Thursday, June 28, 2012

Review: Shion Sono Double Feature

Disclaimer: Previously I have been clear or not if a review will contain spoilers or not. Some do, some don't. This double feature I would like to place this warning that I will be giving away a lot of details to their stories. This is because these films go together even though Noriko's Dinner Table isn't called Suicide Club 2 (Thank the Lord). So there will comparisons and contrasts, and I want to talk about my personal feelings and reactions to elements from these films. These are great films with a unique experience so going in as a blank slate is recommended but not required. With that said read ahead if you wish, otherwise you can't say I didn't warn you.

*Feature 1: Suicide Club

My Edition: Standard definition, fully uncut edition running at 99 minutes and presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

History: An original story written and directed by Shion Sono. It was produced independently on a budget of roughly $250,000. The basis for the film is Japan's incredibly high suicide rate and the film served as social commentary on the subject. It was a huge commercial hit in Japan and also played at many film festivals where it received similar praise. At the Fant-Asia Film Festival it won an award for being the Most Groundbreaking Film. For it's international releases it was renamed Suicide Club for cultural reasons.

Personal History: I got this film as part of a box set I ordered that also came with 2LDK (An awesome dueling flick!) and Moon Child (A not so good vampire movie, I don't have it anymore). I saw it once when I first got it and then this was my second viewing.

Review: Everyone has their key film they always remember whether they like it or not. Chances are this film left a mark on them in some way. I think it's obvious most people remember the ones that bring them joy. A lit of favorites that never get old (I've got to review UHF one of these days) but some people have their key film that left a scar. One common title I've heard over the years is A Clockwork Orange which makes sense to the squeamish. Usually it's because of a harshly dark tone, extreme content, hell maybe even too gross of humor. I certainly have a long list of films like this because I tend to be interested in films that push the envelope or are taboo, a topic I am currently working on doing a Second Disc episode on since it's one of my favorite film topics. It's strange that I would throw myself into films since they have a strong effect on most people who watch them. I would say I do it because it gives off the same thrill as going into most horror films. People enjoy the shock and scare for the excitement of it. I'm also interested in seeing the new directions film may go to. These directions are not always going to translate into mainstream cinema (i.e. un-simulated sex scenes as opposed to simulated) whereas others will (The gore in 40 year old horror films which were once considered horrific now look silly compared to modern, R-rated horror). I wouldn't say Suicide Club did a lot that translated into mainstream cinema. What it did makes it unique and worthwhile instead of being a film that is similar to a later film that copied it.

I think it's safe to say that this film is not for everyone entirely based on the title. This film has a TON of on screen suicides. I mean A LOT of them. This has more on screen suicides than kills in some slasher films. It gets that crazy. I knew right off the bat this one would be a challenge to get through. Suicide is something not seen in films a lot. Usually when it is it's very tense and emotional involving a main character. Nothing else is quite like this film. In one sense it's a slasher film where the kills are all suicides. It's much more disturbing than typical slashers, though. I should really backtrack because I can't call this a slasher. It's even a little difficult calling it a horror film. Hard to explain, I'll try my best to. The reason why I initially knew it would be tough to get through this one is because of the form of death chosen for the film. Suicide is terribly sad. Okay, death in general is sad but suicide is especially sad. An individual decides for whatever reason to just end their life. Not only is it them who faces their fate in death but it takes a hit on everyone around them as well. Whether you're their parent, spouse, family, friend, or had a crush on said person, when they decide to go the suicide route it's horribly sad. So the fact that this film is based entirely around suicides made it all the more disturbing. Throwing suicide into a film doesn't automatically make it super sad or disturbing, it's the execution as well, as one would expect.

