Rampant (창궐, Kim Sung-hoon, 2018)

Rampant posterKorean cinema has well and truly fallen in love with zombies. You might have heard of zombie kings lingering on while ambitious underlings run the show to ensure their own succession, but you’ve never seen one quite like this. Kim Sung-hoon’s Rampant (창궐, Changgwol), arriving mere months before similarly themed Netflix TV show Kingdom, sends the zombie apocalypse back to the Joseon-era. Incorporating the political intrigue and courtly machinations the genre is known for, Rampant is ultimately less a tale of battling undead threat than of fighting for a humane future ruled over by a good king who purifies the kingdom and commits himself to the service of his people.

Our hero, Ganglim (Hyun Bin), was raised among the Qing and feels himself to be more Chinese than Korean – he isn’t even very comfortable with the language and wants nothing more than to go “home” where all the pretty ladies are. The reason he’s come “back” to Korea is that his brother, the Crown Prince (Kim Tae-woo), feared for his safety and asked Ganglim to escort his pregnant wife to the Qing out of harm’s way. The major problem is that the elderly king is weak and many in his court believe he has failed to stand up to the Qing, damaging Korean sovereignty. Unbeknownst to Ganglim, the Crown Prince has already committed suicide to take responsibility for a treasonous plot to usurp the king using firepower purchased from the Dutch. Inconveniently, this also means that Ganglim is now heir to the throne which is very much not something he is particularly interested in. Romantic as he is, however, he can’t pass up the chance to avenge his brother’s death while fulfilling his dying wish of saving his wife and unborn child.

Meanwhile, that Dutch ship was carrying more than guns. Strange flesh eating “night demons” have overrun the harbour town of Jemulpo and are slowly staggering forward under the cover of darkness ravaging as they go. Wandering into the fray, Ganglim is eventually accosted by a band of “rebels” previously loyal to his brother who, alone, are busy defending the innocent townspeople by disposing of the zombie corpses before they can do more harm.

Ganglim too is originally unwilling to help, not quite believing the tale he’s been told and then affirming that it’s not much to do with him while he concentrates on concluding his mission so he can get back to Qing. Nevertheless he gradually begins to accept his responsibility through realising it affords him an opportunity to be dashing and heroic. Meanwhile, there is conspiracy afoot in the court. Evil defence minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) is still intent on seizing the throne to create a new Korea free of Qing of influence and is not above using the zombie threat as a part of his plan.

The conflict is then the familiar one of good kings and bad, or the rightful heir and an unscrupulous usurper. Ganglim, a self-centred libertine who thinks of little else than beautiful women, is not looking for the kind of responsibility which comes with a crown which of course makes him the perfect person to inherit it. Little by little, beginning to care for his small band of rebels and the townspeople they help to save, Ganglim embraces his nobility and commits himself to the service of his people. The king, he discovers, is a servant of his subjects – not the other way around as Kim would have it. Watching the old world burn, he vows to build a better one founded on more egalitarian principles with fairness and accountability at its centre.

The zombies become a kind of metaphor for the corruption which is literally devouring the kingdom and must be purified by Ganglim’s righteous fire. Kim’s revolution has destabilised the nation through unexpected foreign influence which he, ironically, attempts to turn to his advantage little caring if it costs the lives of his fellow Koreans who are, after all, only peasants and therefore not really worth caring about. Kim Sung-hoon brings painterly aesthetics to the classically inspired tale of true kings and righteous hearts while letting the zombies do their thing in true genre fashion as Joseon prepares to save itself from the rot within by beheading the monster before before it has a chance to bite.


Rampant was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (기묘한 가족, Lee Min-jae, 2019)

The odd family poster 2It takes a special sort of mind to see a zombie and think “business opportunity”, but that’s exactly the kind of out of the box thinking you’ll find with the the Parks – a very strange family living way out in the countryside. Korean cinema is having a bit of a zombie moment, but they’ve rarely been as amusing as this. The debut feature from Lee Min-jae, The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale (기묘한 가족, Gimyohan Gajok) is a surreal satire of changing family values, the stereotypical strangeness of farm country, and the growing suspicion of underhanded practices in the pharmaceuticals trade.

