Cast: Shinya Tsukamoto, Tomomi Miyashita, Kazuhiro Nakahara, Miho Ninagawa, Shun Sugata
Extras: Interviews, Theatrical Trailer, Tartan Asia Extreme Trailers
"The thing we call terror is actually ancient wisdom… locked away in our unconscious mind."
I find something inherently chilling about the tone Asian directors bring to traditional horror stories. Some of the most profoundly unsettling material I've ever encountered on the page and the screen (deliberately excluding nearly everything from the recent, Western trend of shallow 'tortureporn') hails from Japan, Korea, and other nations in Asia. I would love to catch a college course that examines the differences in fear from continent to continent. While America tends to bumble about with impotent remakes of these groundbreaking movies, Japan and many others continue to push the envelope and discover new ways to frighten people of every nationality. "Marebito" is another excellent, Asian horror film released to DVD under the Tartan Asia Extreme banner and I was completely unprepared for this original, unconventional tale of madness and depravity.
A frantic man plunges a knife into his own eye, killing himself on a subway platform in front of horrified onlookers. Masuoka (Shinya Tsukamoto), a troubled cameraman that works for a documentary filmmaker, is obsessed with discovering the source of terror on the suicidal man's face. Convinced that the man could see something the rest of the crowd could not, Masuoka returns to the subway station, winds his way underground, and discovers a cavernous underworld stretching beneath Tokyo. Near the edge of an abyss, he finds a naked, nameless girl (Tomomi Miyashita) chained to the rock face, mute and incoherent. He frees the girl and brings her back to his apartment where, through a series of increasingly bizarre encounters, he begins to realize she isn't human at all.
For the first act of the movie, aside from the magnificence of Masuoka's lyrical narration, I was convinced I was in store for a typical ghost story that would rely heavily on strange creatures and pale corpses in the shadows. The fact that the director, Takashi Shimizu, was responsible for two classic, Japanese horror series (Ju-on and Tomie) was both encouraging and worrisome. Would Shimizu be able to break free of his comfort zone or would he turn out to be a one-trick pony that would give me more of the same? Luckily, the well constructed but familiar first act was just the first step in a wonderful film that completely changes direction as soon as Masuoka returns home with the strange girl. Suddenly, the movie becomes one of the most intriguing spins on a vampire tale I've ever had the pleasure of watching. If you could somehow combine Takashi Miike's "Audition" with Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth", you may produce something close to the sinister fairytale in "Marebito".
Even more impressive than crafting a vampire film that stands out from a crowded pack, Shimizu confidently tackles issues of insanity, delusion, the nature of man, subservience, and more. His film becomes an exploration of a man's soul and his desire to understand fear. The pseudo-sexual, blood letting scenes in the movie are uncomfortable, peppered with unexpected overtones of incestual, child abuse that kept the tone disquietingly dark. From here, the confusion over which person in this insane relationship is the pet and which is the master adds an entirely separate layer to the proceedings. There was never a flat moment in the story and I noticed my brain constantly working for the full duration of the movie. It doesn't even matter that we're only left with a small handful of answers by the end of the story. It's clear that the film is concerned with forcing us to ask questions and purposefully pushing us to think about some lofty concepts.
I will warn you, you'll have trouble in this sprawling nightmare… especially if you can't stand vague plot points or a lack of answers or closure to your films. This isn't a movie that answers those questions you'll have stirring in your thoughts. We're hooked into Masuoka from the beginning and we only learn what he's able to learn. There's no guiding force, no clever exposition, and nothing here to point us towards the filmmakers interpretation of reality in his bleak and haunted Tokyo. The entire story is wrapped in his thoughts and we're free to come to our own conclusions about what actually happened over the course of the story. Think about "American Psycho" and you'll probably know the exact phenomenon I'm trying to describe. But even if you love every moment like me, you'll find yourself dwelling on what it meant for days to come. Fortunately, it should be easy to stay with the film once you sink into the second act… there's so much going on that I had never seen, that I was floored by the Lovecraftian brilliance of it all.
There are a few minor problems. The video effects on display (when we see reality through the lense of Masuoka's video camera) can occasionally stand out and look cheap in comparison with the rest of the cinematography. You can also tell when the filmmaker switches between film and video, but luckily it's fleeting shots or filter effects that only appear a few times. On top of this, there are glimpses of creatures that aren't consistently scary each time we see them because of the lighting under which they're filmed. Again, this is the same sort of problem that's based on the visual shift between film and video. Finally, the tone of "Marebito" can be mildly frustrating because it's difficult to lock onto what the tone is actually supposed to be. However, this problem had entirely vanished by my second viewing… it was only an issue on my first time through. I struggled to grasp what kind of movie I was actually watching because it was unlike any horror film I've seen before.
The video presentation was a mixed bag, but its quality never fell to the point of being distracting. There's a heavy curtain of grain in the shadows throughout the film, blackness seems to seep too far across the environments and lessens detail, and there's smattering of problems when Shimizu mixes film and video (as I talked about above). There were also two moments where quarter-sized bursts of white flashed on various areas of the screen… but this was just the slow beginning of a series of delusions that Masuoka is experiencing. Don't be alarmed when you first see them, it's not a disc error. In the end, all of these decisions are Shimizu's and Tartan Video should really be complimented for producing another high budget transfer of a low budget horror film. I was impressed constantly with their end of the deal and I have come to count on their superb care in the presentation of their movies.
The audio was astonishing and actually rivaled most of the high definition tracks on both Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. While the quality wasn't as instantly apparent, the sound design was one of the best I've ever heard. Ambience replaced music and the world present in the soundscape of "Marebito" was easily one of the most impressive audio presentations I've encountered on standard DVD. Every tick, scratch, whir, shuffle, breeze, whisper, and footstep was perfectly balanced in a realistic, resonant soundfield that easily surpassed many films that win an Oscar for Sound Design. My speakers were responsible for a large part of the dread I felt across the course of the film and the audio quality from Tartan Video and the filmmakers is indescribable.
The supplemental features, as with most editions of foreign DVDs, are limited to a few interviews with the Shimizu, Tsukamoto, and the film's producer. Each one is mildly interesting but still reveal little interpretation of the events in "Marebito". Rounding out the small package of extras, there's a trailer for the film and, more worthwhile, a series of trailers for other movies being released by Tartan Video.
At the end of the day, I'm begging you to give this movie a chance. Don't pass judgment at any point in the film until the credits are rolling… I really think those of you who enjoy intelligent horror will have a great time with "Marebito". Also make sure that you keep an eye out for Tartan Asia Extreme releases in the future because you can expect the same kind of quality across the board on the movies they choose on a regular basis. They have something for everyone, so you may not like all their releases… but you can count on finding the best of the best when it comes to lesser known Asian cinema.