Fant-Asia 1998: The Year of the Torture, Part 1

Another high of cinematic excess

by Donato Totaro Volume 2, Issue 3 / August 1998 14 minutes (3325 words)

Part I

Our senses can collectively breathe a sigh of temporary relief: the third edition of Fant-Asia is over (July 10-August 9). For many who attended this year’s fest on a regular basis the end signals a come down from a month-long high of cinematic and social excess. Fant-Asia has become more than just a unique film festival, but a space where like-minded (though markedly different) filmmakers, journalists, critics, and buffs can share their enthusiasm and mingle in a cordial (and still fairly informal) atmosphere. This year’s impressive list of invited directors and media guests included, returning from last year, directors Nacho Cerda (Genesis), Richard Stanley (Hardware), and Jim Van Bebber (Deadbeat at Dawn, Roadkill); a virtual who’s who of UK horror media, Jason “Geezer” Slater (The Dark Side, Diabolik), Harvey Fenton (Flesh & Blood, FAB Press), Marcelle Perks (Shivers), Martin Coxhead (The Dark Side), and Rick Baker (Eastern Heroes); and US media figures Anthony Timpone and Michael Gingold of Fangoria and Glen Wilcox (Graveside Entertainment). First timers to Fant-Asia included directors Takashi Ishii (Gonin, Gonin 2, Black Angel), T.F. Mous (Man Behind the Sun), Hector Carré (Dame Algo), Brian Yuzna (Progeny, Dentist 2), Larry Fessenden (Habit), Agustin Villaronga (99.9), Roy Frumkes (Street Trash), Shunji Iwai (Shallowtail Butterfly), Douglas Buck (Home), Quelou Parente (The Marquis du Slime), and John Carpenter (Vampires); actors Jillian McWhirter (Progeny) and Chin Cheuk (Blacksheep Affair, The Blade), Angus Scrimm (Phantasm 4).

To the festival’s credit, the star guests, with only a few exceptions – Don Coscarelli (Phantasm 4) and Russell Mulcahy (Talos the Mummy) – made themselves readily available to both media and fans. In most cases the directors were genuinely eager to hang around the Imperial Theatre before and after screenings and join the Fant-Asia crowd to the nearest watering hole after the last show. Even John Carpenter surprised the Fant-Asia crowd with his bravado performance (like a character out of one of his favorite director’s films, Howard Hawks). Frail from recent ill health, but in good spirits, Carpenter was adamant that he would stick around after the screening of Vampires to appease every autograph seeker. Carpenter signed his last autograph at around 1.30 am, and then went beyond the call of duty by offering to go out for a beer (not to mention shocking his overly protective Sony representative!).

Last year the designated late night drinking spot was a hip bar a considerable distance east of The Imperial, called “The Saint Elizabeth.” This year the crowd, perhaps lazier or just desperate to make the most of what little drinking time would be usually left, selected two drinking dens closer to the theatre. Serious drinkers chose “Le Veille 300,” a no-frills tavern with a large screen television that no one ever seemed to be watching, and an assortment of arcade machines in the back (which entertained Parisian director Quelou Parente to no end). When the mood called for something with a bit more class and atmosphere we would head for “The Luba Bar,” a laid back, ultra-low key lounge bar that Fant-Asians quickly coined the David Lynch bar (the wattage of the red lighting in the bathroom was so low I would instinctively flip at the light switch whenever I entered the john). I preferred Le Veille 300 precisely because it had no atmosphere of its own. Whenever a Fant-Asia crowd would congregate at the 300 the place would, by necessity, assume a Fant-Asia atmosphere (We ruled in there!). I’m sure the waiters at the 300 were sad to see Fant-Asia end.

One of the more memorable Fant-Asia nights was the evening of the excellent short film program (Small Incisions, July 26). The four shorts, though markedly different in subject matter, complemented each other to seamless perfection. The Fant-Asia audience, which has garnered a well-earned reputation for sometimes reacting inappropriately to the intended on-screen emotions, was in perfect synch to the emotional rhythm of the program. Up first was Van Bebber’s nightmarish descent into white trash dementia, Roadkill: The Last Days of John Martin. A twenty-something sicko lives alone in his carnage-strewn apartment grunting at daytime television, eating raw meat and slowly vegetating into a state of quietly numb insanity. Imagine an offspring of the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre“ family and John Martin is what you’d get. The crowd enjoyed the absurdist, Grand Guignol gore and depravity, but what did it all mean? Many I spoke to were perplexed, but for this viewer the deliriously twisted state of Martin’s apartment (body parts and garbage all over the place, rats, human body-as-art decorations, etc.) functioned as an external reflection of his ruined state of mind.