As an opening voiceover informs us, there have long been rumours of diabetes drug manufacturer Human Bio kidnapping innocent members of the public to test their NoInsulin wonder drug. One day, a young man (Jung Ga-ram) manages to crawl out of a hole in the ground and shuffles zombie-like into the nearest village where he encounters the patriarch of the Park family (Park In-hwan), eventually biting him on the head. The Parks once owned the local petrol station, but with things as they are the business is all dried up and so now they mainly make their living by engineering road traffic “accidents” they can later charge exorbitant fees to fix seeing as they are literally the only place in town. When Mr. Park realises that after getting bitten on the head he’s regained his youthful virility, the family become less afraid of the fairly docile lad and decide to take him in partly with the idea of pimping him out to the other sad old men in town who long for nothing more than to regain their glory days.

Only middle son and recently returned failed salaryman Min-gul (Kim Nam-gil) wonders if there’s something not quite right about the new member of their family, showing the others a brief clip from Train to Busan to get his point across, but even he is temporarily won over by the money making opportunity. Tellingly, no one really stops to wonder if it’s OK to lock a young man up in the shed and make him do your bidding for no remuneration, but then where really is the harm if biting people on the arm makes them feel better about themselves? The harm is he’s a zombie which will eventually become quite a big problem.

Meanwhile, the strange Park family continues to fray at the seams. Youngest daughter Hae-gul (Lee Soo-kyung), an ethereal girl in dungarees with a fondness for pet rabbits she can’t seem to keep alive much longer than a month, takes to the zombie instantly. Naming him “Jong-bi” in a pun on his being a zombie and in keeping with the naming system for her rabbits, she installs him on a mattress right next to the hutch and proceeds to feed him cabbages for which he develops an intense fondness (along with ketchup which is Hae-gul’s personal favourite). Meanwhile oldest son Joon-gul (Jung Jae-young) does his best to keep out of the way while his heavily pregnant wife Nam-joo (Uhm Ji-won) keeps an iron grip on the family finances and the house in general. When everyone starts to wonder if dad is going to turn zombie, filial piety goes out the window but all Mr. Park wants is to jet off to Hawaii and leave the family to deal with the mess on their own.

With the patriarch out of the picture and a new little brother to play with (plus quite a lot of money to buy a new start), the Parks begin to repair themselves and make the “family” anew but the cracks are still there as Min-gul turns out to be more like his dad than he seemed in always looking for the best angle and opportunity to make some money no matter the risks or ethical concerns. Nevertheless, the zombie apocalypse does its best to remind them what’s really important as they find themselves having to work together to come up with a plan for survival. Riffing strongly off wholesome ‘50s Americana and kitschy pop-culture cues, The Odd Family is a charmingly surreal ode to family values in which one family’s money grubbing entrepreneurship almost leads to the end of the world only to paradoxically become its salvation as they prove that there’s nothing so potent as togetherness in combatting existential threat.


The Odd Family: Zombie On Sale was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな!, Shinichiro Ueda, 2017)

One Cut of the DeadYou know how it is – you turn up to make a low budget zombie movie in a disused water filtration plant apparently once used by the military for dodgy human experimentation and a load of real zombies suddenly turn up to join the fun. Then again, at least zombies don’t have over protective managers hovering on the sidelines or require catering services so in some ways they are the perfect extras. The debut feature from Shinichiro Ueda, One Cut of the Dead (カメラを止めるな!, Camera wo Tomeru na!) is a clever bait and switch, opening with a frenetic low budget zombie chase sequence before cutting to behind the scenes where just about everything is going hilariously wrong.

As the film opens, an actress is in the middle of the 42nd take of a scene in which she is attacked by her zombified boyfriend when the director yells “cut” and begins berating her for her non-existent acting skills before storming off in a huff. The actress, the boyfriend, and the makeup artist whose many hobbies include women’s self defence are enjoying a cup of coffee when a bunch of real zombies suddenly show up with murderous intent. All shot in one cut, the 40 minute chase sequence is a celebration of all things zombie with appendages flying off with gay abandon as blood soaks the screen and our plucky heroine ends up somehow in the middle of a pentagram painted on a rooftop.

