M (엠, Lee Myung-se, 2007)

“More specific, less poetic” the distressed author hero of Lee Myung-se’s M (엠) repeatedly types after a difficult conversation with his editor. Almost a meta comment on Lee’s process, it’s just as well that it’s advice he didn’t take – M is a noir poem, a metaphor for an artist’s torture, and a living ghost story in which a man shifts between worlds of memory, haunted and hunted by unidentifiable pain. Reality, dream, and madness mingle and merge as a single kernel of confusion causes widespread panic in a desperate writer’s already strained mind.

A young woman haunts the screen, pleading with us to remember her and be sad. She is a dream, a visitation into the mind of blocked writer Han Min-woo (Gang Dong-Won) whose publishers are eagerly awaiting the completion of his next manuscript. Back in the real world, the same young woman appears around Min-woo but seems to be in an entirely different plane of existence, completely invisible to the man she claims to love. Eventually Min-woo enters a mysterious back alley bar and finally engages with the girl, Mimi (Lee Yeon-Hee), before blacking out and forgetting all about the whole thing.

Reality resets once again and we realise Min-woo is about to be married to Eun-hye (Kong Hyo-Jin) – the daughter of a wealthy man who seems to approve of the marriage if not, exactly, Min-woo’s literary career. Min-woo should be happy – he’s getting married to a woman he appears to care for, has been successful in his career, and has everything pretty much set for life at only 29. Min-woo is not happy. Persistent writer’s block means he’s written almost nothing with a deadline approaching, he’s worrying about money, and somehow or other he can’t quite commit to Eun-hye – there is something nagging at his mind, but try as he might he cannot say what.

Min-woo is worried enough to visit a psychiatrist but the doctor offers little more than a bottle of prozac and an instruction to call back in the morning. His mental state is clearly fracturing but even objectively his manner is strange, suddenly shouting or issuing orders in a shocking break from his generally mild mannered exterior. As if the mounting pressure of his overdue manuscript weren’t enough, Min-woo is extremely insecure in his literary talents. He views himself as a successful hack, berating those who dare to praise his work as fans of cheap trash.

Yet his internal world seems to be defined by potboiler hardboiled with its rain drenched streets, foggy avenues, and smokey bars peopled by miserable whiskey drinking men and omniscient bartenders. Describing the process of piecing his fractured mind back together as re-editing a film in which several frames are missing, Min-woo quickly becomes lost inside his own internal landscape, trying to locate the wound to stem the bleed but finding it ever elusive. Mimi is more than a spectral figment of his imagination. A living personification of the living past, her presence haunts him with the power of mystery, like something unforgettable which has long been forgotten.

In the end, Min-woo’s creative madness is a salve for an internal scar but its final resolution may be its own undoing. A love story and a ghost story, Min-woo’s crisis is every man’s obsession with lost love. Guilt mingles with pain and regret but also with existential confusion and unresolvable loss. As he later puts it, you lose things, often the things which are most important to you – it is a part (and a privilege, in someone else’s words) of being alive. You try to bury your pain in oblivion but eventually the things you’ve lost will be returned in unclear or unexpected ways. Min-woo may have made peace with himself (or this aspect of himself), allowed a ghost to bid him goodbye, but then again, perhaps he only dreamed himself free and is forever condemned to remember and be sad.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.

United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Koji Wakamatsu, 2007)

Koji Wakamtasu had a long and somewhat strange career, untimely ended by his death in a road traffic accident at the age of 76 with projects still in the pipeline destined never to be finished. 2008’s United Red Army (実録・連合赤軍 あさま山荘への道程, Jitsuroku Rengosekigun Asama-Sanso e no Michi) was far from his final film either in conception or actuality, but it does serve as a fitting epitaph for his oeuvre in its unflinching determination to tell the sad story of Japan’s leftist protest movement. Having been a member of the movement himself (though the extent to which he participated directly is unclear), Wakamatsu was perfectly placed to offer a subjective view of the scene, why and how it developed as it did and took the route it went on to take. This is not a story of revolution frustrated by the inevitability of defeat, there is no romance here – only the tragedy of young lives cut short by a war every bit as pointless as the one which they claimed to be in protest of. Young men and women who only wanted to create a better, fairer world found themselves indoctrinated into a fundamentalist political cult, misused by power hungry ideologues whose sole aims amounted to a war on their own souls, and finally martyred in an ongoing campaign of senseless death and violence.

