Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 29, 2018 8:19 pm 
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Careful with that axe!

This movie plays in an original and hilarious manner with the zombie movie genre. It is also a virtuoso display of self-reflection, a making-of a making-of, and it's in three parts. The first part is the film you saw on TV. Later, we learn that it was shot as the first episode for a new all-zombie channel, in a live broadcast single take - no time for edits - so "one cut" has a double meaning. The premise is this: A director whose claim is being "fast, cheap, but average," is making a zombie movie with a small crew in an abandoned water filtration plant in a remote location. During a break caused by the director's discontent (to put it mildly) with the female young lead Chinatsu (Yuzuki Akiyama) for flubbing 42 takes of the scene where she's threatened by her zombified bf, Ko (Kazuaki Nagaya), real zombies begin to attack, and mayhem ensues. After that the director returns and, heedless of the danger and doom coming on the cast, shoots the attacks of the real zombies with delight, maniacally yelling "Action!"

All this movie was in fact made with virtually unknown actors and on a tiny budget, and part of its charm lies in its revelation of Japanese teamwork and artisanal ingenuity.

The whole first segment, ending with the title and credits for "One Cut of the Dead," is a tour-de-force nearly forty-minute take. That cheap zombie movie shoot that turns real is just the beginning.

Part two, set one month earlier, loses the energy and ferocity of the first part, but modulates into a homier, more self-conscious mood. It's from the point of view of the director, Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) and shows his family life, then how he got hired to do the movie, and its peculiar demands. We learn that his wife Nao (Harumi Syuama) is an actress who's stopped acting, but comes to his shoots, and that his daughter, Mao (Mao) who comes for the rehearsals and later is recruited into the cast, has a crush on the young man in "One Cut's" cast, Ko, apparently a heartthrob, who emerges as a prima donna. What this segment lacks in excitement it makes up on gemütlichkeit. It humanizes the whole affair and takes us to the human stories behind the making-of that is to follow.

At the last minute, the actress who is to play the older woman can't make it, and Higurashi's retired actress wife Nao steps in. The actor who is to play the director can't make it either, and Higurashi is forced to play the make-believe director as well as the real one. One of the crew members who turns into a zombie, we learn, is an alcoholic who needs a drink to stop his hands from shaking but if he has one, risks passing out. Another cast member (and make-believe crew member) has something like irritable bowel syndrome, and must be reassured that there will be "port-a-loos" brought in, as the facility has no restrooms.

Now we begin the third part, the complete "making of," of the film we saw in part one, which we fully appreciate now that we understand, as we must, that this has to be by-the-skin-of-your-teeth guerrilla filmmaking at its most demanding. It's a tribute to Ueda that as everything goes wrong in the shoot and the cast brilliantly improvises, you half expect something to go so terribly wrong that a cast member will actually get his or her head or arm hacked off. There are multiple axes in play.

The third segment is the most important, and the most complete, but our appreciation of it entirely depends on our having seen the film as it appeared broadcast on TV. Not only do we see the cast running around in "One Cut of the Dead" T shirts moving equipment, splashing blood, and inserting fake chopped-off heads and limbs. We also observe the tribulations of the cast member with the loose bowel problem and the effort necessary to make him appear when the script calls for it. The director must personally revive the drunken actor.

The hilarity is lightened by the production's success in spite of every malfunction and missed cue. As the TV people watch remotely, things repeatedly go wrong. Yet the cast's improvisations are more gonzo and original than the original script - to which they always return, like a masterful pianist picking up the theme of a concerto after the cadenza. The drunk's wobbly condition makes him an excellent zombie, once they can get him standing up. It's nice to see the prima donna turn into a team player who improvises brilliantly, and it is astonishing to find out why the director's wife is so impressive and even scary as the older woman in the cast.

One Cut of the Dead /カメラを止めるな! Kamera o tomeru na! ("Do not stop the camera!"), 93 mins., opened in Japan 9 Nov. 2017. It gained international notice at Udine and has been in nine international festivals, including the New York Asian Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review, showing 13 Jul. 2018 at 10:20 p.m.

January 2020: now available streaming on Shudder: see the New York Times "Critics Pick" description HERE.


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