Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More Love For The Brute Beauty of Samura Hiroaki


A brief return to Hitodenasi no KOI  (Love of the Brute; 2006), the Sadean masterpiece by Samura Hiroaki.

Easily one of the most confronting, aesthetically brilliant, potent works of the imagination I've ever seen, it contrasts idyllic images of youth with Bosch-like visions of horror, torture, and euphoria.

I've always admired artists who bring such finesse to such inflammatory subject matter.

Pieces like this demonstrate the raw power of uncompromised expression.

Sexual abuse often involves gross betrayal. Samura's work is rife with betrayal and the shattering of trust.

The theme was explored rigorously in his disturbing  Bradherley's Coach, a heartbreaking manga in which  the hopes and dreams of orphans are destroyed by an aristocratic patron.

The manga remains one of the most moving affirmations of life by virtue of its intense focus on the taking and abuse of it.

Samura's art depicts a world of carnal nihilism in which the appetite of one is satisfied at the expense of another --  certainly not a theme foreign to any of us living in economies driven by the accumulation of capital.

The modern artists I'd most closely associate Samura with in terms of their aesthetic are de Mullotto (see separate blog) and Frenchman Antoine Bernhart (see separate blog also), two creators of extraordinary visions of sexual psychosis.

Samura also shares company with Toshio Saeki, Suehiro Maruo, Hideshi Hino, and Robert Bishop.
   
 
A stunning piece from Antoine Bernhard

The work and courage of these brilliant artists celebrates the complexity and preciousness of life by illuminating its fragility.

de Sade's work continues.





Monday, February 22, 2010

Soi Cheang's Accident

Accident (Yi ngoi, 09) comes from Soi Cheang, the director of Diamond Hill, Dog Bite Dog, and Shamo.

Although the experimental Diamond Hill announced a great new talent, it was Dog Bite Dog, the director's eighth feature, that blew me away. A brutal revenge tale with a relentless pace, it attracted the attention of international distributors and inched Cheang up the totem pole. As an enthusiast of cinematic violence, the film ticked the right boxes for me and wore its nihilism on its sleeve. Each second was like a dizzying smack to the back of the head.

Shamo, the director's follow-up, was based on a manga, and reminded me somewhat of Shinya Tsukamoto's Tokyo Fist, a boxing/beating movie so hysterical, it felt like a crazy manga.

Accident feels more like a Johnny To movie, possessing as it does the tone and pace of To's Mad Detective and Vengeance. This is not surprising. To (and his company Milky Way) produced the film. It is slicker than any of Cheang's previous films and the performances are much more subdued.
  

Louis Koo plays 'The Brain', the head of a small troop of assassins. Koo's job is to make each kill look like an accident. While carrying out a particularly tricky kill involving a wheelchair, tram lines, and electricity, some members of Koo's outfit are killed by an out-of-control vehicle. Being the paranoid type, Koo begins to suspect that this "accident" was no accident at all. The film's second half focuses on Koo's exploration of his own paranoia. He becomes embroiled in a complex mental game with an insurance investigator (Alexander Chan) who may or may not be out to get him.

Although the premise is interesting, the film suffers from a strange inertia. Ultimately, it is only about paranoia, and there isn't quite enough juicy material to push the narrative forward.

A subplot involving one of Koo's operatives, Uncle (Shui-Fan Fung), is milked thoroughly for  its dramatic worth. Uncle is suffering from a form of dementia, and his memory loss plays a key role in the group's disintigration. Suet Lam, a Johnny To regular, is terrific as always, and brings a sense of welcome humor to the proceedings. Still, I wanted to like Accident more.

The staging of the accidents is superb. The suspense Cheang creates with carefully chosen angles and gentle camera moves is palpable. Editing by David M. Richardson, now a veteran of more than 25 Hong Kong movies, is sharp and focused.  The cinematography is somewhat experimental; the many unconventional compositions lend the narrative a sweet freshness. 

Unfortunately, the source material (the script) doesn't quite support the meat of this movie, so the outcome is slightly underwhelming.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Wolfman

 Saw The Wolfman last night and was very impressed. It's a traditional telling of the tale minus silly gimmicks and hipster deconstructionism. It's very gory, well acted by all, and was so smoothly edited (by the great Walter Murch, Dennis Vurkler, and Mark Goldblatt) it carried me like a flying carpet from scene to scene.


