Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dead Girl Walking (2004)

Japanese schoolgirl Yuri (Ayaka Maeda) one day finds her heart stopping and the world around her turning from colour to black and white. The doctor her family calls pronounces her dead, yet she's still thinking, talking and walking around like everybody else.

At first, her family just finds her state rather inconvenient, but as soon as Yuri starts to rot and stink (as dead people do), they decide to stop the nuisance by burning her. That's what you do with dead people after all. The scene turns accidentally bloody.

Yuri flees from home to walk around forlornly, from time to time shedding body parts and thinking if formaldehyde wouldn't be of use in her state.

While she wanders around, she meets and is rejected by her former classmates, has to flee a rude gardener and is shortly displayed in a surreal circus.

Dead Girl Walking is a short film based on a manga by the obsessive horror mangaka and director Hideshi Hino, who also delivers a very hokey introduction. It's part of a series of such films, all of them shot on digital video for very little money. As always, I'm not entirely sure if these films were done for the video market or TV; it doesn't matter much anyway.

This episode was directed by my secret Japanese horror director crush Koji Shiraishi (who directed the good Ju-Rei, the excellent Noroi & A Slit-Mouthed Woman aka Carved, the less excellent Grotesque and a bunch of other films I really want to see on subtitled DVDs right now) and is as good as this crushee had hoped for.

It might feel more like a metaphorical little art film using horror tropes than a pure horror film, but since its basic metaphor describes the horrors of growing up, it still ends up being quite horrifying if one is responsive to these special horrors.

The film is all about the fear of rejection (by family, friends, random strangers), the feeling of being a freak and the loss of the will to live that made being a teenager so much fun for many of us. Shiraishi is using the living dead angle to show the terror of the situation more clearly. Interestingly, he also chose to break the nightmarishness of his material up through the use of black humor (mostly based on the loss of body parts), showing acceptance of the silliness that lies buried under his film's view of teenage life and the general drama of its premise.

This laughter is not necessarily a liberating one - it is much too knowing for that. Still, it is laughter, and without it the film's final, weird moment of hope would just seem campy. With the laughter in mind, I'm just about willing to accept it.

Stylistically, the film mixes obvious influences of early David Lynch (the terrifying, nightmarish black and white absurdity of Eraserhead), Carnival of Souls and expressionist silent movies, just with even less money to spend. The silent movie influence is especially strong thanks to the soundtrack's synthesizer version of "typical" silent movie music (I'll spare you a digression on why "typical" silent movie music isn't in fact typical for silent movies but for modern interpretation of them) and the title cards that show us Yuri's thoughts, not to speak of some very fine uses of shadow and weirdly angled sets.

Some viewers may find the bluntness of Shiraishi's use of all these elements and the obviousness of his symbols somewhat off-putting, but I don't have this kind of qualms. A symbol that is so cryptic that nobody not reading the artist's mind can understand it does of course have its own charms and uses; Shiraishi seems more interested in communicating what he means than in making communication impossible (very un-Lynch of him, I know), or in making the difficulty of communication the theme of his film.

My tastes run - as they so often do - in both directions at once, so I'm satisfied, as long as a film does what it is trying to do well. Dead Girl Walking does do it well.


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