Whenever a cinematic trend becomes financially popular – be it the teen comedy, the sci-fi space opera, or the high concept action film – the fad floodgates usually open up right behind it. Profiteering has always been part of the motion picture landscape, since stumbling upon an entertainment ideal that works for the ticket-buying general public is like mainstream manna from heaven. When J-Horror proved its mantle a few years back, there was a sudden upswing in interest for Japanese, Chinese and Korean filmmaking. And it wasn't just in the areas of ghosts and ghouls. No, DVD distributors realized that the Asian marketplace was overloaded with all categories of inventive and original cinema, and went about mining many of the best examples for eventual Region 1 release. Focusing exclusively on the genre side of things, TLA Releasing has packaged three of its more successful titles – 2LDK, Suicide Club and Moon Child – and is presenting them in something called the Danger After Dark Collection. Yet aside from some newly remastered anamorphic transfers for two of the films, there is nothing from a packaging or presentation standpoint that couldn't be experienced the first time around.
Dealing with violence, blood, crime, culture and heavy doses of Japanese customs and traditions, the three films that make up the Danger After Dark Collection all offer a unique approach to the many problems facing contemporary Asian society. From the roles women play (2LDK) to the issues of pop trends (Suicide Club) and street gangs (Moon Child), each movie makes its own original (if occasionally imperfect) cinematic statement. The storyline behind each entry is as follows:
Nozomi is a college graduate, hoping to parlay her high school stage experience into a career as a genuine actress. Lana is a seasoned pro, having spent time performing in movies that are far from legitimate. These two ladies share a condominium owned by the talent agency they work for, and for a while, things appear to be working out. While Nozomi's shy reserve has a tendency to drive Lana nuts, the party girl is also a pain in her introverted roommate's behind. As luck would have it, both girls are up for the lead role in a major motion picture and each is also interested in the same man. When a casual conversation over dinner escalates into an all out battle of wills, the gals decide there is more to this war than who gets the part or who lands the guy. This is a struggle for personality survival, and our ferocious female fighters will duel to the death to determine who is supreme mistress of their 2LDK (two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen) domain.
Suicide Club (2002)
On a seemingly ordinary day, 54 schoolgirls leap in front of a train during the heart of rush hour. Their deaths, along with a previous rash of suicides, have left the public frightened and the police flummoxed. They believe the cases are unrelated until a mysterious phone call from someone named 'The Bat' tells law enforcement that a weird webpage holds the key to understanding the sinister situation. Sure enough, the site keeps a running tally of the deaths, even marking them BEFORE they occur. Before long, a goofy Goth rock and roller named Genesis kidnaps 'The Bat' and tells her that he is responsible for the killings. But without much proof – aside from some minor computer hacking skills – the case remains open. Then the cops get a call from a child, a disrespectful brat who claims to know the reasons behind the suicides. The people who are dying are not part of some club or cult, he chides, but instead are failing to "connect" with themselves. And this apparently leaves them susceptible to subliminal messages embedded inside of some syrupy pop music.
Moon Child (2003)
In the Japan of the future, gangs and hoodlums rule the streets. As a kid, Sho always thought of himself as a shrewd, sharp criminal. But when a simple theft goes wrong, he appears headed for a quick demise. Enter Kei, a strange man with an aversion to light and a hunger for blood. Turns out this mysterious figure is a vampire, and he becomes Sho's mentor. Time passes, and the pair go from street thugs to full fledged mobsters. During a botched heist, they meet up with another young man avenging the rape of his mute sister. Everyone becomes fast friends and the years fly by. Somewhere along the line, our bloodsucker disappears, Sho becomes a hardened mob boss, and his vigilante pal joins a competing clan. To make matters even more difficult, Sho has married the mute, and he has a daughter. When Kei turns up again, he is imprisoned for being a killer. Sho makes threats against the other bosses. When he is threatened, he contacts his vampire buddy, realizing he needs Kei's help again.
