Tuesday, May 5, 2009

X-Cross (2007)

Country people are the same (maniacs, killers, cannibals) wherever you go, it seems. Shiyori (Nao Matsushita), freshly seperated from her cheating bastard boyfriend, lets her best friend Aiko (Ami Suzuki) drag her to a small village and hot spring situated in a remote valley to help her forget about her man-troubles. The village is a very eerie place - difficult to reach, fog-enshrouded, with the horror movie mandatory spotty cell reception, guarded by crucified ragdolls (or is it possible that they are corpses?) and inhabited by some prime examples of the terrors of inbreeding.

When Shiyori comes home to her hotel hut alone after an argument with Aiko, she finds a ringing cellphone hidden away in a cupboard. On the line is a man who claims to be an ethnologist called Mananabe. The phone is supposed to belong to his sister and he is trying to warn her of the terrible danger she is in. The little village, he claims, is home to a rather unpleasant primitive cult that developed out of the tendency of the local lumberjacks to cut off their wives' left legs to prevent them from running away from their loving homes (cheaper than being nice to your wife, I suppose), and soon grew into a real leg mutilation mania, with the male villagers hamstringing themselves and the whole community regularly sacrifing female strangers (by cutting off their legs, naturally) to their God. Mananabe claims that this is still going on today, has probably already happened to his sister, and tries to persuade Shiyori to flee and meet him at one of the tunnels leading out of the valley.

The young woman is of course sceptical, but the horde of screaming villagers wielding sharp farming implements that very soon descends upon her hut gives the stranger's wild story a certain amount of believability.

The leg loving villagers are not the only mad people running through the valley, though, and soon Shiyori has to ask herself whom she will trust - the total stranger on the phone who tells her to trust no one, or her good friend Aiko who obviously isn't telling her all she knows about the situation.

If X-Cross' director Kenta Fukasaku continues in this direction, he'll soon end up making films as brilliant as the one's his father Kinji made. At least, there's a distinct increase in the quality of his films. Fukasaku started his career with the atrocious Battle Royale 2, went on to make the mostly forgettable, but at least slightly better Yo-Yo Girl Cop and now has grown enough artistically to make the actually quite accomplished X-Cross. (I know, I'm leaving out Under the Same Moon here, but how good can a film with Edison Chen be?).

Especially encouraging is the fact that Fukasaku has left the terrible pacing the marred his earlier films behind. X-Cross is mostly an enthusiastically speedy romp, starting to get fast quite early and never slowing down anymore once it has found its speed. Some of the film's tempo is based on the (perhaps slightly gimmicky but still) clever conceit of telling the story of its characters through the things that happen to their cellphones, and not necessarily in chronological order of events at that. Fukasaku turns out to be quite brilliant at playing with the structure of his movie this way, so much so that the expected series of twists and turns the story makes when it races in the direction of the grand finale didn't even begin to annoy me.

Of course, it would be quite difficult to be annoyed by a film that has such a gleeful sense of absurdity as this one. A personal favorite among many charming moments for me is an over the top fight between one of the main characters - armed with a chainsaw - and a woman swinging the biggest big damn pair of scissors this side of the Clock Tower video games, a fight that turns out to be exactly the kind of action sequence a film needs to find a place in my heart beside other proponents of gleeful absurdity like The Machine Girl.

Aesthetically, X-Cross is without a doubt indebted to the b-class of Japanese survival horror games. Besides the Clock Towers, I felt myself heavily reminded of Haunting Ground's character design, coupled with a hint of Forbidden Siren. That's absolutely no bad company to be in and also keeps the film away from the (perfectly fine with me, as you probably know by now) mainstream of Japanese horror movies of the last ten years, providing it with, well, not originality, but a less well-worn field of reference.

And as if all this wasn't endearing enough, the film also has quite a bit of fun with the deconstruction of gender and character types, all presented with a certain nonchalance, glee, and a lovely sense of fun.

It's just a wonderfully silly, at times even goofy, B-movie with some real cleverness at its heart.


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