Dead Sushi: wacky comedy horror film takes pot-shots at corporate culture and greed, and food obsessions

Noboru Iguchi, “Dead Sushi” (2012)

In the tradition of wacky Japanese comedy horror flicks comes this little number that takes a bizarre concept (bloodthirsty monster sushi) and milks it for all it’s worth (and then some) while managing to sneak in a coming-of-age / road movie theme in which discovering your true self and talents is the goal. Teenager Keiko (Rina Takeda) is trained by her sushi chef father to be both a sushi chef herself and a martial arts practitioner. The exacting standards her father imposes on her – plus his disdain for the fact that she was born a girl, not a boy – lead Keiko to run away from home and take up a job as a waitress at a rural hot springs resort. The other waitresses bully her and the resort owners kick her around roughly and warn her to maintain the place’s high (chortle) standards. Only the gardener Mr Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) treats her kindly. A group of corporate employees from a pharmaceutical firm arrives at the resort and the guests start throwing their weight about as well. Unbeknownst to all, a former employee has followed his erstwhile work colleagues to the resort, planning to avenge his sacking on his former bosses by injecting a liquid into sushi that turns the tasty morsels into fanged ravenous critters with the power of flight!

The computer-generated gore flies freely and bloodily and the fight sequences are perhaps a little too sharp and smooth in their choreography. Most characters are as one-dimensional and stereotyped as can be – even Keiko isn’t completely plausible as the shy, put-upon doormat who becomes an unexpected heroine – and director Iguchi has to continually pile on one send-up or cliche on top of another to keep the film going. The victims of the mutant sushi turn into rice-spewing zombies, the angry researcher transforms into a giant tuna monster, two pieces of sushi propagate an army of killer baby sushi balls (which later make for a beautiful spectacle of whizzing colour as they attack a human victim) and a giant salmon roe sushi battleship flies after Keiko flinging chains and blasting fire at her!

What helps to keep the movie going, aside from the pace and the ratcheting up of more jaw-dropping silliness, is a sub-plot involving the resort owners and the sushi chef they employ, along with themes of corporate corruption and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Underdogs, be they human or sushi, perform heroic deeds and sacrifice themselves if necessary to thwart evil. No-one associated with the film, least of all the cast and the director, takes it all that seriously and the general tone is light-hearted. The film ends on a happy note with both the corporate baddies and the monster sushi brought to heel and Keiko finally discovering her life’s purpose. For all the silly fun and jaw-dropping freakishness, the film cleverly skewers plenty of cultural stereotypes in modern Japanese society: the obsession with perfection in food preparation that amounts to gastro-pornography, the control that corporations have over their employees, and men’s sexist treatment of women, among others. Like Iguchi’s other gonzo freak-fest “RoboGeisha” which I reviewed not so long ago, “Dead Sushi” in its own way critiques contemporary Japanese society and values by throwing its obsessions at it and exploiting them to the hilt.

Ugetsu: a parable of two men in pursuit of fame and glory, with social justice themes

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)

Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.

The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.

Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.

The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.

The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.

The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.

The Shining: a histrionic epic horror film saved by its themes of control and alien manipulation

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

In most directors’ hands, a Stephen King horror novel of a family disintegrating under the impact of the husband / father’s alcoholism wouldn’t have been more than a small-scale pedestrian flick destined for weekday daytime TV. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” becomes an epic tale of how a small family is trapped by unseen and vaguely conscious forces that have shaped human history and led to suffering, tragedy and genocide. The film is noteworthy for its widespread use of Steadicam tracking shots, an eerie musical soundtrack, its creepy hotel setting and the performances of Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd as father and son set against each other due to external alien powers.

Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), seeking somewhere peaceful and isolated for his writing project, accepts a temporary position as an off-season caretaker for the upscale Hotel Overlook in a remote part of Colorado. At his interview, Torrance is told that the hotel is built on a Native American burial site and that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, developed cabin fever and killed his family. While Torrance is being interviewed, back home in Boulder, his son Danny (Lloyd) has a premonition about the hotel in which rivers of blood swamp the hotel floors and he falls into a trance. Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes the boy to a doctor and mentions that he has an imaginary friend called Tony.