Speaking of execution, I want to get some of my criticisms out of the way to focus on better points of the films. As I stated in the history section of the film this was done on the mega cheap. It was independently put together followed up by taking the film fest route. Usually when a cheap budget is combined with wild stunts the outcome isn't the best. There are certainly plenty of moments when a better effects budget would have helped this film out. I can think of a few deaths that looked pretty poor if not comical. These deaths involved the suicide being jumps off the side of buildings. In one shot we see the body falling, then SPLAT with a blood splatter than would make most American audiences think of the famous yellow jumpsuit sword fighting scene from the first Kill Bill. It does not flow well. I wasn't too worried about realism with this one. I just feel like the approach to it could have been done much better. But again, with realism, I knew anything was possible in a film that had an introduction where 54 high school girls all throw themselves in front of a train and it literally rains blood after they're torn apart. It really takes the viewer out of the experience with the way it's executed. Again I really shouldn't complain too much since it was done independently. I've got to say it's pretty ambitious to take on something as huge as this film gets on such a small budget. It's not without it's flaws of course. And going back to the 54 high school girls... 54? I realize this film is about a stream of unstoppable suicides but... 54? This is how the film starts. Even in a film of this nature it feels awfully excessive. Usually the theme of Asian horror is in it's subtlety but this one took subtlety and switched it with a punch to the face, as if to say "STRAP IN BITCH! YOU'RE IN FOR A WILD RIDE!"

Okay, okay, okay. Yes this film is far from perfect. Out of all of Shion Sono's films I have seen so far this one I had not enjoyed as much as most of his other films. I did leave this one with a very unique reaction the first time around. I found myself haunted by this film. It was a slow burn before it got to the haunting, though. The first scene when the 54 high school girls all collectively throw themselves in front of a train is haunting in thought but not quite execution. Again any time someone simply decides to end their life it feels so sad. Especially when they're full of cheer right before/as they're doing it. Seeing as how I keep on mentioning it I figured I'll show it to you. I have found on youtube the intro to this film. I think it goes without saying view at your own risk:

After that very explosive intro I was fascinated with where the film would possibly go. The first subplot that briefly comes into play right after this is about a couple of nurses and a security guard that all tend to a hospital/clinic (never made fully clear) during the night shift. One of the nurses leaves to grab some food only to take an incredibly long time to get back, causing worry. In the meantime the other nurse mysteriously vanishes. The room she was last seen in has the window open (Wonder what she did?). Eventually the other nurse returns explaining that the nearest shop was closed so she had to go around town to find a different one that was open so late at night. To make a long story short it is heavily implied both of the nurses eventually commit suicide that night but don't show the actual suicides. First impressions on my first viewing were not great. The explosive beginning gave the impression that the film was going to be pretty gory and here we are only minutes later without really showing anything. On top of that it was using cheap tricks as attempts at scares. Cheap tricks like dramatically turning off all the lights. It just didn't flow with the beginning with what was set up. Upon my second viewing after living through night shift (only at a hotel not a clinic) I could feel the sense of fear or minor terror at what's hiding in the night. Being all alone in the middle of the night in the dark, even if that dark is only outside and all the lights inside are on it can be creepy. But I kept wondering where this was going. It felt so cheap, even a bit lame. Okay, maybe not lame. A better word would be disappointing. Things pick up when the investigation starts. One of the most unique aspects to this mystery that they address is how what they're doing aren't technically speaking crimes. Still not cool, but not exactly crimes. It's not homicide.... or is it? A theme that comes up a few times in the investigation is how there's a white bag left at the scene of the suicides. These bags contain a series of stitched together chunks of skin in one long line and rolled up like scotch tape. They figure out there are skins from many different people, possibly connecting them with the mass suicides. This is easily the turning point when things go way creepy and only get creepier. Simply an image of this rolled up bath of skin makes your own skin crawl... take a look.

