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.