Viewers who aren’t paying attention and attempt to leave after “credits” roll will be doing themselves a huge disservice – this high impact opening has been something of a ruse to take us into the real meat of the drama in the zany backstage antics in which just about everything is going just about as wrong as it could possibly go. It turns out “One Cut of the Dead” is a one camera one cut TV special made to launch a brand new zombie channel. Our director, Higurashi, who played “The Director” in One Cut, has found himself at the helm because no one else would take on such an outrageous proposal and, unlike his onscreen counterpart, is too kind and mild mannered to say no.

Higurashi’s career has perhaps become zombified in itself. The producers have chosen him for his ironic slogan – “Fast, cheap, but…average”, and he’s made his way in the minor TV film biz by keeping his head down and just getting on with the job even when it’s as “inconsequential” as a reconstruction sequence for cheesy TV news item. The chance to direct a drama is then an exciting one even if it’s for an equally cheesy TV horror show with a gimmick that’s doomed to fail.

Thus he finds himself on set with a pair of idols – she constantly worrying about what her agency will say to the various problems presented by being in a zombie movie, and he constantly rude and arrogant. Meanwhile, a previous acquaintance of Higurashi’s set to play the cameraman has a serious drink problem, the actor playing the boom operator has a series of digestive issues, and the woman playing the makeup artist is in a car accident with the man playing the director just a couple of hours before the camera rolls. Improvising wildly and making fantastic use of a set of cue cards, Higurashi manages to keep it all together despite the ensuing chaos.

The real genius of the film lies in the cleverness of the original bait and switch. The aesthetic of the zombie sequence is pure low budget horror with noticeably low grade camera quality and deliberately iffy special effects. On the first pass through there are several moments that look like shoddy direction – Higurashi talks to the cameraman who isn’t supposed to be there, the three actors witter on about nothing, the actress continues screaming for way too long etc but each of these mini moments loops back perfectly into the second half farce in which the crew is desperately trying to overcome several obstacles at once and keep the camera rolling to get through the 30-minute live broadcast without anyone noticing.

In the background, Higurashi is also facing some minor family drama with his grown up daughter who wants to direct but needs to work on her people skills. Her keen eye for detail and youthful ingenuity eventually helps the crew figure out a way to keep going, but in the end it’s teamwork that sees them through as they learn to overcome their differences and work together to get what they need. Hilarious, self aware, and filled with homages to classic horror, One Cut of the Dead is an oddly warmhearted comedy in which the zombies are the least of anyone’s worries.


One Cut of the Dead received its international premiere at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival and will be released in the UK by Third Window Films later in the year.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー, Shinsuke Sato, 2016)

i-am-a-heroJapan has never quite got the zombie movie. That’s not to say they haven’t tried, from the arty Miss Zombie to the splatter leaning exploitation fare of Helldriver, zombies have never been far from the scene even if they looked and behaved a littler differently than their American cousins. Shinsuke Sato’s adaptation of Kengo Hanazawa’s manga I Am a Hero (アイアムアヒーロー) is unapologetically married to the Romero universe even if filtered through 28 Days Later and, perhaps more importantly, Shaun of the Dead. These “ZQN” jerk and scuttle like the monsters you always feared were in the darkness, but as much as the undead threat lingers with outstretched hands of dread, Sato mines the situation for all the humour on offer creating that rarest of beasts – a horror comedy that’s both scary and funny but crucially also weighty enough to prove emotionally effective.

Strange things are happening in Tokyo. The news has just had to make a correction to their previous item – apparently, it was the woman who bit the dog and no, they don’t as yet know why. Hideo Suzuki (Yo Oizumi), sitting in the corner apart from his sardonic colleagues, is a 35 year old manga assistant with dreams of creating his very own franchised series. Sadly, his ideas are always shot down by the publisher who barely remembers his name but does note that there’s always the same problem with his protagonists. They’re just too…”normal’? Returning home to his previously patient girlfriend with the news that he has, once again, failed, Hideo is unceremoniously thrown out as Tekko (Nana Katase) charges him with exactly the same complaint as his publisher had – only special people can achieve their dreams, she says. You’re not special, you’re just ordinary. Throwing out his ridiculous shotgun purchased for “research” alongside him, Tekko slams the door with an air of frustrated finality.