Torrance gets the job and soon moves the family into its new quarters at the hotel. They meet the head chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who takes Danny aside and tells him that they are both telepathic. Halloran warns Danny that the hotel harbours many memories, not all of which are good, and that the boy must not enter Room 237.

Time passes, with Jack’s writing going nowhere while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds which include a giant maze that Danny becomes expert at traversing. Jack becomes frustrated and angry over his writer’s block and his relationship with Wendy disintegrates. Danny continues to have terrifying visions of ghosts and blood but is drawn to Room 237 and enters the room where he is attacked by an apparently dead woman. He escapes with bruises on his neck which his mother blames on Jack. Jack investigates Room 237 where he also sees the apparition.

While Wendy and Danny continue exploring the hotel, Jack retreats to the Gold Room where he meets a bartender and a butler who reveals himself as Delbert Grady, the hotel’s former caretaker, among a party of phantom wealthy revellers. Delbert Grady tells Jack that his son is telepathically contacting Halloran (who is on his way to the hotel from Miami to find out what is going on) and that he, Jack, must “correct” Wendy and Danny. The stage is thus set for a conflict between two mysterious forces using humans as their unwilling pawns.

While “The Shining” may not be a great Kubrick classic, it has much in common with other films of his, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and several of his war films. Jack is a typical Kubrick man whose sense of masculinity is weak and superficial, based as it is on dominating and subjugating weaker people like Danny and the submissive Wendy. The ghosts in the film recognise Jack as a weak man reliant on alcohol to prop up his masculinity and they seize on his weakness to compel him to murder. Significantly he kills Halloran, a representative of a traditional victim group (Afro-Americans) in US society. One wonders whether the rivers of blood that terrify Danny in his visions might actually represent the blood of Native Americans butchered and thrown into mass graves – and might not Hotel Overlook be sited on such a grave? – by the US Army as it drove indigenous people into reservations so their lands could be seized by the Federal government.

The acting ranges from overwrought (Duvall) to bravura (Nicholson) and almost understated (Lloyd). While Duvall has to make the best of a role of a passive child-like woman, and Nicholson refines his almost typecast persona of a man going mad, Lloyd probably delivers the best performance in a role where he has to play an imaginary friend with its own voice speaking to Danny Torrance. Significantly the main adult characters in the film regress almost to an infantile state while Danny Torrance adopts adult qualities to save himself, if not his mother. The boy’s talent, the “shining”, is not of very much help to him and Wendy, and only his knowledge of the maze and his persistence save his life. Perhaps this is Kubrick’s way of demonstrating that humans can be more than what they come into the world endowed with, and that perhaps we can overcome our aspects of our past with knowledge and reason.

Thanks to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, the film has a distinct look (as all Kubrick’s films do) and manages even in its most surreal and gory parts to be elegant and beautiful. This refined look doesn’t always work though as in the scene where Jack enters Room 237 and meets a naked young woman who seems more robotic than ghostly. The hotel interiors take on a palatial aspect thanks to the unusual camera angles and the scale on which the settings have been created, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them.

Special mention should be made of the music soundtrack, featuring dissonant pieces from Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wendy Carlos, which becomes a character in itself (albeit a rather overbearing and screechy one) along with the hotel. The music could have been quieter in parts and allow for more space than it does to heighten the tension and dread.

Parts of the film can be very histrionic, and Duvall’s character especially is of a screaming-damsel-in-distress stereotype that does her talents a disservice, but it does display an exceptional power. The underlying themes of control, a crisis in Western masculinity, humanity being in the grip of possibly malign forces shaping its evolution and destiny, and a child embodying hope and positive transformation are the film’s saving grace.

Onibaba: a psychological horror study with an anti-war theme

Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba” (1964)

An old Japanese Buddhist tale of a woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter from visiting a temple becomes in Kaneto Shindo’s hands a psychological study of a post-apocalyptic society in which people crushed by warfare and poverty exist as best as they can but are undone by the stresses of day-to-day living and the repressed emotions and tensions generated which can explode in unexpected ways. The film is set in mediaeval Japan during a period of civil war and widespread destruction; the capital Kyoto has been set ablaze and two rival Emperors are vying for power and control. Peasants have been recruited by daimyo to fight for either Emperor or the Ashikaga shogun family. Two women, the mother (Nobuko Otawa) of one such peasant and his young wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have fled into swampy countryside where, hidden by tall seas of grass, they eke out a living killing and robbing lone samurai and selling their armour and swords to a merchant who pays them in bags of millet.

