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Friday, Dec. 25, 2009
Stuck on vampire island: Get me outta here!
Hollywood likes its action movies fast and furious, their plot lines reducible to a phrase.
Kim Tae Kyun's horror thriller "Higanjima" would thus seem to be the ultimate Hollywood remake material. It barely pauses for breath from action scene to action scene while its appeal to its target audience — teenage boys — can be summed up in two words: "island" and "vampires."
The island is no paradise of white sand and palm trees but rather a forbidding rock in the middle of a stormy sea, while the resident vampires are, not the sensitive heartthrobs of "Twilight," but vicious, ravenous types who revel in terror and torture (though their leader engages in the traditional vampire pleasure of seduction).
Based on a best-selling comic by Koji Matsumoto (4.1 million copies of paperback editions sold), "Higanjima" is something of a genre stew, taking inspiration from Hollywood and elsewhere. The trapped-on-a-deadly- island theme echoes the controversial Kenji Fukasaku hit "Battle Royale" (2000), while fans of Kim's own "Volcano High" (2001), a comic actioner about battling high schoolers with supernatural powers, will recognize his stylistic signature.
Unlike Japanese directors of manga adaptations who deliver all-out action with an undercurrent of irony — Takashi Miike's "Yattaman" (2009) and Akihito Shiota's "Dororo" (2008) being recent examples — Kim charges up the screen with howls and grimaces of out-there emotion. The hero, a straight-arrow teenage martial artist, spends so much of the film in a teary, heartstruck mode, including his fight scenes, that I started worrying about his mental health. Once you start weeping over a dead vampire, as a dozen of his fellows lunge for your throat, there's no end to it.
This over-the-top approach applies to every aspect of the film, from its thrash-metal score to a monster that looks like the spawn of the alien in "Alien" and a raptor from "Jurassic Park." This is not simply mindless pounding — Kim inserts gruesomely clever ideas into the mayhem — but it is also shades too arcade-game-ish, with threats that don't feel so threatening and deaths that have all the impact of pixels dissolving.
The film begins with spikes of real adrenaline, however, as the hero, Akira (Hideo Ishiguro), leads a gang of angry punks on a frantic chase, while enlisting the aid of his best buds: Ken (Tomohisa Yuge), quick-fisted punk, Yuki (Miori Takimoto), Ken's bubbly-but-spunky girlfriend, Nishyama (Osamu Adachi), a coolly calculating geek, Kato (Masaya Handa), a roly-poly comic relief, and Pon (Fumito Moriwaki), a fiercely loyal sidekick.
He is finally saved, however, by the slinky, mysterious Rei (Asami Mizukawa), who materializes out of nowhere in the nick of time. From her he learns that his long-lost brother, Atsushi (Dai Watanabe), is still alive — if not exactly well. Two years ago he and his new bride went to her home island of Higanjima for their honeymoon — and ended up battling the vampires who had taken over the place, led by Masa (Koji Yamamoto), a foppish, implacably evil albino mastermind.
Despite a fearsome encounter soon after with a vampire hit man, which shows them just what sort of crazed, powerful forces they're dealing with, Akira and the gang decides to voyage with Rei to Higanjima. Soon after they arrive, equipped more for a day trip than a live-or-death struggle, all hell breaks loose.
That's all I'm going to say about the story, since it packs twist after twist that any description, however, vague, might spoil. I will add, though, that the film's vampires flout many of the old "rules" for their kind. They prowl in the daylight and fight with agility and tenacity, as though they were running on, not occasional slurps of blood, but protein shakes. Also, Akira and his buds never think to thwart them with crucifixes or holy water. In fact, just about the only evidence of their European origin is the character of Masa, with his look of Transylvanian aristocracy circa 1830, from his velvet jacket to his horse.
Masa also fits the old Hollywood stereotype of the brainy, slithery but absurdly ineffective villain who lets his victims slip through his clutches time and time again, while seldom lifting a long-nailed finger to help his struggling minions.
Similarly hors de combat are Akira's crew, who serve mainly as ready-made victims or hapless bystanders rather than fellow fighters. The object is to focus more attention on Akira and Atsushi, but the effect is to make them look like excess baggage.
Late in the game, Kim tries to rev the film's sputtering action engine with the aforementioned monster, though it looks less a part of the "Higanjima" world, than dragged in from another movie. Also, whether from time or budget constraints or both, it appears oddly sketchy and ghostlike, as though the film's CGI artists went on a coffee break midway through postproduction and never returned.
Maybe it will be finished in time for the promised (threatened?) part two. But I'm voting myself off the island first.