A short time later, some of Hideo’s co-workers are feeling unwell, as is Tekko who calls him to apologise but when he arrives at her flat what he finds there is obviously not Tekko anymore. Returning to work, Hideo also finds one of his colleagues wielding a bloody bat next to the body of another assistant. Heroically cutting his own throat on realising he’s been bitten, his friend passes the bat(on) to Hideo, now on the run from a falling city. Teaming up with high school girl, Hiromi (Kasumi Arimura), he heads for Mt. Fuji where it’s hoped the virus may not be able to survive but the pair eventually run into another group of survivors holed up in a outlet mall where the undead may be the last of their worries.

Sato gleefully ignores the genre norms, refusing to give in to cinematic rules by consistently moving in unexpected directions. Thus, Hideo remains a cowardly fantasist throughout much of the film. In an odd kind of way, this refusal to engage is his manner of heroism. Though he is afraid and avoids reality through frequently trying write his way out of a situation, cleverly manifested by nicely integrated fantasy sequences, Hideo does not run away and consistently refuses to abandon those around him even if might be to his own advantage. Eventually he does get his hero moment, finally finding the courage to fire the shotgun which has so far remained an empty symbol of his unattainable dreams, stopping to pick up his all important hat as every bona fide hero must, but his true moment of realisation comes when he’s forced to acknowledge his own ordinariness. Having been accustomed to introduce himself with the false bravado that his name is Hideo – written with the character for hero, his post-zombie warrior persona can finally consent to just being “the regular kind of Hideo”. Heroes are not a magic breed, they’re regular guys who are OK with who they are and are prepared to risk all for someone or something else.

The fact that Hideo has a gun at all is a strange one when guns are so rare in Japan though his devotion to the precise rules of his license even in this quite obviously lawless environment proves an ongoing source of comedy. It also makes him an unwitting target for the unscrupulous and puts him in danger with the unpredictable leader of the survivor community he accidentally wanders into. As with any good zombie tale, the undead are one thing but it’s the living you have to watch out for. Holing up in an outlet store of all places can’t help but recall Dawn of the Dead and Sato does, indeed, make a little of its anti-consumerist message as expensive trinkets firstly seem pointless trophies, unceremoniously heaped together in Tupperware, but ultimately prove a kind of armour against zombie attack.

The ZQN are classic zombies in many ways – you need to remove the head or destroy the brain, but they’re also super strong and have a poignant tendency to engage in repetitive actions from their former lives or repeatedly make reference to something which was obviously in their mind as they died. Thus Tekko has enough time to ring Hideo before the virus takes hold and a politician to vent about the incompetence of his colleagues but the ZQN turns salarymen into babbling choruses of “thanks for everything”, dooms shop assistants to exclaim “welcome” for eternity and leaves baristas stuck with “What can I get you today?”. Unlike your usual zombies, the ZQN retain some buried consciousness of their inner selves, able to recognise those close to them but condemned to devour them anyway.

Placing character development ahead of the expected genre trajectory, Sato weaves a nuanced essay on the nature of heroism and humanity as Hideo is forced to confront himself in order to survive. Though he tantalises with a possible deus ex machina, Sato never gives in to its use – if our heroes are going to survive, they have to save themselves rather than wait for someone with the hero genes to suddenly appear. Of course, they do so in an elaborate blood soaked finale which more than satisfies in the zombie action stakes. Witty yet heartfelt, if I am a Hero has a message it’s that if I am a Hero then you can be too – no one is coming to save us, except us, but if we’re going to do so then we have to conquer ourselves first so that we might help each other.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer:

Empire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Ryoutarou Makihara, 2015)

empire of corpses posterEmpire of Corpses (屍者の帝国, Shisha no Teikoku) is what would happen if someone’s vast library of Victorian literature was destroyed in a fire and then someone tried to put all the not too singed pages back together based on their knowledge of international pop culture. Inspired by Project Itoh’s novel of the same name and the first of three planned adaptations of his works, Empire of Corpses is a very specific kind of absurd, boys own action adventure based around the idea of empire supported by a zombified proletariat.

Beginning in London in 1878, this is steampunk paradise only steam power is quickly becoming old hat as the greatest discovery of the age turns out to be the city’s largest untapped resource – its dead. Reanimated corpses can be trained to fight wars, wait tables, or work as servants but they’re tools now – not people, they may be able to follow an order but they have no mind to act with. Corpse Engineer John Watson has unwisely reanimated his friend Friday, but is distressed not to be able to restore his friend’s soul along with his body.

