Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Shock Labyrinth (2009)

Takashi Shimizu is talented. His best known film in the West is the traditional-styled and American remake, The Grudge (2004), of his own equally traditional Ju-on: The Grudge (2002) (with the latter a remake of his superior, non-linear video project, Ju-on (2000)). Like fellow countryman and filmmaker, Shinya Tsukamoto, Shimizu has a fertile imagination and grasps fringe and weird concepts in ordinary contexts. Shimizu's best work expands on these ideas: Ju-on (2000) (victims of extreme violence remain among the living as vengeful spirits, committing acts of extreme violence against the living, solely because they resent those around them); Marebito (2004) (a freelance cameraman spends his days walking and filming while what he sees with both his eyes and camera begin to change); and Rinne (2005) (a film crew attempts to re-enact events and make a film about a mass murder at the very location where the murders occurred). One of his most recent films, The Shock Labyrinth (2009), continues his trend. Imagine a spiral staircase. It is a powerful symbol for both time and space. Imagine the bottom of the stairs as the origin of a specific time and imagine its top as the ending with its climbing stairs as time’s progression. The concept as a whole can be seen by viewing the stairs from the side; however, by looking down upon the stairs from above, one only sees its top circle. How many actual steps there are remain hidden. Finally, imagine the spiral staircase collapsing upon itself: several circles of stairs lay in close proximity, almost jumbled. This collapsed spiral staircase, now as a symbol for both time and space, to put it in an understated manner, causes time and space to become jumbled. This is the shock labyrinth, serving as Shimizu’s narrative technique for his film (also a powerful visual motif within). Ken (Yûya Yagira ), now in his early twenties, returns to his childhood village. He reunites with his friends Motoki (Ryo Katsuji) and Rin (Ai Maeda). It begins raining. An unexpected visitor arrives, another childhood friend, Yuki (Misako Renbutsu). Ken’s exit from the village was known: his mother died which prompted his father to move the child away; and his return was expected by Motoki and Rin. No one knows where Yuki has been for several years or why she decided to return on that particular evening. Specific imagery within the film holds the key to its understanding--at first, disorienting and ridiculous: a child's backpack. This particular backpack is a stuffed bunny wherein its belly a child's keepsakes are found. Two straps connect the bunny's shoulders to its hind legs, and a child can wear it on his/her back. An endearing image, perhaps, but seeing the backpack absent from a child is just ridiculous: this item belongs in the world of adolescence, and it holds no particular significance to any adult. However, imagine a different association with the item: what if the stuffed-bunny backpack was associated with a specific person linked to a moment in childhood? When Ken, Motoki, Rin, and Yuki reunite this image has a specific association, tied to an incident that occurred during their childhood. This incident is returning to them in a powerful recall during the present night. Seeing events through these characters' eyes is deftly crafted by Shimizu. On this level, The Shock Labyrinth is a narrative and visual mystery.The Shock Labyrinth is a haunted house in an amusement park where the main characters visited as children. Now as young adults, they revisit the place. The Shock Labyrinth where the events and players of the past literally meet the players of the present to create an ending for each. The Shock Labyrinth was filmed and presented in 3-D (which adds an incidental (?) layer of meaning to the film). Unfortunately, I suffer often from baggy eyes and never had the inclination to view the film in that format (coupled with having little interest in the format). However, it is available in a two-disc set from Taiwan. It is English-subtitled and contains both a disc for the 3-D version (with glasses) and the non-3-D version. The set is encoded Region 3 and can be purchased here. Like most of Shimizu's best work, The Shock Labyrinth leans more towards the arthouse than the multiplex and merits more than one viewing. Also like most of Shimizu's best work, The Shock Labyrinth stands as a fantastic alternative to traditional contemporary cinema. The less said about the film the better--most definitely suited for those seeking the offbeat and unique.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sole Halloween Post

With Halloween 2010 shortly approaching, here are some thoughts towards scary experiences to be had outside of cinema. These would-be scary experiences are, however, undeniably, cinematic. With the right technological tools, atmospheric and visceral horror awaits in the virtual realm--that’s games. I’m from seemingly the first generation of children to have access to home gaming systems, was a wee lad during the mall/arcade fad, and have continued to play video games throughout my whole life. Here are my thoughts on some of the best games for the Halloween season.