One day, a soldier peasant, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the wars: the mother immediately plies him with questions about her son Kichi and Hachi replies that he is dead. Hachi sets up his hut not far from where the mother and daughter-in-law live and eventually he seduces the daughter-in-law and invites her to live with him. The mother, dependent on her daughter-in-law to help in killing samurai, offers herself to Hachi once she realises what is going on but Hachi is not interested. The mother tries to prevent the younger woman from visiting Hachi every night but her efforts exhaust her.

One night while the daughter-in-law is out with Hachi, the mother meets a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) who wears a demon mask. The samurai tells the mother the mask is necessary as he has a beautiful face that is not for peasants to see. The samurai forces the mother on pain of death to lead him out of the swamps but she tricks him into falling down a large hole where the women usually lure their victims. Once she is sure that he is dead, the mother descends into the hole to retrieve his armour and swords, and with effort takes the mask off his face. She sees that the samurai is severely disfigured.

The demon mask gives the mother an idea of how to control her wayward daughter-in-law and for the first few times she succeeds in stopping the girl from visiting Hachi by putting the fear of demons into her. Unfortunately an unexpected rainstorm enables the girl to escape and creates another problem for the mother with the mask …

The film may be very slow for some viewers but the pace helps to build up unbearable tension, especially unbearable sexual tension, gradually and relentlessly. The main actors do a fine job in expressing their fears of isolation and loneliness, and their need for connection and love, through their expressions, actions and dialogue, minimal though these are. The mother’s sexual frustrations and jealousy lead her to deny her daughter-in-law the chance of fulfillment with Hachi, even though he is a drunk and a sleaze, and these emotions transform the older woman into the demon hag of the film’s title. The film’s swampland setting, dominated by restless waving forests of susuki grass, and with its lone tree and the vagina-like hole that promises death to high-born samurai but gives life to the peasant women, reflects the sexual frustrations of its main characters and becomes a significant character in its own right. The music soundtrack which ranges from improvised jazz bebop to ritual drumming adds to the feeling of unease and tension.

Some audiences may be perturbed by the macabre grand-guignol climax which turns the film into uncomfortable comedy, completely at odds with its otherwise realist themes. The film’s conclusion comes quickly and is deliberately left open-ended. The one thing we can be sure of is that chaos will follow: the vagina-like hole, which had received male victims of wealth and status, might now receive an impoverished female victim and what cosmic disruption might now be caused by a new imbalance in nature can only be guessed at.

The film derives its impact and horror from the characters’ psychology, the stresses, inner conflicts and tensions they experience and the actions that result with their devastating consequences. Stunning black-and-white cinematography, an arch music soundtrack and a minimal style that throws emphasis on character development help turn a bare-bones story into an unforgettable work of art. Few other films showing how a debased society at war and the pressures of poverty and uncertainty it creates can lead to people treating one another in the most dreadful ways can match “Onibaba” for drama and impact.

Supervenus: a 3-minute critique on Western standards of female pulchritude and the damage they cause

Frédéric Doazan, “Supervenus” (2013)

This 3-minute debut effort for writer / director Frédéric Doazan is a devastatingly critical comment on modern standards of female beauty as they have changed over time. Using Photoshop, a home-made green screen to film his hands and Adobe After Effects, Doazan cuts out a picture of a woman from an old anatomy textbook and changes her appearance from ordinary and generic to a more glamorous creature by puffing out her cheeks and lips, replacing her brown eyes with blue (by ripping out her eyeballs), giving her lustrous dark hair, augmenting her breasts, digging out a pair of ribs and performing other kinds of cosmetic surgery in fairly gruesome and bloody ways. The result is varnished with a burst of sunlamp ray and the newly tanned lady looks quite attractive if rather bland. Doazan proceeds to the next step of transformation of his model by pumping up her cheeks and lips even more with Botox, zapping her brain with drugs, denying her her unborn child, thinning and extending her limbs, and stuffing more silicon into her already stuffed breasts. He subjects his victim to yet more sunlamp rays and the end result is … more sizzled than sizzling.