For me personally there are three key moments in this film that hit me as deep as horror may go. The first is a scene on the roof of a high school. It's what appears to be lunch time or at least a break in the action of the school day. There's a circle of friends who start talking about all the suicides going on. Now I imagine a good deal of those reading this may have for a joking manner talked about "yeah we should totally do that!" but never really meant it or at least not on a serious enough level where you would actually go through with it. Out of nowhere one of the teens yells "we should all kill ourselves!" followed up by cheers with the usual sigh and disgust from one student who clearly thinks it's all stupid in that childish way. They all line up one by one on the edge of the roof continuing to yell "Suicide! Suicide!" it's really disturbing since it's handled so... lightly, almost. As soon as the students begin to fall it takes a far more serious turn on the scene, yet there's still that disturbing nature of the scene lingering. The next scene that gets to me, probably the most, is what I call the suicide montage. It's a slightly slow buildup all leading to kill after kill some of which are in odd situations. What I found the most unsettling about this scene is the context in which most of the suicides happen. There are a couple one would expect to see, a girl sitting next to an over preparing to shove her head in. The other ones are a bit more odd. In a way it's as if these people just up and decided they were gonna kill themselves because they felt like it. One of them happens right in front of a crowd during a comedy show. The other, which I found the most unsettling, was when a mother does it right in front of her own 5-6 year old daughter. The daughter tells her dad she wants a treat so he tells her to ask her mother who is in the kitchen. She goes to ask the mother who is cutting up some veggies. The mother essentially ignores her child as the knife continues to chop up the veggie and onto her hand cutting off her fingers with blood pouring everywhere. Not understanding what's going on exactly the daughter runs bacl to her father in the other room and says to her dad, "Mom is acting weird." The whole montage is accompanied by upbeat music by the fictional band Dessert who is featured in this story. Overall I find this scene the hardest to watch with it's conflicting tones and disturbing nature of the scene. The third of these key scenes isn't as intense but still haunting. To be brief it involves a bad guy stomping a small dog to death while it's stuffed inside a sack.

As you can tell by my frequent use of the word I find this film to be very disturbing. A lot of that I believe comes from it's untraditional style of killing off it's victims. This film is really rough to get through on the first viewing. Since this viewing was only my second I felt a different reaction. Understandably the first time around I had no idea what would happen next. I was not expecting a lot of what happened so it was freaky. Coming from the mouth of someone who adores and immerses himself in horror to have a horror film actually freak himself for once is saying something. This time around it wasn't as intense. I think I even built up my memory of it over the time since I last saw it, making it even freakier than it may have actually been the first time around. A second viewing does a lot of good for finding a lot that wasn't noticeable the first time around. Sadly not all these things were good. I actually this time around found the film to be very confusing. Keep in mind this film is less than 100 minutes long. It is incredible how much was crammed into such a short time span. There were far too many characters and side stories going on all at once for such a short film. It really deserved an additional 30-45 minutes at the very least if it wanted to cram in everything it did. Because of this cramming not many if any of the characters were properly fleshed out. The original cut of the film ran at just over two hours and in the trailer there's a shot from one of those cut scenes. However this was partially an expansion on an affair two characters were having. Characters that didn't need an expansion on their story by the way. Not like some of the more key characters could have used. Also just when it seems like everything was wrapped up another twist was thrown our direction. I do like twists! That's for sure. However this only added onto the pile of confusing elements giving us more questions that weren't answered. This is why there was both a book and a sequel... but more on that in just a bit.

Despite it's flaws and disturbing nature this film is vastly entertaining. I was more immersed into this film than others I've watched recently, even films I hadn't seen before. Much like another great film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, when it's over it doesn't feel like it should be over. It's a 90+ minute film that feels like 45 minutes. I didn't want it to be over when it was over. I would have gladly sat through a version of this that lasted over two hours. I wish it were that way. Good thing there sort of is in the form of a sequel...

*Feature 2: Noriko's Dinner Table

My Edition: Standard definition DVD running uncut at 159 minutes and presented in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.

History: An original story written and directed by Shion Sono based on the novel Suicide Circle: The Complete Edition which he also wrote. This is the sequel to Suicide Club but the story takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film in an effort to answer questions not answered. The film was released on September 23rd 2006. While not as big of a success as the film that came before it, it still gained a good amount of recognition including winning an award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Replublic. Yet another sequel was planned but is yet to be produced.