Dividing the narrative into three distinct acts, Wakamatsu begins with a lengthy history lesson starting right back in 1960 with the birth of the student movement and the first casualty of the unborn revolution as a young woman loses her life protesting the rise of tuition fees. Despite the lack of success, the student movement intensifies during the turbulent 1960s with the renewal of the ANPO treaties and the perceived complicity of the Japanese government with America’s anti-communist warfare in Asia. Mixing archive footage with reconstructions and on screen text detailing timelines, names and affiliations these early segments are hard to follow but bear out the complexity and chaos which contributed to the inefficacy of the student movement. Soon, each of the leaders we have been introduced to has been removed from the scene leaving the older but inexperienced Tsuneo Mori (Go Jibiki) in charge of what was then the Red Army Faction.

Mori had only recently rejoined the movement after leaving in disgrace at fleeing a protest and thereby evading arrest. The Red Army Faction then merges with another sect, the Revolutionary Left Wing (RLF), to form the United Red Army. Led by Mori and a female commander, Nagata (Akie Namiki), the United Red Army holes up in a cabin in the woods in order to undergo military training for the upcoming armed insurrection. Prior to this, there had been a series of purges and executions in the city producing an atmosphere of terror and paranoia which only intensifies in the incestuous and claustrophobic environment of the ascetic mountain retreat.

Out of his depth and eager to prove himself, Mori’s revolutionary consciousness developes into a dangerous cult of personality in which his iron rule is more akin to fundamentalist religion than a serious political movement intended to change the world for the better. Wakamatsu’s depiction of these events is as terrifying as it is absurd. Maoist doctrine becomes a holy scripture as each of these would be revolutionaries is forced to undergo self criticism in order to devote themselves fully to the revolution and become a “true communist”. Brainwashed and naive, the cadre comply seeming not to realise that no self criticism they can offer will ever be good enough for Mori’s constant need for identity erasure and that each fault they offer will only be used to form the basis of the next charge levelled against them. What begins as questioning develops into screaming before descending into bloody violence and eventually murder.

If Mori’s fault is a kind of madness born of fear and insecurity, it is Nagata whose mania takes on an almost gleeful quality. A plain woman with unremarkable features and a sharp personality, Nagata, as she’s portrayed in the film, displays extreme issues relating to femininity. When an idealistic young woman arrives dressed in typical city fashions necessary to blend in with the capitalist bourgeoisie, Nagata wastes no time in berating her for her stylish clothes and makeup. Threatened both by the woman’s conventional beauty and high ranking position in another faction, Nagata takes especial care to make sure she herself remains on top. Despite being in a relationship with one cadre member and later leaving him for Mori (because it’s “right from the communist perspective”), Nagata cannot bear any hint of sexual activity and it is an ill judged kiss which ends up leading to the first set of mercilessly violent self criticism sessions eventually resulting in death as both parties are beaten and then tied up in the freezing mountain air where death by exposure is all but inevitable.

Mori declares that “leadership means beating” but when this is no longer enough the death sentences come thick and fast. Eventually, some members manage to escape and the mountain hideout is discovered. Splitting up and heading on the run, Mori and Nagata are captured while a group of five break into a mountain lodge where they take the caretaker’s wife hostage and remain under siege for nine days until the police eventually break in, arrest the terrorists and rescue the woman all of which became the first such event to be live broadcast on Japanese TV. The Asama-Sanso incident, as it came to be known, sealed the fate of the left wing protest movement in Japan as the terrorist violence of the renegade protestors forever coloured public perception.

