Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Gozu (2003)

Celebrated, controversial and cult Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike abandons the gore that he is famous for, in favour of more atmosphere this time around. He does retain the gross-out quotient however, by including some of the sickest visuals ever, that may have you cringing in disgust!

"The Great Yakuza Horror theatre: Gozu" as the title credits go, begins on an alarming note with a bunch of gangsters, the Japanese mob (Yakuza) meeting up at a local cafe. One of them, by the name of Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) interrupts the proceedings to express his concern about a strange but harmless looking dog outside, that he claims is a yakuza dog, trained to kill the yakuza! In a shocking display of animal cruelty Ozaki takes charge and tortures the dog to death, as a terrified audience watches him, transfixed. It appears that Ozaki has gone completely bonkers and the mob boss is concerned, owing to which he is sent on a long drive along with a faithful member of the group, Minami (Yûta Sone, credited as Hideki Sone) to a disposal site apparently to get rid of him. Ozaki displays more fits of madness on the way and soon, Minami reaches a dead end.

Up until this point, the film looks like a gleefully absurdist dark comedy revolving around gangsters, replete with their off-kilter behavior and intentionally absurd situations. But very soon, Ozaki disappears when Minami stops for a coffee break. It is from this juncture onwards that "Gozu" enters the bizarro territory and starts to resemble a Freudian fever nightmare full of occurrences that can only happen in hallucinations and psychotic dreams. This is of course, a very good thing, and exactly the kind of stuff that gets this reviewer on a cinematic high, except, only when it's spectacularly imaginative and handled with the kind of finesse that is necessary in such cases.

Miike commands our attention for a good part of the film that now takes the shape of a surreal horror comedy with moments that are genuinely freaky and scary and some that are wickedly hilarious. He introduces one looney character after another involved in one crazy scenario after another. There is a man with a skin pigmentation problem, who wants to share a room with Minami. There is a ghostly inn run by a pair of old siblings. 

The old woman who is the owner of the inn oozes milk from her breasts, offers it to her customers and also bottles it and stores it as breakfast material! Her brother is a supposed psychic who can talk to evil spirits, but before that, has to be caned by his sister to conjure up the ghosts. There are two patrons in a coffee shop that seem to be sitting at their table forever, and never go away, always discussing the weather conditions, even 'til the next day. The coffee shop owners are all cross-dressers!

If that is not enough to make you want to reach out for the damn movie already, then there is an awesomely bizarre and chilling encounter with a minotaur-like creature with the head of a cow and the body of a man, salivating at the mouth and holding out its giant tongue! A man suddenly exists as a woman. And then there is a birth scene like you have never ever witnessed before!

Oh yes, Miike's film penned by Sakichi Satô has a good share of twisted ideas that could give any lover of surrealism and bizarre psychological horror a major high and immense gratification. There is most of what you would expect from a film that encompasses such material. There is a real fine minimalist, but creepy atmosphere that directly reflects the low budget that the film was made on. The film is shot through a greenish-yellow filter that complements the atmosphere. The sound design is excellent, especially in certain scenes that are capable of disturbing your composure and scare you witless. Some jaw-dropping imagery raises its head high once in a while and successfully makes us chuckle nervously at the sheer warped imagination!

Alas, for a length of almost 130 minutes, sequences of such magnitude are few and far between. More so, when Minami's search for Ozaki begins to look like a wild goose chase, the proceedings start to get repetitive and a tad boring. It doesn't help that the film already suffers from an uneven pace. Not that the creativity isn't there. There is just less of it to justify a length of this sort. And what has been used to fill the gaps seems half-baked and underdone. When Miike does go over the top, it is with the increasingly shocking sexual imagery and some elements which are downright distasteful and tend to overstay their welcome. Surely, toilet humour need not have been part of something that is trying to be distressing. 

A freewheeling narrative such as this usually has immense potential, for in a film like "Gozu" that does not have to adhere to rationale and logic, one can really go all out with their imagination. One could see such outlandishness of a diverse nature in Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Roman Trilogy, especially. Those films were also psychological/supernatural thrillers and ghost stories and were far more imaginative with their content. Only "Gozu" isn't as wondrous and well-executed as either Suzuki's films or even some of David Lynch's masterpieces that it is often compared to. The ideas are there, but they feel somewhat lacking. It is evident that the screenwriter-director duo have definitely tried very hard. One just wishes there was more meat in the writing, more misadventures, creative ones at that, and not mere adherence to shock-value sexuality and accompanying absurd humour, especially like what is shown towards the end. 

It is not difficult to form a broad level interpretation of the events, given the visual symbols and the fact that the protagonist is a virgin who has just had a phimosis operation . It could be interpreted as another coming-of-age fantasy that takes the shape of a nightmare, reminding one of Jaromil Jires' "Valerie and her week of Wonders" (1970). 

"Gozu" could have been a lot better, given its universe and the material at hand. Only it needed extra spicing up with some more inventive weirdness rather than the dependency on bizarre sexuality and pointless repetition of ideas. Miike dabbles in an area that is not his, and does deliver to an extent, but falls short of the benchmark set by some other filmmakers.

Score: 7/10

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