Terror Cotta 2014

First published by Grolsch FilmWorks

Buried in the wee hours of the Terracotta Far East Film Festival, the Terror Cotta Horror All-Nighter is the perfect intersection of Asian and genre cinema. This cadaver-filled cavalcade of monsters, murder and moral dubiety showcases the latest horror offerings from a region that has proved particularly influential on the genre in the New Millennium. Of course, many of the titles that screened in other strands at this year’s Terracotta might easily have found their way onto the Terror Cotta slate – I’m thinking in particular of Kim Ki-duk’s absurdist Freudian nightmare Moebius, Raya Martin’s category-defying maybe-supernatural rite of passage How To Disappear Completely and Nakamura Yoshihiro’s tale of mediated murder and serial storytelling, Snow White Murder Case – but the hours of darkness are relatively few in Spring, and in the end only four titles could make the cut.

“You think this is a Thai horror movie?”, says piano teacher Vivien (Candy Lee) to Joseph (Wang Po Chieh), who is terrified that his late girlfriend May (Jennifer Foh) is back from the dead to kill off his future love life. Indeed, Yeo Joon-han’s In The Dark is neither T-, J- or K-horror – for, in keeping with Terracotta’s broad remit to introduce not just new Eastern films, but also new kinds of Eastern cinema, to Western audiences, two of the titles programmed for Terror Cotta come from nations whose cinema is broadly underrepresented abroad. In the Dark hails from Malaysia, and (maybe) distinguishes itself from more familiar modes of Asian horror with a circling structure of flashbacks and, well, a whole lot of added melodrama.

Still very much in love with the departed May, Joseph is desperate to know why his fiancée was in a car – and in a compromising position – with another man just before she died, and also why she used to stare distractedly at the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. So, with May’s friend Vivien, he uses a local variant on the ouija board to make contact with May, only to unleash an ensemble of unrestful spirits that make his and Vivien’s life hell. What follows is a series of haunting set-pieces involving watery ghosts and possessed plastic bags (!), all artificially resolved by an utterly gratuitous transgressive twist that is unforeseeable because it comes literally from nowhere. And while for many the phrase ‘twin towers’ may resonate as the ultimate 21st century symbol of destruction and loss, here its prominence comes with a somewhat more banal association. In The Dark is a curiosity, alright, and quite audacious for a film produced in an Islamic country – but it’s not much more, and upon reflection, is rather like a Thai horror movie after all, only less frightening.

Unfortunately Erik Matti’s Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles, though very different, is not much better. Set in the small Filipino village of Pulupandan, but shot entirely in studio against a chroma key green screen, this highly stylised feature places urban slacker Makoy (Dingdong Dantes) in the backwoods region where the family of his heavily pregnant girlfriend Sonia (Lovie Poe) lives. There Makoy must confront first Sonia’s dominating, emasculating mother (Janice de Belen) who wants her daughter to dump the feckless cityslicker, and then a tribe of creatures, known as tiktik or aswang, that shift shape like werewolves, are averse to garlic and sunlight like vampires, eat human flesh like zombies, and are destroyed by sting ray tails like, well, aswang.

In the battle that ensues between humans and monsters, there is a lot of gore, and much bizarre local colour – but also paper-thin characterisation and uneven, broadly unfunny comedy. It’s commendable that this year’s Terracotta featured a special strand highlighting the rarely seen cinema of the Philippines and it’s great that the aswangs, an odd yet genre-ready piece of Filipino folklore, are finally getting exposure. Yet the very artificiality of those all-CG backgrounds has the ironic effect of stripping from Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles its specific identity, and making it seem more a bland confection – a sort of Filipino Van Helsing – that might as well have come from just about anywhere. This film was the last to screen at Terror Cotta, ensuring that viewers really felt for themselves Makoy’s long dark night of undead onslaught. For what it’s worth, Matti’s sequel Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles is now complete.

As it happens, the best films of the evening were also the ones from more established markets and better known artists. So prolific is Miike Takashi that it is hard to find a subject – or subgenre – that he has not tackled before. Miike’s latest Lesson of Evil shares its school setting with his earlier Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), Tennen Shojo Man (1999) and Ninja Kids!!! (2011), and has both high school students and black birds in common with his Crows Zero (2007) and Crows Zero II (2009). At its centre is English teacher Hasumi (Ito Hideaki), beloved by his students and approved by his fellow teachers – save for creepy science teacher Tsurii (Fukikoshi Mitsuro), who senses something suspicious behind his colleague’s smiling charm, and starts secretly looking into his past. The school, it turns out, is a hotbed of cheating, bullying and improper pupil-teacher relations – but amid all this guilt, shame and recrimination, Hasumi merely sees opportunity to teach everyone a life lesson, leading to the sort of ‘total massacre’ for which Miike has become famous.