Watson ends up being dispatched on a secret mission by Her Majesty’s government to reclaim the notes made by the famous Dr. Frankenstein who has succeeded in creating a sentient creature known as The One. The notes are apparently in the possession of Russian scientist Karamazov. Watson travels to India with Burnaby, a mercenary bodyguard, and Friday where he also teams up with a mysterious flame thrower wielding busty blonde, Hadaly.

Empire of Corpses touches on some interesting philosophical questions such as the nature of the soul, the border lines between death and life, and the repurposing of a body as a fleshy tool. Though it stops short of delving into what the British Empire was really based on, the idea is very much that using reanimated corpses to fight your wars remotely is an absurd solution to an unnecessary problem.

That said, these “zombies” are a well trained and docile bunch. Until of course, they aren’t. Certain forces have planned to harness the zombie hordes for their own ends to create mass panic and wholesale destruction across the world. This might be the first mission the later famous John Watson will tackle, but he’s about to realise that there’s a lot more going on here than a set of secret documents no one wants to fall into the “wrong” hands.

Empire of Corpses remained unfinished when Project Itoh unfortunately died at a relatively young age. The concept is filled with extremely interesting ideas which are only ever dealt with in a superficial sense, though one wonders if the novel he might eventually have completed would have progressed so far down the ridiculous fantasy historical epic route. Very clearly channelling ‘30s style, post-penny dreadful tales of derring do starring familiar names, Empire of Corpses steals a host of famous literary characters from across the international canon as well as a number of historical personages, though only really borrows their names or perhaps a few other minor details. After raising such interesting ideas, the film quickly reverts to riduclous B-movie genre tropes as the gang get caught up in a zombie apocalypse with flashing mystical lights and the transmigration of souls thrown in for good measure.

No, it doesn’t make any sense though it isn’t really supposed to. Patient viewers will be rewarded with a post credits sequence shining a little more light but just as much bafflement onto the characters and their possible futures, though the intention is clearly just to raise a knowing wink from the well read members of the audience. By the time it all turns into The Wizard of Oz, some will undoubtedly have followed the yellow brick road out of the cinema but it is worth sticking around to see the final coda.

What Empire of Corpses has going for it is the extremely impressive visuals. Backgrounds in particular are gorgeously drawn making for an always interesting spectacle even if other aspects of direction can seem a little uninspired. Clumsily plotted and often incoherent, Empire of Corpses has its fair share of problems even aside from the inherent absurdity of its original premise, yet it isn’t completely unsalvageable and those who come expecting a B-movie style slice of incomprehensible hokum might well find much to enjoy.


Reviewed as part of the “biennial” Anime Weekend at BFI Southbank. Empire of Corpses has also been licensed for UK distribution by All the Anime (and Funimation in the US).

Unsubtitled trailer:

The Happiness of the Katakuris (カタクリ家の幸福, Takashi Miike, 2002)

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This new cover art from Arrow is actually really great, isn’t it?

Arrow Films are really spoiling us lately when it comes to amazing Japanese cinema – they’ve given us some cool ’60s classics and forgotten gems like Lady Snowblood, The Stray Cat Rock movies, Branded to Kill, Massacre Gun and Retaliation but now they’ve zapped back to the more recent past and brought us one of Takashi Miike’s zaniest and best loved efforts, The Happiness of the Katakuris. You don’t need me to tell you what this crazy, zombie and murderous inn keeper themed musical psychedelic masterpiece is about but you can read my review of the film and Arrow’s new HD effort over at UK Anime Network. (Spoiler, it’s pretty great).


 

Ah, Takashi Miike – that unpredictable Japanese auteur who’s equally at home with bloody yakuza dramas, gore soaked satire and strange fever dream experiments. There’s no denying his out put is decidedly patchy, which given his prolific career isn’t particularly surprising, but there’s really nothing he won’t at least try. Such is the joy of a Takashi Miike movie. The Happiness of the Katakuri’s wasn’t the first time he made use of musical sequences in his films and it wasn’t the last, but it is one of the craziest. Inspired by the 1998 Korean film The Quiet Family (debut movie of Kim Jee-woon) The Happiness of the Katakuris is, essentially, a family drama which incorporates shady goings on at a guest house, singing zombies, volcanoes and weird stop motion creatures appearing in people’s soup only to fly off with their uvulas (dangly bit between your tonsils).