Personal History: I saw this once before shortly after seeing Suicide Club. This is my first viewing since. While I've owned Suicide Club for some time now this is a more recent addition to my collection.

Review: Right off the bat I know this sequel is different than most because it doesn't follow it's title with the number 2. This was in fact something the Shion Sono intended to make right from the beginning as as I stated in the history section of this one it's based on a book he wrote that expanded and added to the Suicide Club story. I really wish there was an English translation of the book so I could read it. I will sooner wait for that than try and learn Japanese first. That language is tough. Don't know if I have what it takes to go that far. So as with a few other reviews I've done so far I have not read the source material. After watching this film I felt like I had just read a novel. The film is far from short. Running in at just over 2 1/2 hours it is a lot of movie, just about an hour longer than the film it's a sequel to. I don't mean that comment in a harsh way either. It's a compliment to the way it's put together. The title alone makes it feel novel-like. How often do you see the sequel to a novel called "insert name here 2?" Not very often. They're creative in how they put it together. The author gives it a new title because it's a new story that uses the original as a jumping off point. That's what I like so much from this story right from the beginning. It feels like I'm watching a well put together book. This is also assisted with the use of dividing the film up into chapters which were utilized quite well! I immediately think to another film that split itself up a similar way, Melancholia. But where that film failed this one succeeded. In Melancholia the division of part 1 and 2 of the same film with the same characters and everything was executed in a way where it felt like two totally different films barely connected. The flow between the multiple chapters in Noriko's Dinner Table was nearly seamless. Despite going black for a moment with a title card it keeps on moving.

This brings me to one of my favorite parts of this film. It flows incredibly well. If there's one thing Shion Sono knows well it's flow. Another one of his films I saw shortly after seeing this one, Strange Circus, which was made around the same time as this one as well had a similar feel to it. Beautiful flow. Didn't feel like it's length much like any of his films I've seen so far. I'm sure you still remember how much was going on in Suicide Club. Well this films has a lot going on as well, and I mean A LOT is going on all at once. Since this isn't a traditional sequel it has to introduce some new elements the audience isn't familiar with yet. All the events in this film take place before, during, and after the events of Suicide Club. The characters involved have only a light connection or involvement in the first film as well. So many characters all with rich back stories flashing right before out eyes. As soon as one story is fleshed out in comes another great character with an equally rich back story, or unique I guess I could say. Like a character who was born in a locker at a train station apparently. These stories are executed by following a non-linear timeline jumping from one moment to a previous to the present too a not as far in the past to an eventual event and the list goes on. I wouldn't say this is a timeline similar to Pulp Fiction. It's different than that. For the most part it does follow a straight forward story arc only when extra details are needed there's a quick cut to it and quickly cut back without a break in the action. Even some of the lengthier jumps back in time (or whenever the hell the timeline goes) feels like another cut away and it never forgot about the main story at all. Not only was this accomplished by the film's excellent writing but in it's score, too. The score feels never ending. It's constantly flowing from scene to scene feeling like one long track overall. It's what helps the film become so seamless. Only halfway through a sub plot or new character story will you realize that it flowed so easily into it.

Another one of the positive things of this film is that it helps answer questions that were brought up first in Suicide Club. One of the big elements that the audible is left wondering is if this suicide club everyone keeps mentioning even exists in the sense that it's presented to us. That question is sorta answered in this with yes and no. The main plot of this installment is about a teenage girl who runs away from her piss poor family to Tokyo. She meets another girl who she met in an online chat room. They quickly become friends and her new friend even takes her along with her family almost immediately. They meet with grandparents on all ends almost instantly even. But something feels off about it all. Hard to say at first but it just doesn't feel right. It is soon revealed she was recruited into a job where people of all ages and genders are hires to be family, friends, whatever they want them to be. The job handles people of all types even ones who may be physically and/or emotionally damaging. With this sort of dedication comes lethal consequences. The kick off went of tue first film when the 54 high school girls all throw themselves in front of the train was part of this hiring process. Three girls who had a minor focus in the story were found to be hired for it. This group of people are that dedicated. So technically speaking the suicide club does not exist because these are people hired to do whatever the employer hires them to do, even kill themselves. On the other hand the audience is left to go with their own theory that it may actually exist while not existing at the same time. It doesn't exist as an actual club people join with the intent to kill themselves. However the influence brought up by rumors of the club cause many people to kill themselves anyhow. They believe in what this supposed club promotes. It's as of all these people were killing themselves cause it's a fad.