Since nothing really links these films together thematically or pragmatically (the Danger After Dark tag makes no sense, for several rather obvious reasons), it is best to look at them separately. Only then can we determine whether this box set is worth considering, or if the films should be purchased separately. Let's being with:
2LDK (Score: ****1/2)
2LDK is indeed a dazzling movie, a wicked satire about fame and fortune masquerading as perhaps the greatest no-holds-barred, knock-down drag-out, power-tools-and-all catfight in the history of cinema. Though director Yukihiko Tsutsumi would have you believe that this is all just a social commentary about the state of female-to-female relations in Japan, at its core is the real struggle between specific gender roles—the concept of the quiet, aloof proper girl vs. the hot-to-trot woman of worldly design. Each of our characters here is waging war to save her supposed self, to protect the image that she has spent so many years, cosmetics, and diet regimes protecting and propagating. All throughout 2LDK, our leads are like simmering cauldrons of disappointment, disrespect, and depression. That it takes something as silly as an argument over who used what beauty product (a telling plot point in and of itself) for these volatile vixens to pop their humanity and go Voorhees on each other says a lot about the unbending universe and cultural structure in which these lonely ladies were raised. One of the reasons 2LDK works so well is the precise narrative construction by director Tsutsumi. Beginning with the basics of a roommate relationship—the boredom, the privacy issues, the intermingling of possessions—and then layering, slice by slice, the personal dynamics inherent in each character, this writer-director does a spectacular job of building the tension and suspense. Tsutsumi keeps the logic consistent and the outbursts manageable, twisting the storyline while helping us get a handle on the desperation and rage inside each woman. He then releases their repression in ever more ridiculous fashion. By the time the women are wielding electrical appliances and garden tools as part of their delirious domestic spat, we have been thoroughly prepared for this eventuality and enjoy every craven, criminal minute of it.
Suicide Club (Score: ***)
Like a surreal hybrid of Kairo and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Suicide Club is one half of a very good, very creepy film. As we watch the suicide segments of the story unfold, we are immediately captivated by the feeling of dread, the nastiness of the abundant gore, and the enigmatic concept of a sudden plague of self-destruction. Handling the terror so well that he could teach his J-Horror pals a thing or two, writer/director Sion Sono has stumbled upon a great idea for his movie – strike that, for the FIRST PART of his movie. The opening train accident, the sight of kids leaping from school buildings for no reason, and the bloody grotesquery of a mother mindlessly sawing through her hand leave indelible marks, and had he stayed on this path, Sono would have delivered an Asian macabre classic. But then he has to go and spoil it with the kooky character Genesis, a bizarre bowling alley from Hell, and all the A Clockwork Orange/Glam rock gunk. This total narrative shift seems like a complete cop out, almost as if Sono found himself unable to explain the rash of deaths, and decided to go with the cutting social commentary conclusion instead. More or less leaving the suicides behind, we end up with one woman's goal to discover the connection between recent events and the sudden popularity of a kiddie pop outfit called Dessart. The subliminal message stuff makes no sense, the final confrontation with a group of supposedly sinister wee ones is pointless, and we never really find out why everyone was offing themselves. Though some may argue that half a good movie is better than a whole bad one, the baffling conclusion to this otherwise effective exercise in eeriness almost destroys everything in its path – almost.
Moon Child (Score: **1/2)
Buried at the heart of Moon Child's endless references to other, better films is a devastatingly good idea. Following a mobster, under the influence of a loyal vampire pal, as he rises to prominence in a post-apocalyptic world seems like the stuff of a thousand average animes. Yet locked within this narrative is a great deal of cinematic mythology, as well as a chance to explore issues both mortal and moral. And if we're lucky, we may get a little John Woo related gunplay and sci-fi spectacle on the side. Sadly, director Takahisa Zeze avoids most of these options. Instead, he turns his tale into a vignette-inspired talk-a-thon with too many leaps forward in time and not enough effort to clarify his characters. Indeed, the main complaint with this film is that lead actors HYDE (Hideto Takaria) and Gackt (Gackt Camui) are cut from the same heroin chic cloth. Both are rail thin, ultra-effeminate and clouded in a fog of flamboyant grimness so obvious that Marilyn Manson and Siouxsie Sioux could be their parents. Add in an obvious homoerotic element to the relationship (Gackt looks so much like a woman in fact that a DNA test should be mandated) and the ever present titles cards ("ten years later", "a few months later", etc.) and we have a movie more perplexing than rewarding. It's hard to get a handle on who we are supposed to care for, what the individual dynamic truly is, and who exactly are the bad guys, especially when Takahisa keeps changing them around every ten minutes. At nearly two hours, the film is overlong, and the lack of a defining center (or any real F/X eye candy) makes this a specious speculative fiction. What could have been interesting turns out erratic, never allowing us a chance to sympathize or identify with its cookie cutter players.
