Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Title Aragami

Director: Ryuhei Kitamura

Cast: Takao Osawa, Masaya Kato

Title 2LDK

Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Cast: Maho Nonami, Eiko Koike

Japan 2003

145 mins

Presented as the latest in Tartan’s Asia Extreme series, The Duel Project sees two established Japanese directors crafting a film each in an enticing filmic experiment. Born out of the short film anthology Jam Films (2002), directors Yukihiro Tsutsumi and Ryuhei Kitamura were challenged by producer Shinya Kawai to create a full feature each, using only one set, as few actors as possible, with only one week of shooting and the same unifying theme – a fight to the death.

The project begins with Kitamura’s Aragami, a period thriller that shows a wounded samurai and a companion enter a Buddhist sanctuary in search of refuge. Passing out on entry, the warrior wakes days later to find his friend missing and himself at the hands of a cryptic combatant who emerges as a near-immortal demonic creature in search of a worthy opponent. Before the samurai has time to comprehend the situation he is drawn into a succession of frenzied bouts with the deadly Aragami of the title, gradually recognising his opponent’s weaknesses as he discovers more about the legend.

Kitamura’s segment boasts a stunning set, which allows for striking use of colour and shadows. The film’s high point sees the warriors duel in total darkness, igniting the screen with brief glimpses of light as their weapons clash. The film also touches upon a slightly sadomasochistic element of the warriors’ relationship, similarly explored in Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer. These elements are weakened, however, by a relatively dull script which allows for little character development, where each ‘level’ of conflict is broken up with uninteresting banter between the two characters. The resulting film, while at times exciting, drags for the most part, and at its very worst feels like watching two people playing Mortal Kombat on a games console.

Tsutsumi’s 2LDK, however, emerges as a peach of a feature. Running at only 68 minutes, the film exemplifies what can be achieved with few resources. It focuses on two modern young female flatmates, both actresses going for the same film role, both sleeping with the same man. As differences and confrontational attitudes escalate, the girls’ frustration manifests itself physically. What begins as writing names on fridge items slowly grows to such extents as electrocution, battery with household objects and attempted chainsaw attacks.

While the film may appear on paper as a version of Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox’s domestic bout in Kill Bill stretched out as a feature, 2LDK goes way beyond such comparisons to deliver a perfectly paced thriller that continually surprises with inventive twists and nasty treats. Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike excel as the viscous tenants, crafting strangely believable characters amidst the extreme plotting. The true greatness of the film, however, lies in the hands of Tsutsumi, who expertly builds the tension in a gradual manner before unleashing hell. The single location of the girls’ flat actually heightens the film’s impact, creating a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere while also providing endlessly imaginative set-pieces.

The Duel Project surfaces as a mixed bag. In spite of certain impressive visual elements, Aragami remains a disappointment, which is surprising as Kitamura is the more iconic of the two directors, having made hits such as Versus and Azumi. The price paid for the DVD, however, is well worth it for 2LDK alone, which proves itself to be one of the most decadent delights to come out of Japan in recent years.

James Merchant


The Shout

Format: DVD

Release date: 22 October 2007

Distributor: Network

Directors: Jerzy Skolimowski

Based on the story by Robert Graves

Cast: Alan Bates, John Hurt, Susannah York

UK 1978

83 mins

Although less well-known than some of his compatriots, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski has built a unique, although little seen, collection of films both in his native Poland and elsewhere. Early in his career he served as a screen writer for both Andrzej Wajda and Roman Polanski (co-writing Knife in the Water) with whom, it could be argued, he shares a certain macabre sensibility.

Made in 1978, The Shout is a post-Hammer British horror film perhaps more reminiscent of the films of Nicolas Roeg, particularly Walkabout and Don’t Look Now. Like Roeg’s films it is intelligent, ambiguous and slow-paced and it puts much emphasis on mood of place – although in this case it’s a sleepy village in north Devon.