The overall feel of this film is stronger in it's dramatic elements, not horror. While it isn't a horror film there are still sprinkles of chilling moments simply out of the scene's context. The number one scene that comes to mind is when a girl is hired to play the part of a murder victim by an overly attached boyfriend/lover. The lead up to the scene sends chills down my spine. They're talking of this expected murder as something that's expected of them, exciting, even honorable in a way. Moments before the hired event her and another girl just chit chat acting like it's another day, another job, not thought about how someone is about to DIE! The act begins. The overly attached boyfriend flings the door open, grabs the girl and throws her into the hotel room/apartment (again, not made clear). She is yelled at by the boyfriend and eventually stabbed multiple times in the stomach eventually finding her way on the bed where the stabbing continues. The murder victim's friend this whole time is laying on the bed as if it were something typical on TV on a Sunday afternoon. Afterwords the man who hired his murder victim after the act was done looks like he just got a really good back rub instead of killing someone, but I guess that's how some people react to murder. Again with the calmness of the characters and the calmness of the tone makes it plenty disturbing. Afterwords back at the... company?... the other employees are so excited over her death. They're even excited to get hired for a similar job which eventually leads to the 54 high school girl jump.

While plenty of questions are answered in this film there were still plenty that weren't answered. This may be partially due to the fact that this was second in a planned trilogy. It's been quite some time since this one came out and it was a few years before that when Suicide Club came out. Not sure if that last one will ever happen. Part of me wants it to, part of me doesn't. It could be very underwhelming. I wonder how many things were intentionally left open or left to interpretation in the end. The biggest thing that comes to mind is what happens around the end of Suicide Club. One of the leads in Suicide Club gets drawn into some trouble, almost cult-like group at the end. She does not appear in Noriko's Dinner Table but that's not what I am wondering about. What I'm wondering about is all the talk about being "connected to yourself" and why a young pop group is sending out subliminal messages to their fans to commit suicides. Many things are left vague and unanswered. I like it that way. I wouldn't even say the bad guy was taken down so to say. The protagonists win but the bad guy hasn't been defeated. By the end of these movies there's really no sign of the suicides stopping. Without those answers it leaves the whole "terror is not knowing" element alive. I don't think this was a lazy move, either. Shion Sono is a smart guy and a great writer. He knows the answers to the questions he's brought up. He is choosing not to answer those questions, though.

A great thing about this film is that it can stand on it's own. It is helpful to have seen Suicide Club first but it isn't necessary. It's, it's own thing. Yes it would be true there are parts of it that would be confusing without the prior knowledge. I would actually love it if these films were put together into one big film. Cut out some of the BS that only made it more unnecessarily complicated into one 4+ hour long film. It's hard to say whether or not this is my favorite Shion Sono film. I can't decide if this is my favorite of his or Love Exposure. It's like me deciding whether or not I like The Shining or 2001 more in the realm of Kubrick films. None the less I can consider this to be one of my favorites. I cannot stop singing it's praises. Also it's length is something that does not bother me at all. At 2 1/2 hours, much like the first installment, it does not feel like it's length. It's not even that it flies by. It gets the viewer so immersed into it they just don't want it to end. I wish this story could keep on going. I wish I knew Japanese so I could read the book that eventually became this film.

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