Wakamatsu does not end his story here – returning to the captions which opened the film, he reveals to us the legacy of the failed student protest movement in the overseas activities of the Japanese Red Army, most notably in North Korea and the Middle East. The protest movement in Japan resulted in abject failure – the ANPO treaty survives, the Sanrizuka villages were destroyed and an airport built, the capitalist future arrived at speed heading into the bubble economy where the only revolution was consumerism. The glorious future of which these young people dreamed, free of class, gender, and social inequality, would not materialise as their idealism devolved into introspective dogmatic rhetoric, violence and murder. Trapped inside a fundamentalist cult, the true tragedy is that this was a children’s revolution – the vast majority of its victims under 25 years old, one just 16 and forced to participate in the death of his own brother. How much good could each of these socially conscious young people have gone on to do if only they’d found a less destructive cause? Would anyone want to live in the world born of this revolution? Contrasting the joyous camaraderie of the peaceful protests with the escalating, internecine violence of the URA, Wakamatsu’s vision of the movement he was once a part of is a necessarily bleak one but resolute in its gaze. Ugly, cold and unforgiving United Red Army is a warning from history which has only sympathy for those caught up in its terrible machinations.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mad Detective (神探, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2007)

mad-detectiveThe border between “eccentric” and just “insane” can be quite a thin one but that tiny liminal space of uncertainty is where the hero of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s Mad Detective (神探) resides. The titular Mad Detective, Bun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan), is about as unreliable a narrator as they come owing to the fact that he experiences frequent hallucinations and delusions meaning that absolutely nothing of his perception can be taken at face value. Despite his unorthodox approach, Bun is a fine a detective with an almost supernatural crime solving ability but, tragically, sometimes he sees more than he would like of human nature.

The day rookie detective Ho (Andy On) joins the force, he walks in on an unusual scene. Knives and cutting implements are lined up on a table while a pig’s carcass hangs from the ceiling. Veteran cop Bun then enters into the mind of a killer by viciously stabbing the pig carcass (and lovingly caressing it afterwards), before tucking himself inside a suitcase which he asks Ho to throw down the stairs only so he can then leap out and shout “The guy at the ice-cream store did it!”. A montage of newspaper cuttings testifies to Bun’s track record, but his career is over when he suddenly decides to cut off his own ear and present it to his boss at his retirement party.

Not so long after, two cops enter a forrest and only one leaves. That’s one problem, but the missing cop’s gun has been used in a series of robbery/homicides which is another. Exhausting all leads in trying to find out what happened between gun losing Wong (Lee Kwok-Lun) and his shady partner Chi-wai (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) in a dark forest 18 months previously, Ho turns to Bun despite the misgivings of his colleagues. Bun’s wife begs him not to go back to police work, fearing for both his life and his mental state but Bun would rather live crazy than bored and so it’s back to burying himself alive and chatting with ghosts among other strange pursuits undertaken in the name of law enforcement.

Bun’s major talent is his ability to see people’s “inner personalities” which take the form of personified aspects of their psyches. We see through Bun’s POV as the figures in front of him change without warning – fighting one moment with a lady cop in a men’s bathroom but turning to see an overweight veteran in her place at the next. Bun comes to suspect Chi-wan thanks to his overly complicated personality which has seven different “ghosts” – an amusing sight when they all end up piled into the back of his tiny car. This goes someway to explaining the bemused looks Bun often attracts as he chats with people no one else can see.

Reactions to Bun’s outburst in a convenience store seem like they might just be mild embarrassment at his causing a scene, but could also easily be because he’s shouting at someone who isn’t really there. Whether “real” or not, it’s clear that Bun’s emotional intelligence and ability to read people are key to his crime solving talent. As he later tells Ho, it’s not about logic, it’s about emotion. Through “extreme profiling”, Bun “becomes” the killer, experiencing their emotions to get to the heart of the crime. Bun, like Manhunter’s Will Graham, absorbs too much of the world he sees around him and is unable to reconcile his reality with the commonly accepted one. Quite mad, but also brilliant, Bun’s genius makes him dangerous in a hundred different ways.

To and Wai create doubles and dualities left, right, and centre. Fittingly enough, Mad Detective takes inspiration from The Lady from Shanghai for its shoot out finale which occurs in a house of mirrors. This time it’s not just Bun’s vision which is uncertain even as he can see multiples of ghosting personalities, but ours too as reality fractures into tiny, reflective fragments. Ho, by the film’s conclusion, may have absorbed too much of Bun, but also perhaps of the worst aspects of his profession. Bun’s tragedy is his innocence – he literally sees the bad the in people and tries to exorcise demons through exposing their presence, but Ho’s is cowardice in his refusal to truly look at the people in front of him rather than blindly follow the nearest available leader. A supremely complex and original thriller, To and Wai’s Mad Detective is a fascinating psychological journey constructed with unusual rigour and as oblique and elliptical as it is entertaining.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Suzuki Matsuo, 2007)

welcome-to-the-quiet-roomEveryone has those little moments in life where you think “how did I get here?”, but thankfully most of them do not occur strapped to a table in an entirely white, windowless room. This is, indeed, where the heroine of Suzuki Matsuo’s adaptation of his own novel Welcome to the Quiet Room (クワイエットルームにようこそ, Quiet Room ni Yokoso) finds herself after a series of events she can’t remember but which seem to have involved pills and booze. A much needed wake up call, Asuka’s spell in the Quiet Room provides a long overdue opportunity to slow down and take a long hard look at herself but self knowledge can be a heavy burden.

After her initial confusion, Asuka (Yuki Uchida) is informed by the no nonsense matron, Eguchi (Ryo), that she’s been brought in after an overdose. Everyone seems to assume it’s a suicide attempt, though Asuka can’t remember a thing. Apparently her roommate found her and called and ambulance and has now signed the committal papers which means Asuka is stuck here until the doctors say she’s fit to leave. Aside from the obvious, this is bad news because Asuka has a series of tight deadlines she’s been busting her gut to meet and is worried about losing her contracts. Whatever she might feel about it, it seems as if Asuka will have to rely on the kindness of strangers a little longer before she can finally get back to her exciting freelance world.

Aspects of Asuka’s previous life are illuminated gradually through flashback accompanied by her post-committal deadpan voiceover. After a brief career as a model, Asuka got married, divorced, and then hooked up with her present roommate, Tetsuo (Kankuro Kudo), who hooked her up with a series of freelance writing gigs which have only contributed to her stress levels with their ever present deadlines. Prior to her hospitalisation, Asuka was a rather silly, perky woman with a self confessed preference for “idiots” when it came to her circle of friends. Slowly and in the absence of her regular methods of self medication, all of Asuka’s illusions about herself and the way she was living her life begin to crumble. Finally able to cut through the noise, Asuka is forced to come to terms with a significant amount of guilt relating to a decision taken during her marriage whilst also acknowledging the effect crippling depression has had on her way of life.

Whilst in the hospital, Asuka comes in to contact with the other residents who have various needs and demands, each exemplifying the problems plaguing modern women. Tellingly, the majority of the women on the ward are younger – some just teenagers or young adults, all suffering with various kinds of eating disorders. One such patient, Miki (Yu Aoi), quickly befriends Asuka and teaches her how to survive in the increasingly surreal hospital environment. Asuka later makes friends with another recovering overdose patient around her own age, Kurita (Yuko Nakamura), but conversely finds herself harassed by the ward’s resident fixer, former adult video actress Nishino (Shinobu Ootake), while other residents make repeated escape attempts or go to great lengths to set their hair on fire.

Asuka’s Wizard of Oz inspired outfit, hair, and the silver Dorothy slippers which play into a repeated motif of Asuka’s memories of a high school culture festival, all reinforce the idea of the hospital as a strange otherworldly place in which Asuka will be residing temporarily until she completes her quest. The temporary nature of the space gives Asuka’s journey a rather melancholy atmosphere as she’s encouraged to forget all about her time there when transitioning back to the “real world” meaning that the fragile bonds and friendships created during in her hospital sojourn will have to be left behind. Finally learning to calm down and take charge of herself, Asuka rediscovers a long absent inner strength and the last image we see of her is in raucous laughter after an catching sight of an improbable event through a car window.