I come from the more traditional werewolf camp. I only liked parts of American Werewolf in London (the opening sequence on the Yorkshire Moors), but I despised the comedy and lines like "I shouldn't have called you meatball!" The Howling is an old favorite -- although, these days, the setting (a retreat for werewolves) rubs me wrong. The Werewolf of London is great, and I like the original The Wolfman for sentimental reasons (it is actually quite slow and uneventful). Wolfen? Loved the Whitley Streiber book, was half-hearted about the movie.

Other notable werwolf movies in my history have been The Company of Wolves, a werewolf flick with a potent erotic angle, and Brotherhood of the Wolf -- actually, since it's not 'Brotherhood of the Werewolf', it's not technically a werewolf flick. Still, it's meaty wolf cinema.
Also worth noting is Pedro Olea's exceptional El Bosque Del Lobo (AKA The Ancines Woods), an ultra-realistic realistic werewolf tale that has remained fairly obscure.

Universal's new lyncanthrope entry has had a checkered production history with directors replaced and werewolf designs rejected, approved, and rejected again willy nilly. Thankfully, none of the film's trial and tribulations are in director Joe Johnston's final cut.
 
The film has a refreshingly uncluttered narrative with just enough backstory and expositional window dressing. Would have been nice to see more of the Gypsy Woman/Talbot  "relationship", but the film is what it is, and it's not too shabby at all.

Benecio Del Toro strikes the perfect chord as Lawrence Talbot, a Shakespearean actor who returns to his family home following the death of his brother. Before you can say "The moon is full!", Talbot's life is changed by a creature painting the town red. Del Toro plays Talbot as sullen and introspective, and this choice pays hefty emotional dividends.

  Anthony Hopkins is terrific as Talbot's father, a man harboring a fascinating secret. A couple of reviews have criticized his performance as ineffective and "hardly there". I disagree. Hopkins brings great authority to his role, and sells the pulpy nonsense that is the lyncanthropic curse like a veteran snake oil salesman. Hugo Weaving, as a Scotland Yard detective, is mostly all surface because he's written that way, but I enjoyed his contribution, too.

I often complain that books and movies are rarely equal to their cover art. Well, The Wolfman is full of delicious cover art moments, and feels like a monster movie made for monster movie lovers by monster movie lovers. There is no visible effort made to appeal to those not comfortable with brutal monster violence. The romance is not forced, either. The central characters are adults, not teenagers. It was so refreshing to see grown-ups on screen with not a shitty, attitude-ridden pubescent asshole in sight. I was in heaven.

The Wolfman's creature designs, courtesy of a slew of talented make-up artists (including the great Rick Baker) are truly brilliant. In some scenes, the hero werewolf reminded me of the machine gun-toting werewolves in American Werewolf's dream sequence. A similar, cruder version of this film's make-up style can be seen in 'Werewolf Women of the SS', Rob Zombie's fake trailer in Grindhouse. In a couple of shots here I felt like I was watching a Guy. N. Smith cover bristling with life.

Once or twice, I saw the ghost of Paul Naschy's 'Waldemmar Daninsky' in the Cimmerian dark of the cinema.

The resemblance is uncanny, isn't it?



It all felt good to me.

Enjoy the company of this wolfman. I did. And I will again.


















Saturday, February 13, 2010

Messiah of Evil

 
I've grown a bit tired of zombie movies. Everybody is doing zombies these days, even George Romero, the guy who shoved them into the mainstream in the first place.

Each film is a variation on dead people walking, just as each vampire film is a variation on fanged people sucking. I don't dislike zombie movies -- never have. But due to the onslaught of them recently, I feel minimal excitement when a new one is announced.

So I decided to go back to an old one. I read about Messiah of Evil eons ago. Whenever poor Howard the Duck was discussed in a predominantly negative light, director Willard Huyck and producer Gloria Katz would be discussed also.  Sometimes, their first feature film, Messiah of Evil, would get a mention.  Until recently, a decent version of the film has not been available.

Towards the close of 2009, Code Red released a special edition of Messiah on DVD. "Terror you won't want to remember in a film you won't be able to forget" ran the tag along the bottom of the cover sleeve.

I'm happy to say that I watched it over a month ago and haven't forgotten it -- but I'm happy to remember the terror.

When a woman (Mariana Hill) arrives in Point Dune, a strange California beach town, in search of her missing father, she is greeted without warmth or hospitality. Michael Greer, a strange fellow permanently flanked by two attractive women with continental cinema morality, offers Hill some vague information about her father's whereabouts, but he seems indifferent to her and everything else. We get the sense that the town has become a purgatory of sorts, a waiting room for souls bound for hell.


Hill's encounter with a scary looking albino man at the local gas station is more evidence that Point Dune may have slipped off the map entirely.

