(2007, Japan, Exsute)
It’s good to see Chiaki Kuriyama back in a Japanese horror film. But with Sion Sono directing, it’s not going to be a straightforward affair.
Sion Sono (Noriko’s Dinner Table, Strange Circus) also wrote and directed the infamous Suicide Circle (2002), with an unbelievable opening sequence where 54 schoolgirls join hands on the edge of a subway platform and then jump under a train. Despite the central plot of a detective investigating the serial suicides, the director ties in a bizarre subplot involving a new girl band. The opening is a great hook, the dramatic scenes are gripping and downbeat, but Sono is obliquely exploring other themes – the sort that only film critics seem to understand. The bizarre song and dance from the extremely nasty villain took me by surprise, and the movie flew over my head as I listened to a really bad song, apparently a tribute to The Rocky Horror Show. Nope, didn’t get that connection either – had to read about it later. But I don’t mind missing the point, just as long as it’s entertaining. Exte is his new film to get released on DVD, half which I love, half I didn’t.
I knew something wasn’t quite right during the opening scene, when customs officers open a dockside container only to find it full of human hair. When a corpse is discovered inside, one of the officers makes a comedy face before running away. Surely this was going to be a serious horror film?
Chiaki Kuriyama plays Yuko, a trainee stylist at a small hair salon. Her studies are interupted by her step-sister who dumps her daughter with her while she’s off partying with drunken businessmen. As if babysitting wasn’t problem enough, a weird guy turns up at the salon giving away hair extensions, cursed ones…
I love Sion Sono’s handling of the horror scenes and his directing of actors, but I don’t understand what else he’s trying to achieve. Exte is a fine horror film with strong performances from a good cast, but the story is almost non-existent, driven only by the whims of a completely insane villain. Not realistic insane, but comedy mad, like a 1960s Batman villain. Penguin likes umbrellas and birds, Riddler likes riddles, catwoman likes cats… in the same two-dimensional way, Yamazaki likes hair. That’s it. No complex backstory, no scheme, no plan. He just likes hair. This point is oft-repeated, especially when he sings a useless atonal ditty, the lyrics of which are just ‘my hair’. If Sono is trying to send up the horror genre, he needs to be funnier.
While actor Ren Osugi (Uzumaki, Nightmare Detective, Audition, Train Man and many more) is always reliable for creepy villainy, but here he’s asked to dress in wigs and silly sunhats. As Yamazaki, his day job is to sell the hair he cuts from corpses while on night shift in the mortuary. As a vaguely camp hair extensions salesman, or waltzing round his grubby apartment talking to a corpse, he seems to be playing for laughs. But not only isn’t it funny, these scenes are completely at odds with the rest of the film. There are gruesomely detailed deaths by hair, as it tries to rip itself free of its owner, or as it snakes around into ears, up noses and around eyeballs…
Despite the spectacularly painful hair murders, the only real horror is when the little girl’s mother tries to reclaim her abused daughter, banging on the door, trying to lie her way into the house. The characters in this storyline are well-rounded and expertly acted. It totally works as a grim drama. But as soon as we return to Yamazaki, the film becomes a comedy again.
There's so much that I like about Exte. The shame is that Sion Sono could make great horror films, if only he took them seriously. If you get his humour, the film may still work for you...
Exte is now on DVD in the US and UK.