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Ulises [Celluloid 07.23.08] movie review slasher

Year: 2004
Release date: July 25th (Pioneer theater NYC), DVD this fall
Director: Gô Shibata
Writer: Gô Shibata
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The Bottom Line: A smart, provocative spin on the serial killer genre that intrigues and shocks despite some occasionally loose plot elements.

Go Shibata’s black and white indie film, Osoi Hito, knifes any preconceptions we might have about the passivity, helplessness, and aimlessness of the severely handicapped. Slasher films have long since seen their mix of axe-wielding, chainsaw-buzzing, drill-killing, and miter saw-brandishing maniacs who enjoyed the advantages of stealth, semi-invulnerability, and above all, mobility. Yet Shibata presents a very different kind of killer: a severely handicapped man with cerebral palsy named Sumida whose rage festers behind his perpetual grin and limited motor functions. And by the end of the film, the preconceptions about the disabled aren’t just turned on their head; they become outright lethal.

The story centers around the aforementioned Sumida, a middle-aged man who gets around in a motorized wheelchair, can only speak by typing in words on a machine, and employs two caretakers to help him with his daily needs. One of them is an older woman. The other, a young man named Take, is the singer for a local hardcore band. Which works out just fine, because it turns out Sumida is quite the party animal. Despite his limited motor skills and machine-assisted speech, he enjoys beer, women, rock, and porn. He loves the party hearty lifestyle, a lifestyle Take is more than happy to share with him by taking Sumida to his band’s gigs and raucous parties.

On the other side of things is Nobuko, a pretty second-year college student who’s working on her second-year thesis. The subject: the severely handicapped. She signs up to work for Sumida for two months, during which she’ll videotape his life and report on her experiences. Sumida looks forward to it. So much so, he keeps asking his older caretaker when the new girl will be there, to which the woman replies, “You’re a dirty old man.” (Possibly because Sumida keeps a big box of porn on hand.)

Dirty old man or not, Sumida inevitably falls in love with Nobuko. And inevitably, his feelings go unreciprocated. His affections are strangled beneath the Stephen Hawkin voice his spelling machine recites and the empty half-smile that’s always on his face. Nobuko has no way of knowing he’s fallen for her. But then, she can easily tell that her fellow caretaker Take has fallen for her too.

And so, our would-be love triangle is in place. Take and Nobuko hang out and flirt, oblivious to the jealousy festering behind Sumida’s enigmatica expressions. It’s not long before that jealousy ferments and explodes into rage, a rage that will ultimately destroy friends, relationships, strangers, and himself.

The film is a fusion of slasher, documentary, and drama, carried through with the look, sound, and feel of an Aphex Twins music video. While the slasher elements come into play in the final act, the character development through the first two acts proves to be Shibata’s strongest and most provocative storytelling element. Sumida isn’t just an unrequited lover bent on revenge. Surrounded by perpetual, seamless motion—whether it’s on a street buzzing with running, bike-riding kids, or his bedroom and its rows of clocks ticking endlessly—Sumida is a soul in torment. He is a man trapped in himself, and who’s completely aware and resentful of it.

We are privy to the tormented workings of his mind, sharing a perspective no one else in the film even imagines. At one of Take’s parties, for example, the gang of cheery friends is toasting with full mugs of beer. Sumida lifts his own mug and smiles, and then we see what he’s really thinking: he’s lining up all his friends and gunning them down with a semi-automatic. But his rage is an enigma at best, a secret at worst. One of Take’s friends suggests that something is bothering him, noticing that Sumida is always grinning, but neither Take nor Nobuko think it’s anything serious. Sumida can say things like “I will kill you” (to Nobuko) and “I will attack you” (to Take), yet his computerized voice and perpetual half-smile render his rage impotent.

Therein lies the cause of, and method of, his homicidal outburst. Though it’s evident that Sumida isn’t exactly a nice guy to begin with (his eventual proposition to Nobuko is a fax reading ‘Grant me one [expletive]’), it’s also clear that he’s not the helpless handicapped guy content to live out his life in silent acceptance. Like any person, he has needs, including romantic and sexual needs. And when all but his most basic needs go unmet, and when his caretakers are incapable of understanding the breadth and depth of his needs and emotions, his entrapment and helplessness become despair.

Yet, it’s his perceived helplessness that lets him kill. Because his victims see him clearly. He’s a man lolling in a motorized wheelchair, alone in the rain, or sitting idly on the floor, and it’s impossible to think he can cause anyone harm. That’s Shibata’s ironic twist on the serial killer genre: when the killer is that immobile and incapable of chasing his victims down, what is it that gets them killed? Is it stupidity? Is it flawed judgment? Or is it their preconceptions that he’s a harmless, voiceless old man in a wheelchair, one who doesn’t mind being photographed or videotaped or talked down to?

Shibata’s case study suffers slightly from a frenetic and sometimes inexplicable sequence of events. After Sumida’s crude fax soliciting sex, Nobuko leaves for Okinawa and never returns to the film. Taking her place as Sumida’s caretaker is her friend Aya, who has become obsessed with the videos of Sumida Nobuko has shared. But Aya’s relevance in the narrative is tenuous at best, as is the explanation that her friends, none of whom know Sumida, would agree to throw him a birthday party just because. And while some of Sumida’s personal history is revealed (e.g., he’s a director of a disabled center, he helps disabled people live independently, his mother abandoned him), I think we get too little of it to fully understand where so many of his conflicted, grisly thoughts come from.

Regardless, Osoi Hito is a smart and provocative film that simultaneously re-interprets the slasher genre and examines society’s preconceptions about the severely handicapped. The brilliant acting by handicapped actor Sumida Masakiyo—whose vivid portrayal of the silently tormented Sumida is more impressive considering he can only speak through his half-smiles and limited body language—helps fulfill the promise of Shibata’s scarring vision, and helps make this film a real gem in Japanese indie cinema.

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quietearth (13 years ago) Reply

I loved this film and HIGHLY recommend it. Nice review man.


Cyberhal (13 years ago) Reply

i need to watch this


logboy (13 years ago) Reply

well... it's got limited screenings this summer in america - don't ask me exactly where and when - and it will, of course, be on DVD in america at some point. probably before the end of the year. big screen if possible, but DVD for me, i think.

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