The silent animation – there are sound effects of slicing and dicing, but that’s all – is entertaining to watch as comedy horror satire. Doazan makes a good point about how much female physical appearance is forced to conform to a highly artificial standard determined by external forces (represented by gloved hands) and how much individuality and the natural functions of the female body are sacrificed in following such a standard. Most disturbing of course is the moulding of the brain (and the woman’s own sense of identity) and the harm the various procedures cause to the woman’s body until it can’t stand the tortures any more and literally falls apart.

Doazan might have made a stronger point about how corporations profit from establishing standards of beauty that compel women to undergo often quite dangerous and life-threatening procedures, and about how cosmetic surgery turns women and their bodies into passive vessels on which men may inscribe their desires and expectations. The very minimal style of animation certainly allows viewers to make up their own minds about what Doazan is saying about cosmetic surgery and its place in the way physical beauty is defined in Western society, and the harm and damage such narrow aesthetic standards can create.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.

Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.

The Image: a tiny study of mental crisis, homoeroticism and creepy atmosphere sets a template for David Bowie’s future career

Michael Armstrong, “The Image” (1967)

Notable mainly for being singer and sometime actor David Bowie’ first film role, this 14-minute horror short is an eerie surrealist piece. With not much story to speak of, and including some very hokey horror-movie stereotypes, this film is big on atmosphere and suggestions of mental breakdown and homoeroticism. An painter (Michael Byrne) working on a portrait in an apparently abandoned house becomes unnerved when the subject of the portrait, a young man (Bowie), appears to him outside the window, on the stairs and in other parts of the house. The apparition looks and feels so real that the painter makes numerous attempts to kill him, only to discover that the ghost keeps returning again and again. Despairing that he cannot rid himself of the ghost, the painter decides instead to kill off his painting but the effect on him is catastrophic.

Not much acting talent was required from its tiny cast but Bowie is effective at portraying the mystery ghost, thanks to having studied mime with Lindsay Kemp. Where the film excels is in creating an atmosphere of heightened tension throughout the house with stills of windows, the long staircase with rubbish all over it, the locked door and various empty rooms. Filming in black-and-white film helps impart the necessary murky, shadowy look. There may be influences from German Expressionism and Alfred Hitchcock, especially in the prominence of the long staircase in some scenes. The pacing and quick editing of shots of the painting and of the ghost, from one to the other and back again and again, are well done and suggest an imminent mental crisis for the painter.

The insinuations of mental breakdown, the homoerotic attraction between the painter and the young man whom the painter knew before the latter’s death (which is hinted at in the painter’s confrontations with the ghost), the violence (not too explicit) and the all-enveloping creepy atmosphere and isolation are communicated well, and I guess that’s really all that can be said in the film’s favour.

The film was made in the same year that David Bowie released his first album which was self-titled and both film and album quickly sank without trace. Yet the character that Bowie plays in “The Image”, with its ethereal quality featuring hints of dark and strange sexuality and a frisson of violence, was to inform other personae he adopted throughout his musical and acting career.

Son of Saul: a modern morality play in the midst of extreme evil

László Nemes, “Son of Saul / Saul Fia” (2015)

Of all the stories László Nemes could have chosen to film to launch his career as a director, few are so terrifying as a day or two in the life of a Jewish Sonderkommando unit member working at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp complex in 1944. The Nazi German war machine is on its last legs and its death factories are going full-tilt as the regime begins its psychotic self-cannibalism. Hungary has just been swept up into the embrace of the Third Reich and the deportations of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau begun almost immediately. On arrival at the camp, the strongest men among these Jews are separated from the rest by Nazi administrators and forced into Sonderkommando work units under threat of death. Their duties are to collect the clothing of people herded by Nazi guards into the gas showers and to search the clothes for gold, money and other valuable trinkets needed for the German war effort; to haul away the dead and throw them into the ovens; to dispose of their ashes; and to clean out the shower rooms for the next lot of victims.