In truth, each of these films is hard to categorize in a single paragraph. All are dense in their delivery, overdone in their ideas, and moderately successful in mixing deep dark comedy into their scenarios. Clearly the best offering here is 2LDK. It has more to say about the female of the species – both metaphorically and specifically - than a university full of scholars. The action is amazing, and the conclusion is thought-provoking as it is harrowing. Suicide Club, on the hand, feels like a half-baked slam on the media meshed with some inventive J-Horror histrionics. Only the latter has any real legs. Moon Child feels like a complete failure, a far too random collection of homages that never discover a central story – or character – to huddle around. With several narrative threads left dangling, a deus ex machina reliance on contrivance to get past problematic plot points, and a finale which fails to find the heart the director was after, it's the lesser entry of the trio.
Much is made on the box set packaging about how 2LDK and Suicide Club are arriving in new remastered anamorphic widescreen transfers. Yet previous reviews on this site, and others, indicate that 2LDK originally came in a 1.85:1 16x9 configuration. A side-by-side comparison offers no real significant improvement in picture quality. Suicide Club was previously a letterboxed presentation only, and the new image is, sadly, non-anamorphic once again. Why TLA would advertise (both on the box and cover art) that this is a "brand new anamorphic transfer" is ridiculous. It clearly is not. Still, the image does have solid colors and excellent splatter details. Moon Child appears to have the same transfer (1.85:1, 16x9, fairly flawless) as it did before. Director Takahisa Zeze does employ some shot on digital footage in certain instances, so those sudden lapses in picture quality are intentional, not some sign of shoddy remastering.
All three films come in their original Japanese with subtitles (the ad copy for 2LDK boasts "New Optional English Subtitles", whatever that means) and the so-called Dolby Digital Surround Sound is clean and crisp. Unlike typical J-Horror films which rely on sonics to sell their scares, the films in the Danger After Dark Collection are more talky and less atmospheric. Still, the mixes are handled well, and we never miss important aural information.
Only 2LDK offers anything viable in the way of added content. Moon Child and Suicide Club are trailers/gallery releases only. As for the third entry, there's a 20-minute making-of 2LDK featurette that is actually a Japanese television documentary on the movie's creation. It walks us through the seven-day shoot with a part-information, part-puff piece mentality. Many of the aspects that make Tokyo television so strange (the weird asides and MST3K-style commentary over the proceedings) are present in spades during this informative and insightful look behind the scenes, but at least we learn how several of the effects sequences were shot and how grueling the schedule was on all the participants. More information on how this film came about can be found in the collection of press conference footage offered on the disc. For nearly 30 minutes, we hear Tsutsumi, Kitamura, and 2LDK's cast (Asian babes Maho Nonami and Eiko Koike) discuss the beginning, middle, and end of the production. It makes for some very entertaining and engaging material, even if some of the translations are far too literal to be anything other than arcane.
If you own one or all of these films separately, double dipping for a non-existent anamorphic transfer of Suicide Club and a slightly better 2LDK seems stupid. If you have never seen any of these movies and are looking for a way to broaden your Asian cinema appreciation, you could do a lot worse. Though only one film is exceptional – at least in this critic's mind – all are worth a look. Therefore, a rating of Recommended is easily awarded. Of the three, 2LDK is the most complete, Suicide Club has the most promise, and Moon Child has the most problems. Still, they all exemplify a sense of imagination and invention that is sorely lacking in Western genre efforts. We need to thank everyone who made The Ring and The Grudge fiscally popular. Thanks to their box office returns, we have an opportunity to see the entirety of Eastern filmmaking – for good and for bad. It's no surprise then that the Danger After Dark Collection offers a little of both.
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