Thriller

Circulation

Circulation is certainly a strange film, so much so that I had to watch it twice to fully appreciate what was going on. However, since this is also a very well made film, the second viewing was very far from being a chore.

Set in Californian desert, the film centres on two main characters; Gene (Sherman Koltz) and Ana (Yvonne Delarosa). Ana is a Mexican woman on her way to visit her new boyfriend when her car breaks down. Unfortunately for Ana the first person to find her stranded is her ex-husband.

One attempted kidnapping later, Ana pulls herself from the wreckage of a car crash and meets Gene, a retired trucker who is heading south for a vacation. He agrees to give her a lift and they encounter the first of their problems – Ana speaks no English and Gene speaks no Spanish.

However, she manages to make herself understood and Gene agrees to take her to the hotel where she has arranged to meet her boyfriend. But when she arrives it is very far from what she expected. The hotel is not only deserted but derelict as well. When she encounters a man hiding in the abandoned building, and when the man growls at her, she flees the building with Gene.

What emerges as the film progresses, and as Ana and Gene try to understand what is happening to them, is that none of these characters is alive. They are trapped in Purgatory, but this is a strange, animal purgatory in which the dead are learning the instincts that they will need when they are reborn. Genes behaviour is becoming increasingly spider-like while Ana finds herself taking on the behaviour of caterpillar

Although Circulation is listed as a horror/fantasy film it really is a unique piece of cinema that defies any sort of easy genre classification.

The film progresses at a very steady pace and, instead of falling back on familiar genre tropes, relies on the performances from both the lead characters to draw you into their world and to keep you hooked. And they are very strong performances indeed.

Both Koltz and Delarosa do a great job of really bringing their characters to life as they navigate their way through the genuinely dreamlike world that writer/director Ryan Harper has created. And its these performances that really hold the film together.

Harper trusts the audience to not need spoon-feeding and this is an approach that I thoroughly appreciate. However, the surrealism of the film does mean that you are sometimes unsure of what is going on. When this happens, it is the depth of the characters that keeps you engaged, wanting to know how things will develop and willing to stay with the film as its events unfold.

This is probably the most idiosyncratic vision of an afterlife I have seen filmed, which is very much to the films credit. Circulation is a genuinely original film and one that really does reward repeated viewings.

13: Game of Death

Things arent going too well for Chit (Krissada Terrence). Hes missing his sales targets and is getting deeper and deeper into debt. Then, to top it all, he loses his job. Things are pretty desperate, then, when he receives an anonymous phone call telling him that he has a place in a game show. All he has to do is complete 13 tasks in order to become a multi-millionaire.

The first task is pretty easy and the second is pretty gross. But, after a long hesitation, chit finds that the money on offer is enough for him to go through with it.

From here on in things get much, much worse.

Based on a comic by Eakasit Thairatana, 13: Game of Death follows the descent of the films everyman hero, and willing victim, as humiliation after humiliation is heaped upon him. Terrence does a superb job here of maintaining our sympathy as his character becomes increasingly degraded and disconnected from the rest of the world. And its because he manages to remain a sympathetic character throughout that the film packs such a horrific punch.

Thematically the film is reminiscent of Falling Down, but goes further and takes a look at the sort of social and economic pressures that lead to the emergence of people like Chit.

Chit, like those around him, is under pressure to conform to the expectations placed upon him by society, his friends and his family. He feels the contradictory pressures to be materially successful, to maintain a successful relationship, to have time for his family and to be a model citizen. There arent enough hours in the day for him to be able to meet all of these expectations and, by trying to do too much, he ends up failing to do any of them.

And whoever it is that is organising the game in which he finds himself knows this as becomes apparent in the way that the tasks set for Chit repeatedly echo the humiliations and traumas he faced as a child. Someone has spent a huge amount of time building a very detailed picture of Chit merely so that he can be tormented for the entertainment of an unseen, online audience.

13: Game of Death is a shocking and smart horror/thriller with a darkly comic streak and a lot to say. Not only does writer/director, Chukiat Sakveerakul have plenty of visceral observations to make about materialism, the increasingly debased nature of reality type entertainment and and the connection between the two, but the film also reflects on the rapidly shrinking nature of the private space.

No matter where Chit goes, no matter what he does, his every move and action is being watched, recorded and transmitted. And in many ways, this is the most frightening aspect of this film.

Nightmare Detective

Nightmare Detective Over the years Shinya Tsukamoto has ranged across a variety of genres – from the mind bending SF of Tetsuo to the grimy eroticism of A Snake of June. Although both the genre and the plot can change from one film to the next, Tsukamoto’s consistent reworking of similar themes and his kinetic visual style gives his films a distinct auteurial stamp that is difficult to miss. While Nightmare Detective, his foray into the horror genre, may well be the director’s most accessible film to date, it is still very much a Shinya Tsukamoto film.

The film centres on Keiko (Hitomi), an up and coming detective investigating her first hands-on case – an apparent suicide. Although the senior detective is keen to treat it as an open and shut case, Keiko is less sure and wants to dig a little deeper. She is especially interested in “O” (Shinya Tsukamoto), the last person the suicide victim called.

Keiko’s investigations eventually lead her to seek the help of a tormrnted individual (Ryuhei Matsuda) with the unfortunate ability to enter other people’s dreams. As her pursuit of “O” becomes increasingly out of control, she finds herself forced to face own deepest fears and weaknesses.

Although marketed as a horror film, Nightmare Detective plays out more as a cross between a police procedural and a supernatural thriller. That said, the film does maintain an effectively eerie atmosphere throughout, often by acknowledging – and then subtly inverting – many of the tropes that have become familiar with the recent rise of Japanese horror.

And when the film takes a turn for the horrific, it becomes very horrific indeed. Tsukamotos frenetic editing of these scenes manages to keep you off balance but is accomplished enough to ensure that you understand as much as the director wants you to understand of what is going on.

The films use of colour and lighting to accentuate the mood and themes covered fit this very firmly into the directors filmography, as does the attention to character. The characters here are all adults and very well drawn and really do engage you fully with the film.

This is helped by the fact that acting is both solid and believable throughout, with Hitomi especially putting in a sterling performance in this, her first lead role.

With Nightmare Detective, Tsukamoto has merged popular concerns with internet suicide pacts with his own themes of alienation, despair and a loss of humanity. The result is a darkly ambitious film that manages to be genuinely chilling.

Midnight Eagle

Burned out war photographer, Yuji Nishizaki (Takao Osawa) is camping out in the mountains when he sees – and photographs – a plane crash. And then things get interesting

As the film gets going, we are also introduced to Yujis sister in law, Keiko (Yuko Takeuchi) and Ochiai (Hiroshi Tamaki), both of whom happen to be journalists. Both of them sense a story brewing and Yuji quickly finds himself drawn into their investigations – especially in the case of Ochiai.

The story, as it emerges, is quite a major one, to say the lease. It turns out that some euphemistically referred to “Northern agents” have broken into a nearby Air Force base and sabotaged one of the American B52 bombers flying out of there. This is the plane that Yuji saw crash and it is carrying something that the Japanese government are both desperate to recover and very keen to keep from the public.

While Keiko finds herself investigating the incident at the US base, Ochiai manages to talk Yuji into going into the mountains with him to try and locate the crashed plane. And its in the mountains that the action gets going.

As well as the journalist and photographer, there are also two units from Japans self-defence force also trying to converge on the plane. And, to make matters difficult, the mountains are also heavily infiltrated with the aforementioned “Northern agents.”

The main problem that I had with Midnight Eagle is that the film seems to be quite uncertain as to whether its an action film or a conspiracy thriller. We do have a conspiracy, centring on what was on the crashed plane and why the Japanese government are so desperate not only to recover the plane, but also to keep the whole affair under wraps. But its not much of a conspiracy and figuring out what is going on is far from difficult which makes the reveal a bit of a let-down.

So on to the action and here the film suffers by being quite slow. The action sequences are competently done, but there is a limit to the number of ways that you can film a couple of men trudging through snowy mountains while avoiding various white-clad villains hiding in the snow. Consequently, we have a very high dialogue to action ratio.

Perversely, though, its in the dialogue that the film scores most strongly. There is a great deal of discussion in the film about Japans military and foreign policies and, while some of this probably does assume a greater understanding of the countrys politics than the average Westerner has, none of it is so intricate as to lose you and the broad themes are understandable to all.

There is also much said about the nature of journalistic integrity, the value of truth and – although not explored as fully as Id have liked – the question of what happens when reporters uncover explosive secrets.

All of this comes together in a very powerful and genuinely moving climactic scene which very effectively pulls together the films themes of sacrifice and loyalty and which – on its own – makes Midnight Eagle a film well worth seeing.

Dreamscape

A thrill-seeking businessman (Daniel J. Fox) hears about Dreamscape Inc, a company that provides electronic dreams – custom fantasies that are delivered directly to your brain as you sleep – and becomes very interested. After listening to the sales pitch, he signs up to have a little widget attached to the back of his skull and, still feeling groggy, is returned home where he collapses on his bed.

Then were into the main part of the film, a spy thriller fantasy that sees the businessman in the role of a courier, tasked with delivering a mcguffin to a contact. As The Courier (in keeping with the films noirish aspirations, no-one has a name), he takes on countless secret service agents, gets the girl (Magda Rodriguez) and attempts to stay ahead of The Investigator (Mark Ellingham) long enough to complete his mission.

This is all good solid stuff and works well as an action oriented spy thriller. Its also beautifully shot and really does show what can be achieved now with some intelligent use of digital effects.

The sets and the scenery really do come together superbly to give the film a very effective near-future noir feel. I dont think Ive seen a digital landscape this well realised since, well, since Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. As with Sky Captain – and unlike many subsequent films – writer/director, Daniel J. Fox is confident enough that he doesnt feel the need to constantly ask you to marvel at his CGI ingenuity. Instead, the sets and the design do what these things are supposed to do – deliver a well-realised and believable world that fits the story perfectly.

The film does have some weaknesses, however, most notably the slightly clunky dialogue and an air of predictability to the plot – the predictability being my major gripe.

The back of the DVD case promises that: “illusion quickly turns into nightmare as reality and fantasy blur.” Unfortunately, reality and fantasy dont blur nearly enough. What I was hoping for was something like eXistenZ in which both the characters and the audience are deliberately confused as to what is real and what isnt.

Although the businessman believes he is in a dream, the truth is quite apparent to the rest of us. And this makes for a rather disappointing reveal at the end.

A longer version of this Dreamscape is currently in progress. If this version makes more of the dream/reality divide or extends the final act, then Daniel J. Fox could have a truly unique film on his hands.

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