It is the story of a man who can kill with a shout – a skill he learnt, we discover, whilst living with (what is often short-hand for a pre-civilised society) the Australian aborigines. A somewhat unreliable narrator recounts the events in flashback to the writer Robert Graves (on whose story the film is based) whilst the two men keep score during a cricket match.

At times it seems like a well-directed episode of the Hammer House of Horror (if Harold Pinter had written it) but the mood and tension between the characters help it rise above that level. This is certainly helped by the top-class British cast – Alan Bates (in a strange reprisal of his role in Whistle Down the Wind) with Susannah York and John Hurt as the married couple whose complacent and staid relationship is slowly torn apart by this strange interloper. Bates’ mysterious ‘cuckoo’ dominates each scene but it is Hurt and York who give the film its humanity – although none of the characters are particularly sympathetic.

One of the film’s greatest achievements is the way in which it makes such quintessential symbols of Englishness as cricket scoreboards, church organs and cottages seem so strange and alien (perhaps due to the film being made by a Polish director). The cricket match is played between doctors and patients at a mental home. Susannah York’s soul is ‘captured’ through the theft of that hippy symbol – a sandal buckle. This clash between the mundane and the supernatural is particularly notable in the contrast between the realist photography and the extraordinary soundtrack. John Hurt’s character is an avant-garde musician creating sounds through recording everyday objects such as a broken spam tin or marbles rolling in water and altering them electronically. The character’s music is heard throughout the film although Bates’ Crossley claims his music is ’empty’ and lacks imagination. His own supernatural shout doesn’t disappoint when finally demonstrated and actually sounds as if it might kill. But it is the cry of the peacocks throughout the cricket match that is perhaps the most eerie.

It is a puzzling and ambiguous film that doesn’t seem to have any clear motivations but is more about creating a disquieting atmosphere – the slow pace certainly adds to the mood of intimate awkwardness. Whether it is a horror film or not is debatable but it undoubtedly succeeds in creating a disturbing and quite genuinely creepy world.

Paul Huckerby



Format: DVD

Release date: 24 September 2007

Distributor: Sony Pictures

Director: Satoshi Kon

Based on: the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Screenplay: Seishi Minakami and Satoshi Kon

Japan 2006

90 mins

If Satoshi Kon worked in live action, he would have a reputation as a director who confidently blends genres and seems happy to work in any of them. His oeuvre includes the films Perfect Blue (a Hitchcockian or rather De Palma-esque thriller about stalking) and Millenium Actress (a tale of ageing and lost love) plus the terrific TV series Paranoia Agent, about a creature from the collective subconscious who kills those overwhelmed by guilt and lost opportunities. Paprika combines all these themes but is somehow less than the sum of its parts. This might be because Paranoia Agent at its best is one of the finest animés ever produced while Perfect Blue (though overrated) has won such great reknown that audiences are waiting for a perfect follow-up.

This is not to say that Paprika isn’t entertaining or beguiling; there are plenty of scenes that will stay with the viewer long after the film has ended. This is a film that offers extraordinary spectacle, so it is a shame the first UK release comes on DVD. The visuals are crafted with great subtlety and photographic skill, and the film boasts the most exemplary handling of dappled and reflected light ever seen in a cartoon. This is not simply a technical accomplishment, but is used to infer that a person’s subconscious is a skewed reflection of the real world and that their dreams are realms of shadows and ethereal light.

The opening sequence depicting a cop’s nightmares, ranging from the big top to film noir, is startling and arresting. The idea of a dream virus that reduces people to babbling idiots in the conscious world and sees them trapped in a parade of junk imagery from late twentieth-century zeitgeist (showing the pollution of the collective subconscious with adverts and jingles, to use one of Alan Moore’s metaphors) is a powerful one. The film utilises a melange of imagery from not only the Western world but across Asia, and sees our heroine Paprika take on the identity of Monkey from the seminal 1970s TV series (itself based on a sixteenth-century Chinese folk tale) to fight giant frogs and good luck charms, a mishmash of international symbols. This may leave casual viewers bewildered, and as we near the end of the film, the narrative becomes as hard to grasp as the final monster of smoke and shadows. Add to that that the plot feels over-familiar and you have a film that is overall something of a mixed bag.