Up next was Douglas Buck’s Home, a companion piece of sorts to last year’s study in domestic horror, Cutting Moments (the film that had people crying “ouch”). Combined, the two films form a macabre psychological exploration of the patriarchal nuclear family gone seriously wrong. Though Buck can envision signs of optimism in his social criticism, he surely won’t win any votes on the family value front with this searing diptych. Buck approaches the theme of the male psyche disintegrating into domestic violence in an understated formal manner similar to Cutting Moments (minimal dialogue, restraint camera style, non-contrast lighting). Home maintains Cutting Moments‘ emotional claustrophobia but where it differs – a conscious choice on Buck’s part – is in refraining from explicit, gut-wrenching violence. The end result is equally compelling. The least (though not without interest, especially for fans of the giallo) of the four shorts was the Italian Le Due Bamboline Rosse, a slavish homage to the oneiric, sensual worlds of the Italian horror/giallo masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The film is a miniature catalogue of giallo iconography and imagery: contrasting lighting (from steely cold to saturated reds); sinewy camera movements over glistening objects; extreme close-up’s; an unknown killer; a sharp razor, mannequins, dolls, two beautiful women, lesbianism, murder. The film doesn’t add up to more than its individual parts, but succeeds as an exercise in imitative style.

Up last, and certainly not least, was a gorgeous pristine 35mm cinemascope print of Nacho Cerda’s latest, hot-off-the-lab, offering, Genesis. Cerda, who won the hearts and souls of Montreal fans last year with his award winning short Aftermath (Genesis would repeat the honors this year), was noticeably anxious before the screening. No doubt because he knew that Genesis, though the third installment in what he calls his death trilogy (Awakenings, 1990, Aftermath, 1994), is an altogether different kettle of fish. With precise clinical poeticism, Cerda pushed the envelope of good taste with Aftermath‘s descent into a pathologist’s violent, necrophilic world. Genesis takes a wholly different slant on the theme of death, with art and love combining to transcend Aftermath‘s material world. Would Fant-Asia fans be swayed into Genesis‘ lyrical, sensual world? One could hear a pin drop during the screening as the audience lay seduced with every forceful edit and precise, controlled camera movement. Cerda had once again seduced his audience, this time with a fable of love and art’s transformative powers. A sculptor (Aftermath‘s Pep Tosar) tries to exorcise the pain of his wife’s (Trae Houlihan) death by sculpting a work in her image. Shortly into the artistic process things go magically wrong. The inanimate clay figure begins to bleed. Given the theme of creation, the blood spots can be seen as a sign of stigmata, which suggests a spiritual presence (the wife’s lingering soul, love). Concurrently, as the artwork comes to life, the sculptor slowly turns to clay. The twist is predictable long before the end, but what engrosses us is not the transformation itself but the emotions expressed through the faces and actions of the two principal characters. Cerda’s complete control of each edit, the expansive scope framing, and fluid camera movement sustains the film’s primal yet powerful emotions (love, loss, rebirth). What gives this Romeo & Juliet-like tragic love fable another layer of emotive power is that, at the same time, the film is a metaphor for the creative process. Romanticist theories of art have likened the artist to a God-like “creator” (In film circles, Andrei Tarkovsky is a recent example.) The pain and suffering endured by the artist (emotive, social, financial, etc.) is given a powerful visual force by Cerda in the form of the sculptor who sacrifices his own life to bring his art work to life. (Cerda no doubt can sympathize through his own trial and tribulations getting this film made!)

Anytime you watch a ridiculous amount of films at a festival you begin to note recurring themes and/or subject matter, either out of program design, pure coincidence, or the effect of too little sleep and not enough fresh air over an extended period of time! This year the image of torture reigned supreme at Fant-Asia. Whether in the context of horror, yakuza, exploitation, or serial murder/hostage film, scenes of characters being subjected to painstaking, workman-like torture appeared with an alarming consistency. Part of this can be explained by the genre shift in recent years in Hong Kong cinema from fantasy/martial arts film to the gangster (known as the triad in Hong Kong) cinema. Torture scenes are common in the yakuza/triad film because the plot often entails one gang trying to extort information from an informer, hitman, or rival gang member. Hence the presence of such scenes in the Hong Kong films The Odd One Dies (Patrick Yau, 1997), Full Alert (Ringo Lam, 1997), and The Longest Nite (Patrick Yau, 1998). The Odd One Dies delivers a hip, postmodern view of the underworld with two laconic anti-heroes, played by poster boy Takeshi Kaneshiro and Carmen Lee, vying for attention with perhaps the film’s most important character, the city of Hong Kong itself. Director Yau moderates the film’s lush visual style with parodic elements such as an incongruous Henry Mancini-like music score, and some funny running gags: Kaneshiro’s masochistic run-ins with the triad group, which end with the triad leader being inevitably stabbed in the hand; Kaneshiro’s running feud with a manager who will not rent him a room in a swanky hotel.

