“A story about nothing” is how one middle-aged man jokingly dismisses a local legend about an ox-headed woman. Are urban legends just one big dad joke? Everybody who hears this story dies, so they say, which is obviously true whichever way you look at it though if it really were a curse it would have to move quickly or there’d be no-one to pass it on. As the heroine of Takashi Shimizu’s summer adventure horror movie Ox-Head Village (牛首村, Ushikubi Mura) discovers, however, there may be something to it after all in uncovering the dark history behind the local folklore.
In her last year of high school, teenager Kanon (Koki) is beginning to experience strange events such as a series of mysterious scratches on her arm, odd bangs and noises at home, and her phone constantly playing a message about bad pennies and their tendency to keep turning up. Her friend Ren (Riku Hagiwara), who has a crush on her, shows her a viral video of some girls on paranormal live stream that goes wrong leading one, who looks exactly like her, to fall down a lift shaft and then mysteriously disappear. To find out what’s going on the pair head out into the country to the abandoned hotel where the shoot took place but end up battling supernatural malevolence born of the cruelty of previous eras.
Like the previous two films in the “Village” trilogy, Ox-Head Village revolves around rural folkloric beliefs this time focussing on the suspicion cast against twins which in this village at least seems to have continued until the late 1960s. The root of the curse is the unnatural act of dividing something that should be one into two in attempting to separate pairs of twins leaving the one left behind, lonely, burdened with the residual stigma of being one of multiple births, and perhaps experiencing a little survivor’s guilt. In the film’s second sequence, bathed in yellow and shot with a 70s-style soft focus, two little girls kill a butterfly and bury it with its friends because it would just be lonely on its own. The resolution is that that which has been divided must be reunited in life or in death in order to end the curse, though as we later see that may not quite be the end of it.
Meanwhile, though a supernatural horror film, Ox-Head Village is also part of a grand tradition of teen summer adventure movies. Kanon and Ren are about to embark on the last summer as high schoolers, the trip they take together as so many are is also about self-discovery as Kanon answers a few lingering questions about her past while searching for her doppelgänger. Her quest is also in its way about rescuing herself and laying to rest the sense of loneliness which has always plagued her. Along for the ride, Ren is perhaps more curious while obviously smitten hoping to cement his romance through a romantic road trip only to be blindsided by supernatural intrigue and country superstition.
Nevertheless, there is something truly creepy about the innocent flowers the little girls draw along with the pre-modern superstition that informs life in the village. Though the sinister presence may in this case be firmly rooted in the past, they are able to mediate their curse through modern technology such as manipulating Kanon’s phone as a means of communication while using lift shafts to mimic the well which becomes the repository for the darkness of the village. As an old man puts it, a prejudice against twins might have been intellectually understandable in a time of famine, though morally indefensible and obviously absurd and out of place in the modern society. Even so, old beliefs have a way of persisting even if they are no longer clearly understood.
Along with all the folk horror of ox-headed women, headless buddhist statues and “stories about nothing” there is the lingering dread of the lonely incompleteness visited on the little girls in yellow because of the outdated superstitions of an earlier era. Overcoming the curse requires both self-knowledge and self-sacrifice in order to heal the unnatural act of division which has been carried out but even this may not be enough to repair the damage of centuries of cruelty and prejudice.
Ox-Head Village screens at Lincoln Center 19th July as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.
Original trailer (English subtitles)
Images: © 2022 OX-HEAD VILLAGE Production Committee