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Ulises [Film Festival 07.25.08] movie review horror

Year: 2007
Release date: July 29th (R1 DVD)
Director: Sion Sono
Writer: Sion Sono & Masaki Adachi & Makoto Sanada
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Ulises Silva
Rating: 5 out of 10

The Bottom Line: A campy, somewhat misogynist horror/comedy about killer hair extensions, it’s basically Ju-On meets Barber Shop, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There’s Kuriyama Chiaki, at least.

When my girlfriend asked me what Exte was about, I explained it was about murderous hair extensions. She thought I was joking and asked me what it was really about. I explained it was about murderous hair extensions.

Welcome to the world of Japanese horror cinema, I guess.

Sion Sono’s Exte-Hair Extensions seems a radical departure from his stylistically schizophrenic Suicide Club and his relentlessly somber Noriko’s Dinner Table. Exte, his horror-comedy parody of J-horror, certainly takes the whole long-haired-evil-girl concept to new heights of absurdity. But it’s a parody bogged down by a narrative identity disorder, missed opportunities, and its misogynist portrayal of women.

Exte begins with loading dock workers discovering a cargo container literally stuffed with human hair. Well, human hair, and a dead woman, whose organs have been harvested and body stuffed with hair. But there isn’t time for a full police investigation. Yamazaki, a morgue watchmen with a hair fetish the size of Okinawa (c’mon, the guy cuts hair off female corpses!), discovers that the body is still growing hair. Out of her empty eye socket, her mouth, and every scar and cut across her body. He steals the body and takes it home with him to worship and adore. And then, he does what every industrious hair fetishist would do when a mutilated corpse begins to magically sprout hair: he cuts it into neat locks and sells them as hair extensions.

On the other side of things is Yuko, played by the lovely Chiaki Kuriyama (you know, Gogo Yaburi from Kill Bill). Yuko is a young hairstylist in training with a bit of a problem. Her bullying half-sister Kiyomi, too busy partying with her drunken friends, leaves her eight-year-old daughter, Mami, at Yuko’s apartment. But when Yuko discovers the terrible bruises covering Mami’s body, she refuses to let Kiyomi take her daughter back. And so, she reluctantly becomes Mami’s new parent, even if her idea of parenting is leaving the girl alone all day with comics she doesn’t like to read.

Meanwhile, Yamazaki is off selling the first hair extension. His first customer, a hairstylist, is so taken by the hair’s beauty, she uses it herself. But the hair is cursed. Or rather, it’s impregnated with the memories of the victim’s violent death. And so, the extensions make the hairstylist relive the girl’s kidnapping, torture, and eventual murder, and then force her to re-enact the murder on a customer. Needless to say, it’s one beauty salon you probably want to avoid.

This first death has a very noticeable effect on the corpse back at Yamazaki’s house. Hair begins to gush out of her like water. It seems each ensuing death somehow consummates the girl’s vengeance against anyone crazy enough to use her hair, and this leads to more hair growth. Yamazaki is happy to aid his beloved and her Ju-On-like grudge. After all, each death means more of the silken hair he loves.

Eventually, Yamazaki discovers Mami and Yuko, and is smitten by their long, beautiful hair. Like Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill, he wants their hair for his own fetishistic purposes, and so decides to drop off a batch of super fun happy dead girl extensions at Yuko’s salon. The extensions are now free to literally stretch out and ensnare several victims, some deserving, some not. And it’s not long before we have the inevitable final confrontation between cute hairstylist and pervert morgue watchman (and you know how those always end).

While the film touches upon some very real life horrors, including child abuse and rape, Sono doesn’t embed them with the jarring imagery that made Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table so haunting. Here, most of the creative energy is diverted toward its outlandish death scenes—because when you think about it, killer hair extensions that sprout from eyes, mouths, and cuts is a pretty messed up concept, and the death scenes are appropriately so. And while some of these scenes certainly have that ‘holy crap, I can’t believe it’s doing that’ factor, there’s no mistaking their campy, whimsical quality. Even Kiyomi’s eventual fate is marred by her last words, which I suppose keep her in character, but still seem to dilute any sense of horror.

But then, Exte is a horror-comedy, or it tries to be. And this is where I found myself wishing Sono had taken a different approach, because it’s never funny enough to be comedy, nor scary enough to be horror. The two narratives—Yamazaki’s and Yuko’s—intersect almost by chance, and they don’t necessarily come together seamlessly. Indeed, Yuko’s opening sequences are bright, colorful, and almost Anime-esque (she introduces herself directly into the camera with all the giddiness of Sakura from Cardcaptor Sakura), and you never really believe her world is a dangerous one even after the hair extensions arrive. Yamazaki’s world is darker, but his obsession with the dead girl’s hair isn’t creepy so much as goofily bizarre. You don’t want to run in terror from him; you just want to punch him in teeth because he’s so slimy. And even at film’s end, when he’s trying to play the role of the all-powerful bad guy who’s foiled police and Yuko alike, I just didn’t buy it.

And while most Japanese movies aren’t exactly known for their feminist takes, I was taken aback by Exte’s misogynist portrayal of women. It was frustrating enough to see Yuko’s character be so spineless (especially considering the actress playing her). When faced with obvious decisions (such as standing up for Mami, or saving a man about to be beaten to death), she is too scared to make them, and often makes them too late. And it was nerve grating enough to endure Mami’s mother and her overly abusive, drunken character. But I was particularly disappointed at the portrayal of the dead girl herself. She is victim, and victimizer. Her rape is tragic and horrible, but her revenge seems equally so because it’s misguided. Her attacks are indiscriminate and almost all toward women, whether they deserve it or not. (The argument that her grudge is against society’s ills, be they bad mothers or mean co-workers, goes out the window the moment she attacks Mami and Yuko). Yet the girl seems reluctant to punish Yamazaki, who fetishizes her and uses her for his own perverse needs. And when she finally does, you get the sense it’s not punishment at all.

Maybe I just didn’t get this film and whatever it was that Sono was trying to say or do. But considering the work he’s done with Suicide Club and Noriko’s Dinner Table, I think Exte is a noticeable drop-off. Not just in terms of the story he chose to tell, but in the way he chose to tell it. Sono seems to understand the conflicts, contradictions, and self-inflicted dangers facing Japanese society, and he’s parlayed this understanding into provocative films that interrogate and haunt. Yet Exte seems more of a failed experiment in parody, a campy film with an outlandish premise, a disjointed narrative, and lots of split ends.

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agentorange (13 years ago) Reply

Ulises wrote: "When faced with obvious decisions (such as standing up for Mami, or saving a man about to be beaten to death), she is too scared to make them, and often makes them too late."

For some reason this reminded me of Mikee's Ichi the Killer and his spineless crybaby hero who would save women and then end up killing them because he's so psychologically messed up. It was hard to watch but even harder to turn away.

Was watching Exte like that?


Ulises (13 years ago) Reply

You're not going to believe this, but I have yet to see Ichi the Killer. I know, it's blasphemy for any J-horror fan to admit that. But yeah, I wanted to yell at my screen, "Would you DO something already, damn it?!"

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