Whereas The Odd One Dies uses the crime milieu to situate troubled love, Yau makes every effort not to romanticize the triads in The Longest Nite. The Longest Nite, set in Macau, is a brooding, violent take on the cruel goings-on between cops and triad members. However, in this vision there is little to choose morally between Tony, a corrupt cop (Tony Leung Chiu-Wan), and one of the meanest, ice-cold killers to grace the screen, Sam (Lau Ching-Wan). In one scene Sam is driving a car while being detained by a gun-wielding cop seated next to him. To escape Sam shatters the windshield with his head, speeds blindly, and then brakes to send the cop flying through the front car window. Yau does for the triad film what Scorsese did for the gangster film by realistically depicting the brutality of the underworld. The film’s torture scenes are gut-wrenching: victims with potato sacks placed over their heads are pummeled into oblivion, nails are forced under fingernails, hands are crushed and smashed. There are no good or bad guys here, just brutal acts of retribution and intimidation; no room for love in this misanthropic world; in fact, in a sick running gag, the film’s only central female character is constantly used as a punching bag. The film’s final scene – a clear homage to Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai, and perhaps Enter the Dragon – takes place in a hall of mirrors with a showdown between Tony and Sam that climaxes in a splendorous ballet of shattered glass and luminous reflections.

A Wellesian influence (wide angle, extreme depth of field shots, low angle ceiling shots, long takes) pervades in another film featuring several brutal torture scenes, Takeshi Ishii’s mannered yakuza film Gonin. In Gonin five men successfully raid a yakuza headquarter and then spend the balance of the film on the run from the yakuza’s hired killers. The irrepressible Takeshi “Beat” Kitano plays one of the two relentless no frills hired killers. Death arrives, but as in many yakuza films, it usually represents something more than vindication. In Gonin the five central male characters learn of the redemptive powers of love and attain a measure of inner peace through death. For example, in one of the film’s most daring (and touching) death scenes, two of the five hunted men are trapped by their assailants in a public bathroom. The two men, one seriously shot, lie next to each other on the floor up against the bathroom door. A subsequent shot through the door proves fatal to the injured man. At the moment of death, the two men acknowledge their physical love by a sensual hand touch and a kiss. The experience places the survivor on a soul searching vendetta mission of those responsible for the death of his lover. Freedom seems his when the vindicated man boards a bus leaving the city. However, the relentless Kitano surprises him by boarding the bus at a later stop. Both men manage to fire fatal shots and die with their faces peacefully staring outside the bus window (a sequence that strangely enough reminded me of the ending to Midnight Cowboy 1969).

Ishii attempts a female version of Gonin in the sequel, Gonin 2, but fails to give his female characters a thematic resonance equal to their male counterparts (though it matches the original’s impressive visual style). The five women are far too playful and kittenish to be taken seriously. In the end it is the male character (played by the wonderful Ken Ogata) seeking revenge for the yakuza’s brutal rape of his wife that elicits the film’s emotional core. Ishii is more successful when he revisits the violent, nocturnal yakuza world in The Black Angel. Not only is Ishii’s excessive style better suited to this film’s mood, but The Black Angel is more effective in its attempt to carve out powerful female characters in the exclusively male yakuza world. Angel begins with a six year old girl, Ikko, witnessing the death of her parents (though we later learn the woman was not her maternal mother) at the hands of the yakuza. The film flashes forward fourteen years with Ikko as twenty-year old vengeance seeking “angel” (though the title also refers to an older female hit woman, Mayo). Angel contains a powerful torture scene that includes a six-minute sequence shot that would make Scorsese or De Palma smile. In the scene Ikko is apprehended by the yakuza and imprisoned at their warehouse headquarters. The six minute steadicam shot takes us through every area of the expansive warehouse as Ikko is brutally beat up, suited with a bullet proof vest and fired at, allowed to run herself into a state of exhaustion, raped, and then hung by her arms and beat up some more. The sequence is a casebook study in Ishii’s style: impressive sets bathed in expressionist lighting, claustrophobic mise-en-scéne, long takes and frequent use of the moving camera, and atmospheric music and sound.