I experienced unique feelings watching Carnival of Souls for the first time, and these were stirred once  again watching this. Like Messiah's heroine, the heroine of Souls arrives in a new town that inspires more questions than answers. She was fleeing from an accident and starting a new job, but she took a detour through a strange mirage first seen on the horizon from the road. The mirage turned out to be real, but it provided no comfort in the end.

Messiah has a tone and atmosphere akin to Souls, and the musky scent of Richard Blackburn's Lemora - A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, one of my all-time favorite spook pics. As in Lemora, the air is thick with dread and apprehension here, and a troubling erotic siren calls to the characters.

The film is about discovery, and memory, and it's an exceptionally well made production with some stunning art direction. The massive murals that plaster the walls of the house where Hill's father once resided are shot in such a way that they encroach on the characters standing in front of them, and become participants in the film themselves.

The film's depiction of Point Dune is unique, and represents a deliberate choice that pays off. That choice is not to portray the town as abandoned or shuttered. Some infrastructure still exists. The heroine's trip to the supermarket ('Ralph's') is fraught with tension because the too bright lights of the store invite suspicion. Her subsequent visit to the cinema becomes one of the film's most effective set pieces, and is a textbook example of suspense building. Huyck, the director, maintains the tension by insisting on a sense of normality that screws with our assumptions. 


There are zombies and they do eat flesh. They're pale, sad, reluctant benefactors of a hell-born disease that is threatening to spread beyond the town. Hill's encounters with them drive her towards insanity when she comprehends the hopelessness of her situation.

The beach setting, and some ritualistic scenes of burying and burning on the beach, possess a Jean Rollin quality. The atmosphere of dread, and the odd sense that a greater, darker power is at work, is pure Lovecraft. The frantic flight of the couple in Narcisso Ibanez Serrador's tense Who Could Kill A Child? is also echoed here only because I saw Serrador's film first; Messiah, in fact, was produced in '73, prior to all the works I've referenced.


This creepy, sensual gem from the writers of American Graffiti confounds us with its ambiguous tone, quiet frissons, and relentless invention. 




***


Keep your eye out for director Walter Hill in a cameo.








Thursday, February 11, 2010

From Shunga to Aroma

 
Pornography is rarely treated as art. Instead, it is disparaged in the media, joked about, and generally demeaned. For many, it is an uncomfortable subject. In the West especially, embracing and acknowledging the aesthetics of pornography tends to color one as a "pervert". 

To me, every subject is potentially fascinating; I don't care whether that subject is universally appalling, repulsive, or the target of international condemnation. The fascination increases or decreases based purely on the artist's treatment of it.

  
Pornographic still photographers are definitely artists. Quite often, their box covers and press materials are superior to the movies and videos they're shilling.

 

It's easy to understand why the still images are often so superior. The photographers are just shooting a handful of images and they have more time to compose, light, and stage them. The videographers, on the other hand, have much more stringent time limits, so their aesthetics suffer. Only occasionally do I see a work that is equal to the box cover art.

 

These "wallpapers" from Aroma Planning, a leading Japanese fetish producer, are stunning examples of pornographic art.

 
The works they represent are hardcore, but they capture a sizzling aesthetic and evoke an emotional state that is intoxicating.


With perfect costuming, simple art direction, selective focus, and unconventional framing, they trigger a response in us (well, some of us!) that is complex and and intense. 


For Aroma, these pieces are soft examples of their diverse output.


 

The company is fetish-focused, so their output runs the gamut from traditional, vanilla sex to scenarios involving all bodily fluids, bondage, S/M, and traditional girl/girl, girl/boy, and girl/girl/boy configurations.  

   

Interestingly, the company released a notorious, somewhat dull horror flick, Psycho - The Snuff Reels/aka Tumbling Doll of Flesh (Niku Daruma) in '88. It featured hardcore sex, bondage, and realistically faked Guinea Pig-style  torture and dismemberment.

A memorable sequence involved the slitting open of a woman's stomach and the subsequent penetration of the yawning gape.

Aroma did not release many similar films.

  

Humans first lived in what is now known as Japan in 30,000 B.C. Folks from Korea walked to the island of Kyushu, which was connected to the Korean peninsula at the time, and formed the Jomon culture, which lasted for 10,000 years. The Jomon invented pottery and fashioned female figurines
 
  

Eventually, they were displaced by immigrants from China (the Yayoi) who were fleeing the dessication of what we now know as the Gobi desert. Northern China was once a paradise, but once the desert dried up, they headed for Korea. Later, they were displaced by more immigrants from China, so they chose Japan as their home.

  

The Yayoi, bringing their knowledge of agriculture, toolmaking, and a religion that would become known as Shintoism centuries later, eventually replaced the Jamon.This period, around 300 A.D., marked the beginning of true Japanese culture.
 
 
Depictions of sexuality in Japan began with shunga in the Heian period (794 - 1185). Although the word actually means "picture of Spring" (a less offensive word for sex in Japan), it is more commonly used to describe erotic art.

The erotic art (shunga) of the period was mostly expressed in ukiyo-e (woodblock) format.

Interestingly, shunga's origins are Chinese, and probably an outgrowth of medical manual illustrations. As was common, the shunga artists always exaggerated the size of genitals in order to express another side of the character, the 'second face'.



The shunga also depicted diverse and bizarre sexuality in order to provide variety; even in the 1800's, sex with animals and sea creatures was common; the octopus porn of today (Genki) is not new.


In the Edo period (1603-1868), the shunga explored wild and wonderful worlds of erotic fantasy, a world that still characterizes Japanese pornography today -- and separates it from the Western perspective.

Japanese pornography today (the offspring of shunga) exists in an alternative universe where anything is possible, and anything is permissible. The separation of public and private characterizes Japanese art (and society), and it is why the Japanese are less hysterical about eroticism.

Over many centuries, they've developed a mature, sensible attitude to an artform that the Western world is still too infantile to understand.  









Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Wakamatsu's Caterpillar

I have been a disciple of Koji Wakamatsu for several decades, so it is with baited breath that I await the arrival of Kyatapira (Caterpillar).

The short story it is based on was written by Edogawa Rampo, probably Japan's most respected mystery and horror writer.


Rampo penned Caterpillar in 1939 when WWII was raging. The Japanese government banned the story, fearing that it would impact negatively on the country's war effort.

The story is about a solider who returns from the war without limbs. His wife is forced to care for him, and he wriggles about like a human caterpillar. He resembles the 'human torso'in Todd Browning's seminal Freaks ('32).

It's impossible to know whether Rampo saw Freaks before writing Caterpillar; the writer was certainly heavily influenced by American culture (he changed his name from Hirai Taro to honor Edgar Allen Poe), and much of his work has a Poe and Lovecraft influence. Elements of Freaks, based on the short story by Todd Robbins, Spurs, are present in much of Rampo's work; still, his tales are still very particular to the Japanese sensibility and often explore extreme fetishism (not an arena touched on as frequently in Western genre literature).

In Japanese culture, the depiction of deformities on-screen is, to this day, controversial. Teruo Ishii's Horrors of Malformed Men ('69), based on a Rampo story, was banned from being screened in Japan for years due to its focus on less-than-perfect, unfortunate human beings.

This is Wakamatsu's first true horror film, although his approach appears to be anything but conventional.

Wakamatsu, one of the original 'Godfathers of Pink' is enjoying a renaissance of sorts following the release of his exceptional United Red Army ('07). The French have recently released a stunning box set of his work, and I'm praying (not literally!) that a company like Criterion will release an English subtitled version of this exceptional set.

Controversy has surrounded Wakamatsu for years due to his 'anarchist' connections and uncompromising filmography.

Only recently I was privileged to watch his 13-nin renzoku bôkôma (The Man Who Attacked 13 People), a raw example of utter cinematic nihilism.

In my imdb review, the first to appear on that site about the film, I wrote:

The Violent Man Who Attacked 13 People (a loose translation) is deserving of infamy for it is one of the most nihilistic pink films ever made. A chubby, bicycle-riding rapist/killer dispatches 13 people (mostly women) in a cold, bloody, detached rampage. In the first 38 minutes, 8 people die. Koji Wakamatsu, one of the Godfathers of Pink, makes no concessions to anybody in this grim exercise. The killer unloads his gun into vaginas, a man's ass, arms, legs, and heads. The film appears to be a catalog of murder and rape. There is no humor and no let-up. Only a minimalist harmonica score is heard in the quieter moments between the attacks. Shot on grainy 16mm, the tone is similar to Yojiro Takita's 1983 film "Renzoku Boko", suggesting that Takita was heavily influenced by this film. The relentlessness of the narrative draws the viewer into a process where he (the viewer) becomes anxious about the next attack. As this is a film from the esteemed director of "Go Go Second Time Virgin" and the excellent "Violated Angels", a poetry emerges from the images that separates it from standard pink fare. Just as the film dryly documents the slaughter of more than a dozen people, so will I right now: 1 housewife is murdered and raped in her apartment, 1 young girl is murdered and raped by the river, a couple are stalked "Maniac"-style while making love in a car, 1 girl in uniform is abducted and abused, another couple are attacked, shot, and raped by the same river, 1 girl is invited to a rooftop where she is raped and shot, a couple are raped and shot in their apartment, 1 drunk girl is shot and raped, 1 girl is killed outside a toilet block, 1 girl is dragged into marshland and murdered and raped. A final girl, the killer's 14th, meets a different fate. It should be noted that the sequence where the killer stalks the lovers in a car has several shots that may have been duplicated by Bill Lustig in "Maniac"; one, in particular, of the killer peering through the window at the couple as they make love, is uncannily similar. Perhaps Lustig saw this film, though I doubt it -- it is quite obscure. This is certainly the first film I know of documenting the exploits of a dysfunctional, bicycle-riding serial rapist/killer and is one of the purest horror films I have seen. Highly, highly recommended. It is a type of cinema that many people fear, yet a small minority admire.

A filmmaker of immense talent and singular, brutal vision, Wakamatsu has directed close to 100 features since 1963.

Only Go Go Second Time Virgin and Ecstasy of the Angels have been widely seen in the US and UK.

The director has made dozens of notable features including Sex Jack, Violated Angels...

Dark Story of a Japanese Rapist, 100 Years of Torture - The History, Sacred Mother Kannon, The Embryo Hunts in Secret (one of the most evocative titles ever conceived)...

... and the magnificent Black Beast of Lust.

Wakamatsu's output is virtually an industry unto itself!

Caterpillar is of particular interest to me because I adore the short story it is based on, and share the author's fondness for freaks, deformities, and marginalized humans.

The story has been filmed already (and beautifully) by another brilliant Japanese director of extreme nihilism, Hisayasu Sato.

Rampo Jigoku (aka Rampo Noir, 05) was an impressive anthology pic based on the works of Rampo; Sato's 'Caterpillar' installment (titled Imomushi here) is the best of the bunch.

My imdb review ran as follows:

This is an anthology film comprising four stories. The third story, Caterpillar, directed by Hisayasu Sato (Lolita Vibrator Torture, Naked Blood) is the most horrific of the bunch. It plays like a big budget Guinea Pig episode and focuses on a man whose limbs have been lopped off by his wife. He wriggles about like a caterpillar, spewing bile and oozing pus, and enjoys a spot of cunnilingus now and then. The lighting is beautiful, the production design is handsome, and Sato has never directed anything so lush. The other three stories are also interesting, although the first story, about a devious mirror maker, is very slow. Final story, about a weird man's obsession with an actress, possesses a surreal quality and is dazzling to look at. The fourth story is so short it's hardly worth commenting on. All stories were inspired by Japan's Edgar Allen Poe, Edogowa Rampo, a splendid author of dark tales who was inspired enough by Poe to take his name. Terrific to see a film of such quality that is not afraid to offend or confront. I was reminded of Hideshi Hino's wonderful work while watching this and highly recommend you chase down Rampo Noir.

On February 15, Caterpillar will unspool for the first time at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Considering Wakamatsu's history, the original author's lasting status, and the high esteem in which I hold Sato's adaptation, perhaps you can understand why I am so primed for this cinematic event.

Wakamatsu truly personifies the filmmaker as anarchist and provocateur.

Without art like his, I'd rather be dead.



Monday, February 8, 2010

Exquisite Work of Vania Zouravliov

I stumbled upon this stunning piece of work (above) a year ago. The artist is Vania Zouravliov, a Russian now living in London.

Since the age of 13, Zouravliov has been exhibiting his incredible work.

Nutcracker author E.T.A. Hoffman has been a strong influence on Zouavliov.

He recently illustrated a new British edition of the Grimm Brothers' Complete Fairy Tales.

Some of these pieces can be found in 'Vania' (from German publisher Gestalten). I've been trying to order the book, but it's unavailable right now.

Zouravliov himself is an admirer of the artists Rei Kawakubo, Bill Laswell, Paolo Roversi, and DJ Krush.

His work has a sensual, delicate, haunting quality.

When interviewed by printmag.com, he was asked the following question:

What’s the one thing that gives you inspiration to keep making art?

His answer: A strong belief that creativity is the only relative freedom we have in this world.

Freedom is being liberally exercised in these awe-inspiring works.

The detail of the fine lines, the shading, the morbid blend of East and West...

...lends them an ethereal, erotic, other world quality.

Artist Audrey Kawasaki summed Zouravliov's work up thus:

"...his work is so chillingly beautiful..."

Amen!

***

A special thanks goes out to reader Jesse for his "help" with this piece.