Dead Rising

While Capcom developed the influential Resident Evil series back in the 90s, the game that coined the phrase “survival horror” and introduced zombies as menacing enemies, it wasn’t until a few years ago that Capcom revisited the walking dead with startling results. Resident Evil was unfamiliar to zombie lore, at least in Romero-esque terms--it was about an elite group of soldiers who encounter a zombie outbreak in a large manor on the outskirts of a small city. Zombies shuffled sparsely throughout the mansion as there were other horrors awaiting. The real experience was yet to come.

Frank West is a freelance photojournalist who gets a scoop that something big is going on in Williamette, Colorado. He asks his helicopter pilot to drop him on the roof of the local shopping mall and to come and pick him up in three days. Not long after his arrival, the makeshift barricades quickly crumble and the zombies flood in--thousands of them. Frank has to get his story, help rescue the survivors, and most of all, survive 72 hours until his pick-up comes.

I think Capcom was going for a really fun experience with this game. Virtually everything within the mall is a weapon. I picked up a bowling ball and good-ol’ Frank reared his arm back and threw a strike, knocking over about eight to ten zombies. In the myriad clothing stores, Frank can try on and change outfits, some really outlandish. Running around and playing with the various stuff and exploring stores is a lot of fun.

I don’t think Capcom realized how truly bleak this game is. Although there are plot missions which drive the main narrative of the game, the majority of Frank’s time is spent rescuing survivors. And it’s a bitch. In one specific encounter, Frank meets a woman crying alone in a jewelry store (of course, hundreds of hungry zombies parade outside, chomping at the bits). The story she tells Frank is more than a little unsettling. As Frank escorts his survivors to safety, watch closely as one zombie attacks a survivor, seemingly eight more come to munch. If Frank doesn’t move quickly, then the gamer is treated to a truly stomach-turning, survivor death scene. There are also about ten to twelve psychopaths who Frank can encounter most of whom are holding survivors as hostages.

Frank’s seventy-two hours is a truly intense experience. Not a whole lot of time to goof off. Certainly, Dead Rising is the closest experience to a George Romero film.

Condemned: Criminal Origins

Ethan Thomas is an FBI agent on the trail of a unique serial killer--one who targets other serial killers. During the game’s initial investigation, something goes wrong and Thomas gets set up. He has to flee from the FBI and uncover the identity of Serial Killer X to clear his name. Condemned: Criminal Origins is definitely not Silence of the Lambs.

Thomas visits some of the darkest and scariest places ever during his investigation. Walk around a corner and some drug-addicted thug waits to rack a steel pipe around his head. Although Thomas has the rare access to firearms, the majority of combat in Condemned is very intense melee combat. Every fight (and there are a lot of them) feels like a fight for life.

The atmosphere of Condemned is beyond equal. Thomas visits a school which is eerily reminiscent of the one David Hemmings visited in Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso. During a visit to a dilapidated fashion store, take a peek at a few of the mannequins--they also look eerily similar to a doll scene in Profondo Rosso. I can safely say that none of these places, if they truly existed in the real world, would ever be visited. Hellish is an apt description.

The Silent Hill Series

The original Silent Hill game appeared shortly after the original Resident Evil and surpassed it in terms of pure horror. The series revolves around the titular town and the bizarre curse which surrounds it. In terms of fear created, a true sense of isolation, and a tension-filled atmosphere, few games have topped the Silent Hill series.

The original Silent Hill game involved a simple premise but an effective one--a father wakes from a car crash on the outskirts of Silent Hill. His young daughter who was accompanying him is nowhere to be found. All alone, he must enter the fog-ridden town and find her. The streets are totally devoid of any human presence.

While the series of games has wavered in quality, the atmosphere, music, and sense of isolation has remained constantly effective. Silent Hill is melancholy and sad while at the same time being fiercely frightening and extremely intriguing. Definitely the most dream-like horror series ever.

I tried to whip this post up this afternoon to really update my blog. I wanted to take a break from writing, because as I sit writing this, I’ve seen nothing in terms of cinema (my primary blog topic) worth writing about. The passion that I once had for cinema has diminished in the last few months. I’m certain, however, that I’m a film or two away from finding the one that will re-ignite my passion--something really cool. I’m still kicking and will get back around to more consistent posting. Finally, there are plenty of other cool games worth mentioning. These are just a few that came to mind. Happy Halloween to all.