But if it’s spectacle you’re looking for, Paprika delivers in spades: Roll up! Roll up! Come see the amazing flying redhead on her magic cloud! Gasp as the fattest man on earth creates brain-scanning devices that bring your wildest fantasies to life! Paprika certainly has enough attractions to hook potential new fans, and will hopefully lead them towards the director’s more esoteric and challenging work.

Alex Fitch



Format: DVD

Release date: 7 January 2007

Distributor: Tartan Video

Director: Anders Morgenthaler

Writers: Mette Heeno, Anders Morgenthaler

Cast: Thure Lindhardt, Stine Fischer Christensen

Denmark 2006

78 mins

Anders Morgenthaler‘s first feature successfully fuses animation with a little live action to create an aesthetically superb film with a baffling message. The technique of merging visual formats is innovative and effective. Morgenthaler had used it in his graduation film Araki – The Killing of a Japanese Photographer, which ensures a clear stylistic continuity in the director’s work. Heavily influenced by animé, the gorgeous visual style of Princess can also be attributed to lead production designer Rune Fisker.

August, the film’s protagonist, is a young man of the cloth. Upon the death of his porn-star sister, August recovers Mia, his abused and neglected five-year-old niece, and she joins him on a crusade of bloody revenge against every man, woman and building involved in the Danish sex industry.

‘Fuck porno’, says Morgenthaler in his director’s statement, and this is clearly intended to be a political work. The pornography industry of Denmark is no doubt as seedy and savage as it is portrayed, and the film’s anti-porn sentiments are obvious. Morgenthaler’s actual motivations and intentions, however, are far from clear, leaving the viewer in the dark as to what the film is actually trying to say.

August’s mission is overtly Christian and God literally lights the way for his merciless, blood-drenched massacre at certain points. August and Mia hold nothing back during their killing spree. August arranges for Mia (bearing in mind that the character is five years old) to use a crow bar to hack away the genitals and then the skull of her former abuser. This level of violence, though animated, is strongly reminiscent of Irréversible – it is nauseating and hard to watch. Just because Tarantino made animé í¼ber-violence cool in his animated flashback in Kill Bill, an entire movie in the same style isn’t any less vacuous.

Understandably, Morgenthaler has aggressive views about porn and what better way to vent these than in the same medium he abhors; however, the extreme violence accompanied by the concept that modern Christian values would support this type of vengeance is preposterous. The notion that porn is so evil that it can only be conquered by psychotic waves of mass slaughter is horrible, it makes no sense and if anything makes Morgenthaler’s anti-porn sentiments ridiculous. His hero comes out far worse than the much loathed sex industry.

There’s a pretentious naivety about this muddled message: The sex industry is bad, whilst grotesque violence is cool. For Morgenthaler, porn means distance whilst eroticism means intimacy. Without wishing to defend the undoubtedly nasty industry that is porn, it seems quite obvious from the vastness of it, its diversity as a ‘genre’ and its overwhelming and perpetual popularity that the debate isn’t so black and white. I’m sure that bad outweighs the good when it comes to porn but the influences of Michael Winner and Lars Von Trier (the film was produced by his company Zentropa) have led to a film that is more polemic than political.

It might simply come down to Morgenthaler being by his own description a ‘neo-purist’, unlike the majority of his audience, this reviewer included. That said, the film is so thought-provoking, so visually impressive, that it comes highly recommended. If anything, it is sure to elicit a strong response, which is more than can be said about most current films.

Jessica Fostekew

Read the interview with Anders Morgenthaler