Matsuo opts for a less madcap treatment than the far out comedy of Otakus in Love but carefully balances an absurd sense of humour with dramatic weight as Asuka’s personal discoveries are intercut with increasingly surreal episodes. Yuki Uchida shines in a early comeback role as the two very different Asukas even if she almost has the show stolen out from her by another beautiful performance from Yu Aoi as the sensitive goth Miki. Tackling a weighty subject with warmth and good humour, Welcome to the Quiet Room is another characteristically off the wall character piece from Suzuki, but all the better for it.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough he apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Black House (검은집, Shin Terra, 2007)

Black House (korea)Yusuke Kishi’s Black House source novel was previously adapted by Yoshimitsu Morita in its native Japan back in 1999, but eight years later the tale made its way to Korea by way of director Shin Terra who opts for a much more straightforward approach than Morita’s characteristically bizarre take. Sold as K-horror, the tone is closer to nasty thriller only giving way to classic slasher action in the final stretch. In eschewing Morita’s idiosyncratic tendency to insert himself into the material, Shin crafts a more mainstream aesthetic, but loses the various layers of social and psychological commentary that went with it.

Juno (Hwang Jung-min) is a mild mannered insurance clerk, new on the job and extremely naive. His first case involves a visit to a hospital with his boss to visit a persistent claimant whom they believe is deliberately scamming the system and possibly with the hospital’s help. In many way, Juno is an innocent, he believed in insurance as a safety net and a power for social good so he’s shocked that anyone would deliberately manipulate the rules in this way – particularly when he discovers some people will go so far as to deliberately maim themselves just to claim on their insurance policies.

Not long after he starts working at the company, Juno gets a strange phone call from a man asking if insurance policies pay out in case of suicide. It’s possible, Juno says – he’ll need to check the policy to make sure. Suddenly worried the person he’s talking to is in a dark place, he starts trying to dissuade him from the idea of taking his own life and unwisely gives a lot of first hand advice despite the highlighted section in his employee guide cautioning him never to reveal personal information to clients. Soon enough, a client has asked for him personally to go out to their remote house and chat about a policy, When he gets there he receives a nasty surprise as the man’s young son has apparently “hanged himself” in the back room. Appalled, Juno waits to greet the police but becomes convinced the man has deliberately killed the boy, who was his step-son, to get the payout on his life insurance.

Juno refuses the claim but Choong-bae, the claimant, won’t give up and starts coming to the office everyday to ask for his money. Choong-bae is a scary looking guy and frightens most of the other staff with his vacant staring. He also has an insurance policy on his wife leading Juno to fear that she is next but his decision to try and alert her to her husband’s plans will prove a mistaken one, drawing him into the web of a dangerous and psychopathic serial killer.

Shin’s adaptation is most likely closer to the original novel but he is far less interested in the psychological or social implications than Morita was. There is no explanation offered for the actions of the killer though the childhood sequences with their reliance on dreams and hearsay remain intact, only with lesser impact. The question of insurance fraud and scamsters, people so desperate for money that they will literally sacrifice an arm or a leg, only exists as background and isn’t presented as a societal problem so much as just something that happens because there are some shameless people out there who would rather play the system than do an honest days work. Juno has also been given his own tragic backstory which tries to play him off as a mirror of the killer though somehow this never quite works and Juno’s own flashbacks are overplayed.

Beginning as a slow burn thriller where Juno plays the nervous, softhearted neophyte as yet uninured to the murkiness of the insurance world, Black House (검은집, Geomeun Jip) takes a huge detour during the final third which sends it into slasher territory when Juno decides to travel to the titular Black House, alone, during the middle of the night, because the police won’t listen to him and there are people in danger. When he gets there he finds a veritable house of horrors with body parts and nooses hanging from the ceiling, blood and carnage everywhere. Then it’s a straightforward fight to the death as Juno faces off against the psychopathic terror despite his nervous disposition culminating in some unexpectedly gory business with a key.

Like most slasher movies, Black House has several endings and finishes on a note of uncertainty but it never quite manages to make its sudden descent into violence work in its favour. Lacking the depth of Morita’s adaptation, Shin’s Black House may have stronger genre influences but with nothing to back them up all that remains at the end is a darker than usual serial killer tale with mild slasher tendencies. A decent enough mainstream thriller, Black House has a lot to offer despite stumbling in its final third but nevertheless lacks a distinctive element to mark it out from similarly themed genre efforts of recent times.


Unsubbed trailer: