Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sono at MAD: Exte—Hair Extensions (and Into a Dream)

They are not called deadly sins for nothing. The films of Sion Sono prove it. Wrath is a big one in Exte: Hair Extensions (trailer here), perhaps his purest J-Horror film to date. However, vanity plays a part as well, both in Exte as well as the less genre-driven Into a Dream. The latter recently screened during Sion Sono: The New Poet, the Museum of Art and Design’s retrospective to the provocative auteur, with the former screening next Thursday.

In Dream, self-centered television actor Mutsugoro Suzuki is having trouble with his latest theater gig. He is also having difficulty with the old waterworks, which is quite clear from the many scenes of him moaning and grimacing in the gents. In a way, his loyal girlfriend Taeko is fortunate he spurned her for another lover, but he still owes her an awkward conversation. Frankly, he is not sure where he got it, but he will devote more time to answering that question than seeking treatment. Eventually returning like the prodigal to his provincial home, objective reality becomes a dicey proposition for Sauzuki as several persistent waking dreams keep interrupting his ostensive here-and-now.

In terms of tone, Dream is more closely akin to experimental cinema than Nightmare on Elm Street. Despite the strange possibly cosmic circumstances, Sono never attempts to create an atmosphere of suspense or peril, despite the sometimes violent nature of his parallel narratives. Likewise, Tetsushi Tanaka’s cold fish presence as Suzuki is hard to invest in. Still, Sono crafts some fascinating scenes, controlling the narrative shifts quite well. We even get to see scenes from a Japanese production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which is rather disorienting in its own right.

Exte stands in dramatic contrast. Following in the tradition of The Grudge, very bad things happen to the women who get hair extensions taken (unbeknownst to their stylists) from the corpse of a young woman who died a violent death. See, vanity really is a killer. Viewers are also compelled to root for apprentice stylist Yûko Mizushima and Mami, the abused daughter of her trampy sister, who has taken refuge with her aunt. Indeed, like many J-Horror films, there will be a child in supernatural jeopardy, which is manipulative but effective.

Though stylishly executed by Sono (dig those roiling tentacles of hair), Exte is pretty straight forward. It is about killer hair taken for a corpse not at peace—what’s not to get? It is darn scary though and Chiaki Kuriyama is a perfect scream heroine, appropriately cute and vulnerable as Mizushima, a role light years away from Kill Bill’s lethal Gogo Yubari.

Oddly enough, despite the gruesome goings-on, Exte is ultimately rather uplifting compared to some of Sono’s films. Creepy and engaging, it will be a good Halloween warm-up when it screens this coming Thursday (10/27) at the MAD Museum as part of their ongoing Sono film series.