The above selection of Hong Kong and Japanese gangster films include torture scenes that have a specific but minor narrative function. (In some cases, especially the yakuza film, the torture scene helps give moral and spiritual character to the principal yakuza hero in his/her tolerance to pain, allegiance to clan loyalty, and overall “bushido”). But the theme of torture appeared in different genre guises across Fant-Asia ’98: the samurai film (The Razor: the Snare, Taguchi Tomoro, Japan, 1973), the serial killer/hostage film (Angst, Gerald Kargl, Austria, 1983, Roadkill, Intruder, Tsang Kan-Cheung, Hong Kong, 1997, Rabid Dogs, Mario Bava, Italy, 1974); horror/science-fiction (The Dentist 2, Brian Yuzna, US, 1998, Evil Dead Trap, Toshiharu Ikeda, Japan, 1988, Rubber’s Lover, Shojin Fukui, Japan, 1996), sexploitation (Female Inquisitor, Gaira, Japan, 1987), prison film (A Chinese Midnight Express, Billy Tang, Hong Kong, 1997), and the piece-de-resistance of the torture film, the war-time torture-experiment film (Man Behind the Sun, T.F. Mous, Hong Kong, 1988).

Each year Fant-Asia programs at least one film that has an infamous reputation that any reputable fan is aware of and awaits with eager anticipation. In year one it was The Untold Story (Herman Yau-Lai-to, Hong Kong, 1993). Last year it was Cannibal Ferox (Umberto Lenzi, Italy, 1981) and Red to Kill (Billy Tang Hin-sing, Hong Kong, 1994). This year it was the notorious based-on-true-events Man Behind the Sun, director T.F. Mous’ attempt to shed some awareness on a repressed piece of history: the brutal activities of Japanese concentration camps in Manchuria during World War 2. Even though the print that played was excised (probably by some projectionist) of the nasty animal footage, it still packed quite a wallop. The cut footage included a cat thrown into rat-infested room and torn to bits – to prove the obvious point that there is strength in numbers – and the same rats doused into a fire and charred to a crisp. Whatever your take may be on the film’s social historical value in relation to its exploitative nature, I was thankful for getting to see this in such a wonderful 35 mm print.

Man Behind the Sun is part of a surprisingly extensive subgenre, the war-time torture-experiment film, which ranges from arthouse (The Night Porter, Lilliana Cavani, Italy, 1973, Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy, 1975) to exploitation (the “Ilsa” series, Girls in the Tiger Cage, parts 1 & 2, 1985, 1986, Tai Ng-Ok, Hong Kong). What sets Man Behind the Sun apart from these others is that it is more closely aligned to specific historical fact. The film is based on the torture unit known as Squadron 731 that was established by the Japanese in 1936 to conduct experiments on the potential use of biological warfare. This point is made early in the film, but later scenes of stomach churning torture seem disconnected from biological warfare. Outside of the animal deaths, all the camp horrors are achieved through special effects, with the one exception being the film’s gruesome piece-de-resistance: a real life autopsy of a young boy. In the film’s narrative the live autopsy is conducted to prove a doctor’s point that a living heart can be extracted from a body. The illusion is queasily achieved by cutting from the actual autopsy, which Mous filmed at a police station autopsy room, to close-ups of an actor’s face. In interview Mous said that he couldn’t afford the special effects for such a scene so he asked police permission to film such an autopsy if the chance occurred. When the call did arrive from the police he first asked permission from the boy’s parents and then went down to the station with a small crew to film the autopsy. Mous claims to not know how the boy died (stay tuned to an upcoming issue of the British horror magazine The Dark Side for T.F. Mous’ first English language interview conducted by myself, Mitch Davis, and Jason Slater)..

However, the point here is not the death of the boy, a tragic event that is autonomous to the film’s existence. The point is whether such a scene, real or otherwise, adds anything to the film’s intended effect of raising historical consciousness. The autopsy scene goes farther than any other scene in vilifying the Japanese, an effect that adds nothing to our understanding of history. When dealing with real events and real people (like the real boy in the autopsy), we must remember that there are real emotions at stake. The film opens with the inter-title, “friendship is friendship, history is history.” This is clever, but vilification will not help if the point is for both parties involved to come to a clearer understanding and acceptance of history. Unbelievably, some members of the audience actually laughed at points during the autopsy scene (while most in the sold-out crowd were in stunned silence).

Fant-Asia 1998: The Year of the Torture, Part 1

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 2, Issue 3 / August 1998 Festival Reports   douglas buck   fantasia   hong kong cinema   horror   nacho cerda   violence