On Tender Hooks (2013)

Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks


A memorable scene from Miike Takashi’s outrageous, ultraviolent Ichi the Killer (2001) shows a yakuza being hanged mid-air from hooks inserted into his back, as a form of exotic (and horrific) torture. Yet Kate Shenton’s documentary On Tender Hooks reveals a subculture out there, populated by fakir-like performance artists, body modification devotees, endorphin junkies, thrill-seeking masochists and other enthusiasts of the extreme, all happy to submit to such treatment – and the film is so quick to get down to the nitty-gritty of the process that the spectacle of perforated and pulled flesh is fast normalised, losing its horror.

Body suspension is the name of the game, with its roots in Native-American initiatory ritual. “You’re talking hooks through skin, and trusting enough to take your entire weight from them,” as piercing expert Alice Newstead explains it, “You can dress it up in spirituality, you can dress it up in technical stuff, you can dress it up as many ways as you want, but that is what is going on and there is no way of faking that. We’re opening a door as practitioners and inviting people to slip through.”

Those last words hint at an element of proselytising to which the film itself, wittingly or otherwise, subscribes – for while no doubt many viewers will be repelled by the very thought of being pulled up into the air by spikes through back, arms, knee or chest, others will see the look of intense bliss on the faces of suspendees, and at least consider whether it might be for them too. As suspension fanatic Tam Smith puts it, “You either look at it and go, ‘Hell no!’, or you look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ And once you’ve done it, you realise it’s not that hard to do.’ There is a variety of potential rewards: the exhilaration, catharsis and a sense of inner peace brought on by the experience itself; the aesthetic pleasure of display and performance, created by the combination of hook placement and often elaborate rigging; or just being able to say you have done it.

Shenton herself can say this. While most of the practitioners seen here have their countercultural credentials stamped into their bodies in multiple tattoos and piercings, Shenton herself has none of these, and is a clear (if welcomed) outsider to this alternative community. Despite her avowed aversion to pain, Shenton decided at the outset of the project to undergo her own suspension, and this decision serves as a badge of her thoroughgoing commitment to her subject, while also preventing the film from becoming a mere rubber-necking freakshow. Showing, in the final scenes, both the undeniable agony and eventual ecstasy of her suspension (in the charmingly named ‘suicide’ position, involving two hooks in the back), the filmmaker insists she has neither regrets nor any desire to repeat the experience. Seeing her do it, however, may well be enough to get more curious members of the audience hooked. No pain, no gain, right?

Anton Bitel