The film begins with a young girl finding a weird looking creature in her soup which then rips out her uvula and flies off with it before before being snatched by a crow which is then hit with a log by an old man with surprisingly good log throwing game. The old guy is the grandpa of a family which runs a small hotel in the middle of nowhere. Family patriarch Masao used to be a shoe salesman but after losing his job was convinced to buy a hotel after a tip off that a road was supposed to be built nearby which would likely mean lots of customers. Predictably, the road has not materialised and the fledgling inn isn’t exactly packing them in. Besides grandpa, Masao is helped out by his long suffering wife, grown up daughter with a little daughter of her own and a grown up yet seemingly feckless son.

At last, a guest arrives but unfortunately dies soon afterwards. Bearing in mind the declining state of their new business, Masao makes the decision to quickly bury the body in the woods rather than report the death and suffer the negative publicity. Just when things were looking up, another two guests arrive and then promptly die too (in somewhat embarrassing circumstances). As if that weren’t enough, love sick daughter Shizue has fallen in love…again! With “Richard” the secret Japanese love child of the British royal family who’s also some kind of sailor which is why it’s difficult to get in touch with him. All told through the child’s eye view of the youngest member of the family, Shizue’s daughter Yurie, this was one crazy summer in the life of this strange family.

It would be wrong to call The Happiness of the Katakuris a musical, there’s no real musical through line so much as a collection of musical sequences inserted at points of high tension. The musical numbers themselves often act as parodies of other genres with their traditional ballads, karaoke video style sequences and the bonkers Sound of Music-esque field frolicking. Then there’s the singing corpses – who knew zombies were so jolly?

It all undeniably gets a bit grim as the family have to contend with burying the bodies of their unfortunate customers all the while waiting for someone to finally build this long promised road so their business can take off. Each of them is chasing a different kind of “happiness” the father in looking for success in business which will lead to financial security for the family, the daughter in looking for love (in all the wrong places) but it takes the totally bizarre death filled adventure of demons, corpses and escaped murderers to make them realise that they had what they needed to be happy all along – each other. The Katakuris may not be a model family, but everything runs better when they work as a team and they are very happy together no matter what strange adventures befall them. Despite all the trappings of weirdness, The Happiness of the Katakuris maybe Miike’s most subversively conservative film as it ultimately fulfils the role of that most Japanese of genres, the family drama, in which the traditional family is reformed and everything in the world is right again.

Available for the first time in HD, Arrow’s new set is nothing short of a wonder. Shot near the beginning of the digital age before the cameras where anywhere near as good as they are now, you wouldn’t assume The Happiness of the Katakuris would look this good and even if it does show its age here and there the presentation is pretty much top notch and the best it’s ever going to look. The set also comes with a host of special features, some ported over from the original release but also adds a Takashi Miike commentary with critic, Miike champion and sometime actor Toshitoki Shiota in Japanese with English subtitles but also, in an appropriately strange and surreal option, a dubbed version with actors “playing” Miike and Shiota speaking their lines in English too. You also get an entirely new commentary from Japanese film scholar and Miike expert Tom Mes of the recently deceased Midnight Eye plus a short video essay about Miike’s career and a couple of new Miike interviews too.

Almost 15 years on, The Happiness of the Katakuris remains as endearingly bizarre as it did on its first release and is truly worthy of its status as a beloved cult movie that continues to be the go-to weird Japan choice for the genre savvy cinephile. Back and better than ever, this new set from Arrow breathes new life into the film and is a great excuse for another stay at the White Lover’s Inn.


 

Here’s a trailer for the film:

If Takashi Miike x musical madness is your thing you also need to see Ai to Makoto (AKA For Love’s Sake) – available in the UK from Third Window Films.

Also a mini reminder for Miike fans that Over Your Dead Body is going to be at Frightfest and is apparently going to receive a UK release from Yume Pictures (the same people who released A Tale of Samurai Cooking: A True Love Story, now available on UK DVD). Miike madness is back! In more ways than one.

Over Your Dead Body trailer: