gets a phone call immediately afterwards, telling them that they’ll die in seven days. Sure enough, a week later they die in a gruesome, mysterious manner. I know what you’re thinking – Blockbuster’s late return policy is getting a bit overdramatic – but the tape has actually been cursed. At least, that’s what ‘they’ say. And you know what they’re like. If you’re curious and you want to see it for yourself, here’s a YouTube link to it – but of course, you may die a week later. It’s your risk.

The Vanessa Feltz sex tape had something of a mixed response

Cynical journalist Asakawa doesn’t believe in the curse, so after her niece and her friends all die with horrific expressions on their faces a week after watching the tape she decides to investigate to find out what’s really going on.

Ringu was the film that mainly kick-started western audiences’ obsession with Asian horror, an obsession that continued with the likes of The Eye, Dark Water, The Grudge, Pulse and Shutter. It, and the other films listed, proved that big budgets and fancy CGI weren’t necessary to create a terrifying experience (of course, all the above films were later remade in the US, complete with big budgets and fancy CGI). While constant jump scenes and slasher stalking sequences saturated western horror throughout the 90s, Ringu was a quiet, atmospheric, slow-burning Yin to our typical balls-to-the-wall Yang.

This was the most engrossing episode of You've Been Framed they'd ever seen

This continues throughout the film, its key scenes messing with the viewer’s mind rather than their reflexes. When Asakawa gets hold of her niece’s photos and sees that her face and those of all her friends have been blurred – a scene reminiscent of The Omen – this simple effect, which must have taken twenty seconds in Photoshop, is truly chilling. It’s far more effective than any ‘boo’ scare (don’t worry though, ‘boo’ scare fans, there’s one in there near the start).

A group of Glasgow Rangers supporters show off their holiday snaps

Looking back, it’s likely that some of the love gushed towards Ringu at the time was mainly because horror in the west at that point was at a low point and Ringu was the first big example of how it could be done in Asia. Looking at it more than a decade later, with Asian horror very much a common part of many filmgoers’ diet, it’s easier to see Ringu for what it is – a film that, while undeniably atmospheric and chilling, could probably be told as a 45-minute TV drama. While the slow pace manages to stretch it out to 90 minutes, it may be a bit too plodding for some especially given the ‘scare them every five minutes’ strategy used by the likes of The Grudge and The Eye.

Still, perhaps that’s a little unfair, since that was never the sort of film Ringu was trying to be. As long as you don’t mind a slow burner this still tells a gripping story and the famous twist ending – assuming nobody’s spoiled it for you, and I’m deliberately not showing it in the screens for a reason – will knock you on your arse. Just bear in mind its pace isn’t for everyone.

WHERE CAN I GET IT?
If you live in the UK you can buy the Ringu DVD relatively cheap here or get it in a box set with Ringu 2 and Ringu O here. I’d recommend the box set if you can afford it because the first film doesn’t suffer from the dodgy white-on-white subtitles that the single DVD does. If you live in the US, you can get the single DVD here and get the box set here.

The Ring Virus (1999)

Director: Dong-Bin Kim

Starring: Eun-Kyung Shin, Doonah Bae

“The time has passed! We are winner the game!” (Choi, The Ring Virus)

You’re probably aware of The Ring, the American remake of the Japanese blockbuster Ringu, but before that Korea had a crack at it with The Ring Virus, a film that is interesting if a little disappointing.

The plot is similar to that of the original version of the film. A female journalist decides to investigate the deaths of four teenagers who mysteriously died at the same time. It emerges that they all watched a strange video tape exactly seven days before their deaths. Intrigued, the journalist watches the tape (as does her ex-lover and her daughter) and thus begins a race against time to solve the tape’s hidden secret.

Obviously being a Korean film the character names have changed. Female Journalist Reiko Asakawa/Rachel Keller is now Sun-ju, her ex-husband Ryuji/Noah is now Choi Yeol and the creepy Sadako/Samara has been renamed Eun-suh. Replace the annoying too-smart-for-his-own-good son with an annoying too-smart-for-her-own-good daughter and your Korean remake is complete.

Bob wasn't a fan of Vanessa Feltz's Playboy photoshoot.

The whole film gives off a strangely calm vibe, as if your death at the end of your seven-day deadline isn’t actually that bad. Whereas Ringu/The Ring had corpses with faces displaying either sheer terror or grotesquely warped features, the dead folk in The Ring Virus seem to just sit there bored.

The characters are also ultimately unlikeable. In Ringu, Ryuji (the main male character) doubted the existence of the tape but took little persuasion to be convinced, and in The Ring, Noah didn’t believe it until he saw himself smudged in a security camera, The Ring Virus has Choi Yeol, the most annoying prick in the history of film. I don’t care if he is the hero male, I will never like this man.

A trick like this will make you the life and soul of any party.

The Korean version of the cursed tape looks like shit (however the accompanying sound effects are excellent, much better than the “bees” sound from the Ringu tape and the sound of Samara singing in the US remake tape. It also stays faithful to the book by providing a message at the end that says “if you watch this tape, seven days later you will die. To prevent the curse you must…” with the end taped over by a TV programme. While that happened in the book, the Japanese and US film versions left it out.

The ending of the Japanese film is also intact, and is actually handled slightly better until the bit where the ghost shows the “eye”. You know that trick where someone turns their eyelid inside out? That’s all they’ve really done here. It really isn’t horrific in anyway and instead of being a great ending to a interesting film it ends up as a weak ending to a boring film that’s badly acted on top of it.

"Don't worry, I'm sure they'll make another Alvin & The Chipmunks film".

Basically, the whole film lacks emotion. Even as the final famous death takes place, the victim does not look scared for his life. Instead, he seems somewhat bored with the whole thing and is probably imagining what his next TV or movie role will be (and judging by the quality of his acting throughout, he’d be lucky to star in a tampon commercial).

In all, The Ring Virus is an adequate and by-the-books attempt at adapting the Ringu storyline, but when you have a book and two films out there that do the same job infinitely better, this really isn’t worth wasting your time with. It’s worth a watch if you’re interested in seeing a different take on the source material, but of the three versions of The Ring this is by far the weakest.

The Eye (2002)

Directors: Oxide & Danny Pang

Starring: Angelica Lee, Lawrence Chou

“Why are you sitting in my chair?” (mental scary ghost, The Eye)

Poor old Mun, she’s blind as a fucking bat. Her luck soon changes though when she’s given a cornea transplant, finally allowing her to see the world. Problem is, she’s seeing it through the eyes of some psycho bint who claimed she could see ghosts, then hung herself because nobody liked her. Cue a lot of scary set-pieces as Mun tries to figure out exactly what’s going on and learn a bit more about the nutter whose eyes she’s been lumbered with while being mercilessly abused by numerous ghosts.

Forget an eye transplant, it’s a new arsehole you’ll be wanting after you’ve seen this. There are a number of memorable scenes in this film that are so pant-crappingly creepy I couldn’t even begin to describe without thinking about them and instinctively tightening the old bumcheeks. And even if I could describe them safely without fear, I wouldn’t dare for fear of wasting the surprise. Needless to say, if you’ve already seen the film, all I need to do is give a list of words and each one should send a chill down your spine.

Elevator. Meat. Calligraphy. Report Card. And, if you’re perceptive and noticed it, train.

Similarly, a number of sentences that would sound normal under any other circumstances now have different connotations after seeing The Eye. Nobody can say to me “I’m freezing” or “why are you sitting in my chair” any more without me going crazy and wildly swinging a stool at them. Let’s not beat about the bush – assuming you’re using the correct horror-viewing formula of “no lights + maximum sound”, The Eye is one extremely scary film.

It’s got quite a few jumpy moments, two of which happen before the film even starts (the intro burns out as if the projector has broken, then there’s a loud bang and you see a faceless version of the heroine. Then there’s a loud scream and an evil red face booms onto the screen followed by the warning “SIT TIGHT”). The majority of the frights, however, take place in the first half of the film. Once Mun realises what’s going on, the rest of the film becomes more of a mystery story as she and the hapless geek Dr Wah run all over Asia trying to find out about her eye donor. This is a shame because it’s this second half where the film starts to fall apart a little. The final fifteen minutes then try to go more for a big action-packed finale, but it doesn’t really suit the mood of the film.

Mere seconds later in this scene something happens that makes you shit yourself.

That aside, The Eye contains one of the scariest scenes I’ve seen in a very long time. Many people reviewing this film online have referred to the now famous elevator scene, which is certainly very tense, but by far the scariest scene, especially when watched at a deafening volume with the lights out as I first watched it, is the scene in which Mun, having recently regained her sight, takes a calligraphy lesson to learn how to write properly. I won’t say any more about it but needless to say, I have not been terrified like that for quite some time.

Do not, under any circumstances, go into a lift if you see this chap.

The soundtrack is a bit of a mixed bag, because there are some moments when it’s absolutely terrible (such as the scene where Dr Wah thinks Mun’s sister is hitting on her), but whenever a ghost turns up and the tension builds there’s a little musical sting which also builds in tension and volume as the ghost approaches (check out the scene with the woman and child ghost entering the restaurant with the meat to see what I mean… as she approaches, the music swells). So while the music is great at some points, it’s ridiculously cheesy and shite at others.

By far the cleverest thing about The Eye however is its biggest secret, something that the film doesn’t even address. There are actually ghosts hidden throughout the film. Some of them are pretty obvious as they’re part of the plot (the woman in the hospital, the calligraphy ghost etc), but others you won’t see unless you look for them. They’re tucked away in the background and you may only acknowledge them on a subliminal level.

Awww, here's a lovely scene in WAIT A FUCKING MINUTE WHAT'S THAT FACE IN THE WINDOW

Perhaps the most effective example of this, and one that will send a shiver down your fucking SOUL should you happen to spot it unexpectedly like I did, is during the scene where Mun and Dr Wah are sitting on a train (the scene where Mun looks at the photo of her and Ying Ying). When the train enters a tunnel the face of a ghost can be seen in the window.

Since the ghost isn’t mentioned again and there isn’t a big deal made about it, it’s perhaps the most chilling moment of the film for me. It’s particularly effective when you watch the film with a group of friends and they didn’t notice it. Just rewind the film after you’ve watched it and freak the shite out of them.

The Eye is a great film that I’d thoroughly recommended. While the final act fails to live up to the rest of the film, the use of some terrifying scare scenes, a lot of good ghost appearances and a plot that can actually be followed (something that is often lost in translation with Asian films) make for an excellent fright flick that you really should see now.

Battle Royale II: Requiem (2003)

Directors: Kinji Fukasaku, Kenta Fukasaku

Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Ai Maeda, Riki Takeuchi

“The thing people fear most isn’t dying, it’s being forgotten.” (Kitano, Battle Royale II)

I went into Battle Royale II desperately worried that I wouldn’t like it. All I’d heard from the (limited) number of reviews from the lucky people who had seen it at film festivals and the like was that it was a terrible film that embarrassed the honour of the original. As I love the original film to death, therefore, a shit sequel would have devastated me. As it was however, there was no need to worry: while it’ll never be as good as the original, Battle Royale II is an enjoyable film from start to finish.

Set three years after the first movie, the survivor (I won’t spoil who it is in case you haven’t seen it) has set up the terrorist group Wild Seven, in an attempt to bring down the adults of Japan. Wanted for a large-scale terrorist attack (suspiciously reminiscent of September 11) in which two towers in Japan are blown up, the Wild Seven terrorist group escape and take refuge in an offshore island. The Japanese government quickly passes the “Battle Royale II” Act, and another class of ninth graders is randomly selected to take part. This time the rules are different: instead of killing each other, the class of 42 must travel to the island where Wild Seven are hiding and kill the previous survivor. Once he dies, the game is over.

I was glad that they kept a number of key qualities and properties from the first film that made it so appealing: the dramatic orchestral soundtrack, the innocence of the children, the evil teacher that explains the rules while killing some slackers at the start to show it’s not a game, and the famous death count (the message at the bottom that comes up after a death saying, for example, “Boy #7 Yoshitoki Kuninobu dead. 41 to go”).

Instead of taking away many of the original’s qualities then, Battle Royale II instead builds on them with new rules. The boys are now paired with their correspondingly-numbered female classmates on the class register, and their explosive collars are linked. So if Boy #1 (Aoi Takuma) dies, Girl #1 (Asakura Nao) will find her collar is beeping. After 30 seconds or so it will explode, as in the first film, and you can forget all about her. This also happens when partners stray 50 metres from each other so if you and your partner don’t stick together you’ll be sticking to the walls instead.

This addition to the rules is cleverer than you would initially think. Not only does it allow for spectacular set pieces and forced teamwork, it also kills the “nameless” characters twice as quickly, leaving us with the important ones earlier on in the film, therefore giving us more time to relate to them and find out more about their personalities. While the original film had a wide variety of interesting characters, most of the pupils in the sequel are fairly generic so their quick removal is no big loss.

Despite the similarities to the original however this is a very different film, which becomes clear about 25 minutes in when the pupils storm an island on a boat Omaha Beach style, at which point 12 of them are killed in one go. There’s no methodical one-at-a-time chipping away of the pupil list here, and by about the half-way point of the film the whole concept of the Battle Royale game has been practically abandoned and it becomes more of a war movie with the students teaming up with the Wild Seven terrorist group and swarms of adult special forces soldiers coming in and getting gunned down in huge numbers. The whole second half therefore has a feel very different from that of the original film, and though it may not be to everyone’s tastes, it cannot be denied that Battle Royale II is far more action-packed than its predecessor.

Many were worried by the death of director Fukasaku shortly after production began and the decision to hand the rest of the film over to his inexperienced son. However, much as I hate to say it (because I respected Fukasaku’s work) this film blows the original out of the water in terms of visual style and camera work. The battle scenes are fantastic, with the erratic camera movements perfectly conveying the unpredictability and confusion of war. These scenes have a gritty, almost documentary-like feeling to the action, making it much easier to believe the students’ fear.

It even outdoes the original in the ‘mental school teacher’ role, thanks to Takeuchi Riki and his over-the-top performance. In any other film this guy would be considered ridiculous (see Takashi Miike’s gangster film Dead Or Alive, in which he pulls a gem out of his chest and causes the world to explode, to see what I mean), but in this he seems suited to the role as a teacher gone mad. Add to that cameo appearances from Takeshi Kitano (the original teacher), the girl who played Noriko from the first film and even the little smiley girl with the doll from the original and you’ve got a fantastic film for fans and Battle Royale virgins alike.

I warn you though that, from what I can tell by online opinion, I’m very much in the minority when it comes to this sequel. Many others think this is a dismal film and a rubbish follow-up to a classic original. Whether that’s because they were expecting more of the same or it just didn’t click with them isn’t known, but it’s worth bearing in mind that just because I like it doesn’t mean it’s any good. I do like some proper shite, after all. All I’m saying is watch it, but don’t spend a lot of money to do so.

(Note: the trailer below spoils who survived in the original film)

Battle Royale (2000)

Director: Kinji Fukusaku

Starring: Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Takeshi Kitano, Chiaki Kuriyama

“There’s a way out of this game. Kill yourselves together, here, now. If you can’t do that, then don’t trust anyone. Just run.” (Kawada, Battle Royale)

Teenagers are pricks. That’s what Japan thinks in Battle Royale, and that’s why the film starts with the passing of the Millennium Educational Reform Act. A tricky piece of legislature, it basically sees one class of fifteen year-old pupils (chosen by random lottery) being taken to a remote island each year and made to kill each other. And to think we Brits rioted over tuition fees.

This year it’s the turn of Nanahara Shuya’s class, so as he and the rest of his unwitting fellow students set off on what they think is a class trip they don’t realise the bus is actually heading to Clusterfuck Island (which is unfortunately my name for it, not the film’s). Naturally, they’re a bit shocked to find out they’re all marked for death, and are equally surprised when their old school teacher, Kitano (of Takeshi’s Castle and a million other Japanese films fame) turns up to tell them the rules.

Kitano essentially tells the pupils that because the nation’s teenagers are arseholes they’re being taught a lesson. Each kid will be given a bag with supplies and a random weapon. It could be something really handy (like a crossbow or an Uzi) or it could be a load of pish (a frying pan, which might as well just be a shovel so they can dig their own grave in advance). They have to kill each other until one child remains, at which point that child will get to go back home.

The natural reaction in a situation like this would be to think of ways to get out of having to kill your mates, so Kitano goes on to explain (via an incredibly darkly comic instructional video) that they can’t pull a fast one because of the steel collars around their necks. These collars track the students and monitor their pulse rates (so the organisers can tell if they’re dead). More importantly though, they’re also armed with powerful explosives which can be triggered at any time causing the wearer’s neck to explode, killing them.

These collars are a genius plot device because they explain away all the “what if they do this” questions with the simple answer “their neck will explode”. What if they try to remove the collar? Their neck will explode. What if they try to leave the island? The collar’s tracking them, so their neck will explode. What if everyone decides to call a truce and spend the rest of their lives on the island? Bit pointless, because the game has a time limit of three days, after which point everyone’s neck will explode. Basically, they can’t get out of it.

Considering Battle Royale has the difficult task of introducing a huge cast of 42 characters and trying to make them all interesting, it actually does a very good job of this. While some pupils only get a few seconds of screen time or are already found dead, the vast majority (even the bit-part characters) still feel like individual characters with their own personalities, which keeps things interesting as each pupil tries to play the game their own way.

The classroom slut uses her sexuality to seducing male pupils until they drop their guards and she can kill them, while deep down she just wants attention. The loving couple decide they can’t take it and jump off a cliff hand-in-hand. The virgin, in an act of desperation, threatens to rape the athletic girl (played by Chiyaki Kuriyama who later played GoGo in Kill Bill), but gets what he deserves. The shy girls try to call a truce but only draw attention to themselves from the more dangerous pupils. The geeks try to hack the military network to bring the system down. The constant sideplots and different methods make the film immensely engaging and while you think you know who’s going to survive at the end, you’re never really sure until the film’s conclusion.

Everything about Battle Royale oozes class. The music is a powerful mix of classical music and dramatic “DA DA DA DUM” stings when something shocking happens. The occasional appearances by Kitano keep a vein of dark humour flowing throughout the film. The death scenes are realistic enough to shock, but not too gory to disgust. And the ending, while a little ludicrous (featuring one of the oddest death scenes you’ll ever see), is still fitting.

Battle Royale is a film you really should see. It makes you consider an interesting question (could you kill all your friends if it was the only way to stay alive?) and is handled with a surprising degree of tact given the subject matter. If you’ve never seen it before, watch the trailer below and try to tell me it doesn’t look like a powerful movie.

Rasen (1998)

Director: Joji Iida

Starring: Koichi Sato, Miki Nakatani, Hinao Saeki, Hiroyuki Sanada

Also known as: The Spiral (UK)

“You can’t even slit your own wrist. How are you supposed to perform an autopsy on me?” (Ryuji, Rasen)

(Spoilers for Ringu below)

While both the Japanese and American versions of The Ring and its sequels were big successes among horror fans, Rasen became the black sheep in the series. The sequel to Ringu, both films were oddly released on the same day because the story was already well-known in Japan (imagine they’d released the first two Harry Potter films on the same day: this was the Japanese equivalent). Ringu became a huge worldwide success while Rasen died on its arse and was forgotten about, to the extent that a different sequel to Ringu (Ringu 2) was released a year later.

Rasen takes place immediately after the events of Ringu. Pathologist Dr Ando has been assigned the task of performing an autopsy on his friend Ryuji to determine the cause of his death. After finding a message on a piece of paper secreted in Ryuji’s stomach he soon uncovers the mystery of Sadako Yamamura’s curse tape which kills people seven days after they view it. However, after watching the tape, it soon becomes clear to Ando that Sadako has other plans for him. Joining up with Takano Mai (Ryuji’s student girlfriend in the first film), Ando tries to solve the tape’s riddle.

"My jacket zip was caught on something, so I just yanked it down. Last time I do that"

Despite the critical blasting Rasen has received, I didn’t think it was too bad. It certainly goes in a different direction from Ringu, with Sadako having plenty of screen time and having chats at times with some of the characters. She even has a sex scene, so that should give you some idea as to how her character has changed. Anyone expecting another chilling Japanese horror film will be bitterly disappointed with Rasen, and I think this is why it has received the unfair treatment it has.

Granted, it’s no Citizen Kane, but it’s a nice little film that gives an alternative progression of the events after Ringu. It was good to see Sanada returning as Ryuji, even if it was only for the occasional flashback or dream sequence. I suppose you can only do so much with a corpse.

One thing potentially troublesome about the film however is that the classic ending to Ringu is practically forgotten about. The conclusion is made at one point that the tape transmits a strange smallpox virus to the watcher, which takes seven days to kill you. This is emphasised by a number of characters throughout the film coughing and getting rashes on the backs of their necks. It’s somewhat strange that this never happened in the first film, though it’s probably a good thing because we’d have missed out on that classic TV-crawling scene.

Also odd is the ending. Perhaps it loses something in the translation, but I was left confused and ultimately having to come to my own conclusions as to its meaning. Although it is sometimes not a bad thing for a film to have an ambiguous ending (Donnie Darko springs to mind), this is not the case for all films and in Rasen it just felt bewildering.

Still, despite this it’s probably one to see if you’re a fan of the Ring cycle, if only to see what Ringu 2 could have been had this received more praise when it was released.