One such Sonderkommando unit member is Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig) who gradually becomes numbed to the dreary and tough physical work he has to do, day in, day out, under close supervision from the guards, with little time for himself … in case he starts plotting with other men like himself to fight back against their oppressors, blow up the camps and escape to alert the rest of the world to what’s been happening there for the past three years or so. One day while helping to dispose of yet another batch of asphyxiated victims, he discovers that a 13-year-old boy survived the gassing. A prison doctor comes over to examine the boy and smothers him. Saul however becomes obsessed with the boy: he believes the child may be his son whom he abandoned many years ago as the child had been conceived and born out of wedlock. With great difficulty and putting his life and others’ lives at risk he retrieves the boy’s body. He then searches for a rabbi among his fellow prisoners and new arrivals for chambers who can say a kaddish (a hymn of praise to God) for the boy so he can be given a proper burial. Saul endures unimaginable suffering and torment from both the Nazi guards and other Sonderkommando work unit inmates to find the rabbi; at the same time, he is also part of a scheme worked out by his work unit leader and other Sonderkommando work units to collect enough gunpowder to make bombs that will blow up the camps and help the prisoners escape into the outside world.

By focusing on Saul’s point of view and following him closely, the film relays the horrors of the death camps and the indignities suffered by Jewish prisoners at the hands of their jailers effectively without delivering any sermons or passing any judgement. It is up to the viewer to decide whether to condemn Saul for risking his life and other prisoners’ lives for the dead boy. For Saul, the child represents an opportunity to redeem himself for not having taken care of his son while he was alive; at the same time the dead boy also represents a continuation of the Jewish people since by being buried his body will be evidence of his people’s former existence if they cannot be allowed to live in the present and into the future. As the film continues, the dead boy may be viewed as representing all the victims who perished in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland.

In his obsessive search for a rabbi – so much so that he risks his own life and at least one other man is killed as a result – Saul in his own way upholds the importance of the spiritual life and the traditions and rituals associated with spirituality and communion with God. Saul is mocked by his fellow prisoners in his search but they do help him find the boy’s body and help lead him to a rabbi, risking their own lives in doing so. Saul’s obsession causes him to fail in his allotted part in the scheme to help blow up the camp but the rebels pull him along with them in escaping from the camp. One would think that, having failed his friends, Saul would have been left behind to face the tender mercies of the authorities when the pathetic rebellion fails as it was bound to … so it is all the more remarkable that they rescue him not once but twice during the rebellion. This might say something about the level of camaraderie that the Sonderkommando prisoners have managed to develop and the depth of humanity they retain in the midst of all the hellish, machine-like evil they are exposed to.

The dialogue is extremely minimal and matter-of-fact and Röhrig is stoic in his facial expressions that seem to say more than words could possibly ever express. This narrative approach allows for multiple interpretations of Röhrig’s motivations and actions, and those of his fellow prisoners, whether they are justified or not in the context of his environment. The cinematography by Mátyás Erdély, relying on a hand-held camera and following Röhrig very closely, so closely that the film jumps when he jumps and swims when he swims, is a stand-out feature of the film; it captures the sickening and hellish ambience of the gas chambers, and the brutal and dehumanising work routines endured by the Sonderkommando work units. Another outstanding aspect of the film is its ambient soundtrack of shouting, crowd noises, explosions and gunfire to suggest various horrors occurring off-screen.

Whatever message the film carries, for most viewers it should surely carry the message that even in the midst of great evil where absolute hopelessness dominates, and people, jailers and prisoners alike, are stripped of all that makes them human, an individual may still be able to find some remnant of humanity within his / her being and through that defy oppressors and gain some redemption. The film drives home the point that morality is very much a personal choice and how one deals with the consequences of making that choice in one’s immediate situation is what saves or damns that person. “Son of Saul” is perhaps best read as a morality play in which a protagonist must decide how best to live his / her life in the midst of unrelenting bleakness, suffering, brutal violence, oppression and hopelessness.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Hollywood Goth drama undone by misanthropy and poor source material

Tim Burton, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

US film director Tim Burton has long been fascinated with non-conformists and outsiders, especially those outsiders who become so because they live in oppressive environments, and he has also been keen on revealing the darker aspects of human nature and society. He has obviously experienced being marginalised himself and past film work of his argues strongly on behalf of those persecuted by mainstream society because of their differences and their struggles with having to conform to unrealistic standards. The Victorian melodrama of London barber Sweeney Todd who is unjustly banished by a corrupt judge to Australia for a crime not of his own doing and who later returns seeking bloody vengeance against the judge who destroyed his family and the society that condemned him was bound to appeal to Burton.

His adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical of the tale though seems ill-advised for someone who cares about the plight of oppressed individuals; even with all the changes Burton had to make to the musical to bring the tale to the screen, the plot turns out to be superficial and focuses on spectacle, shock and sensationalist violence, and the music and lyrics are very boring and repetitive. The original melodrama itself and the musical material are mostly to blame – there really is not much substantial for Burton to work with – but the director himself does not bring much new to the film. Even the cast he assembles for the film depends heavily on two actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who have worked with the director on several other films (and HBC was Burton’s de facto wife at the time as well) and who both knew what was expected of them for this movie.

Benjamin Barker (Depp) returns to Victorian London by ship accompanied by sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), having previously been imprisoned and sent away for 15 years on trumped-up charges imposed by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) because Turpin had lusted after Barker’s wife. With Barker gone, Turpin and his valet Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) lure Barker’s wife and daughter into their clutches; Turpin rapes Mrs Barker who then tries to kill herself and later goes mad. She is cast out into the streets and Turpin then brings up the daughter Johanna as his ward, planning later on to marry her. When Barker returns to London, he contacts his old landlady Mrs Lovett (HBC) who helps him re-establish his barbershop.

After despatching rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) who tried to blackmail Barker, and missing a chance to kill Turpin, Barker and Lovett hit upon a scheme that benefits them both: Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, starts killing a considerable proportion of his clients and sends their bodies down a ramp to Lovett in her dungeon where she processes the corpses through a mincing machine into meat for her pie-shop business. The couple do a roaring trade, the authorities initially suspect nothing, and Barker/Todd and Lovett start planning a future away from London with Lovett’s assistant Toby (Ed Sanders), inherited from Pirelli, in tow.

In the meantime, Hope meets Johanna (Jane Wisener) and falls in love with her; the young couple try to elope but Turpin intervenes and sends the defiant Johanna to a madhouse for women. This subplot is thinly developed, with Hope rescuing Johanna without too much trouble from a supposed prison and bringing her to Todd’s barbershop as refuge. By the time he does so, Todd and Lovett have become deranged serial murderers in their quest and Johanna is in as much mortal danger from Todd as she ever was from Judge Turpin.

The thinness of the plot and the lacklustre music, not helped much by the actors’ thin voices (but at least they try valiantly and Depp is not too bad as a singer), have to be padded out by Burton’s familiar Hollywood Gothic visual style of painting his lead actors’ faces to look haunted and ghost-like, and the depiction of London as faux-Dickensian. The violence and bloodletting are dealt with in forced comic Monty-Python style and the only real moment of horror which Burton actually does very effectively comes at the end when Toby, suspecting that Todd isn’t all that he seems to be, is led into the dungeon by Lovett who traps him there to face the full horror of what she and Todd have been up to.

The film veers between Burton’s sympathy for underdogs and the misanthropy of the lyrics, as his characters try to lift themselves out of poverty into Victorian middle-class comfort by preying on rich and poor alike. Eventually Todd’s desire for revenge and Lovett’s love for Todd and her attempts to create a family with him and Toby become their undoing. Burton obviously has fun picking up themes of longing for security and connection, desire for retribution against individual and social injustice, and the need for individuals to find a place in society that helps them fulfill other needs, throwing them all together and seeing what comes out. How the conflict that arises from the intersection of these individual needs results in tragedy. At the end of the film, the survivors of the carnage are no better off than its victims. Todd and Lovett end up being cannibalised by their own desires and scheming. What happens to Hope, Johanna and Toby remains unknown.

If there’s a message to be taken away, it seems to be that human nature is nasty and unredeemable, and even those individuals and layers of society badly treated by others are as bad and corrupt as those who mistreat them. Nothing in the movie – and I suspect in Burton’s source material, to judge from the lyrics – attempts to investigate the nature of a society that allows the rich and powerful like Judge Turpin and their hangers-on like Bamford to prey on the poor and to escape proper social justice while the poor tear themselves apart with personal hatreds and desires, as Todd and Lovett end up doing.

The bleakness of the film’s narrative, the underlying misanthropy and the sensational violence have to be covered up with a cartoonish presentation and an approach that goes for cheap laughs. None of the characters is very convincing and only the beggar woman persecuted by Lovett, along with Johanna, Toby and Hope elicit any audience sympathy.