Indeed, in many ways Lesson of Evil is ‘pure’ Miike: there is the pursuit of an idea to its absurdly extreme conclusion; the odd, jaw-droppingly tasteless ‘Miike moment’ (in this case involving panty-sniffing); and the carefully managed transition from kill to overkill that makes all the on-screen blood-letting become banal, even boring (cf. especially Izo, 2004), offsetting any hint of glib glamorisation. There’s something about the spectacle of 14-year-olds being cut down in – or before – their prime that is inherently shocking, but by showing us every single death – or at least letting us hear all the bangs and see the CG spray – Miike reduces this modern-day nightmare to something repetitive, comic, and deliriously dull, and keeps his focus firmly on the film’s mesmerising antagonist, so that we’re confronted as viewers with the horrifying uncertainty of where our sympathies actually do lie (even if we naturally know where they should lie).

There are also new elements for Miike here. For a start this is the first screenplay that he’s written entirely by himself (adapting from a novel by Kishi Yusuke) – and Hasumi’s actions are amplified and enriched by references to Norse mythology, Goethe’s novel ‘The Sorrows Of Young Werther’, and various versions of Kurt Weill’s/Bertolt Brecht’s song “Mack the Knife”. There’s even a grotesque talking gun straight out of a Cronenberg film. For the most part, Lesson of Evil is a crazy adult cartoon of a movie, marked in equal parts by genuine tabu-busting horror, sheer excess, and an unnerving sense of fun – but the fact that Hasumi honed his cutthroat skills doing a business degree in the US and then working for a European investment bank lends his psychopathic behaviour a political edge. There are people not unlike Hasumi throughout the world, placing themselves above class conflict, ruthlessly killing off all their competition, and for the most part getting away with their serial crimes by letting others take the blame. Hasumi is global capitalism writ large, in all its psychotic, sociopathic inhumanity.

The Mo brothers’ Killers (above) also features a Japanese murderer who has previously worked in American finance – but there all resemblance to Lesson of Evil ends. Indonesian writers/directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto wrenched the horror community’s attention with their aptly named over-the-top pregnancy slasher feature debut Macabre (2009), and since then Tjahjanto has contributed the most striking episodes to horror anthologies The ABCs of Death (L is for Libido, 2012) and V/H/S/2 (Safe Haven, with The Raid‘s Gareth Evans, 2013) – but Killers shows a new depth and maturity to their work, as these ‘brothers’ who are not really kin explore the twisted, asymmetric relationship between another pair of men, and in so doing take a long cold-eyed stare into mangled masculinity and errant desires, including the viewers’. For this film, with its two central characters who are themselves extreme filmmakers with a creepy, cult-like fanbase, constantly reflects upon our own complicated complicity as consumers of depravity.

Nomura Shuhei (Kitamura Kazuki) is an outwardly respectable, cold-hearted predator who lures women to his brutalist home on the outskirts of Tokyo where he films their bloody demise to be later edited and posted on a snuff website. Smart, but deeply disturbed, he’s a flawed Nietzschean Übermensch aching to find someone – anyone – who can truly understand his will to power. Meanwhile Bayu Aditya (Oka Antara), a driven if principled investigative journalist in Jakarta, secretly watches Nomura’s videos with a mixture of fascination and disgust. After becoming involved in a violent mugging and uploading the messy aftermath to the snuff site, Bayu is contacted by Nomura, and finds himself not altogether unwillingly being groomed and goaded by the killer to carry out (and film) acts of vengeance against a corrupt politician (Ray Sahetapy) who’s destroyed the journalist’s career and family life.

Set in an increasingly surreal (= metaphorical) world – familiar from the likes of Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw The Devil (2010) – where every male seems to be a vindictive sadist, an unfeeling murderer or even worse, Killers compares and contrasts the parallel lives of an amateur Indonesian vigilante and a professional Japanese serial killer, as they pass from long-distance online rivalry cum courtship to eventual, inevitable confrontation. The film, though, is focused not just on the trap of violence in which these copycat killers have become ensnared, but also on the legacy that they leave behind in the eyes of the next generation. Death, you see, far from being the end, is just another image that repels – but also shapes – those who survive to see. Times and media may change, but humiliation and its concomitant aggression, the Mo brothers suggest, are caught in eternal return. This is intense, finely crafted and self-probing horror at its very finest, exposing the male psyche to the harshest of lights – and packaging it all on film for our highly questionable entertainment.

Anton Bitel