Sunday, September 7, 2008

TIFF'08 REVIEW: Inju: The Beast in the Shadows - Barbet Schroeder (2008)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

There have been dozens of screen adaptations of the works of Japanese Gothic writer Edogawa Rampo; "Blind Beast", "Horrors of Malformed Men" and "Rampo Noir" to name but a few. All of these have been produced in Japan and as far as I know Rampo's stories of mystery and horror have never been tackled by any filmmakers outside of their country of origin. Barbet Schroeder, the award-winning director of such films as "Reversal of Fortune" and "Avocat de la terreur, L", makes a valiant attempt to take non-Japanese audiences into the world of Rampo with his latest film "Inju: The Beast in the Shadows", but ultimately the film fails to come to terms with its source material.

"Inju" does have a promising beginning. It's the the early part of the last century and the geisha of Gion are paralyzed with fear. We watch as a young geisha conducting a traditional tea ceremony is fiercely attacked by an unseen assailant. Cut ahead and a police detective bursts into a scene of unspeakable carnage: geisha have been bound and beheaded by a maniac in a phallic tengu mask. This, apparently, is the "monster" whose killing spree has become infamous throughout Japan and now it's the police detective's job to bring him to justice. Purple dialogue is exchanged, swords clash and more blood is spilled. In usual Rampo style it's all very over the top. In the end evil triumphs over good with the nearly inhuman killer walking free... and then the credits roll. That's right, the credits roll, the camera pans out only to reveal a university classroom in present day Paris. It's a very effective transition and I settled in for what I thought would be a fun and inventive take on a Rampo story. Unfortunately that's not the case.

We're introduced to Alexandre Fayard (Benoît Magimel) an expert on the works of Japanese novelist Shundei Oe. He's shown his class the film adaptation of one of the author's works, "The Vile Beast", to demonstrate how Oe, a mysterious and possibly dangerous genius who has never been photographed, interviewed or even seen, has used the glorification of evil, violence and sex to become a literary phenomena in his native Japan. It turns out that Fayard may be beating Oe at his won game, though, as he's about to go on a book tour of Kyoto to promote his own sex and violence soaked novel, "Black Eyes", which has beaten Oe to the top of the best sellers list.

Here we can see the obvious parallels between Oe and Rampo himself. What's also disturbingly obvious is how the film presents the Japanese as having a particularly strong appetite and tolerance for entertainments involving torture and deviant sexual behaviour. It's probably why Oe's writings are so popular in his native country, but have never been successful overseas, Fayard explains to his class. Offensive, yes, but I let it pass in hopes that once Fayard touched down in Japan that "Inju" may live up to the potential of its introductory scene. Instead what Schroeder gives us is an unarguably beautiful looking film that takes itself far too seriously.

With his French-speaking assistant, Honda (Gen Shimaoka) Fayard sets about plugging his novel, but is met by threatening phone calls from the jealous Oe to leave Japan or suffer the consequences. These threats from his literay hero plague Fayard until he visits Gion where he meets Tamao (Lika Minamoto), but the romantic attention of this almost perversely beautiful geisha only ends up heightening Fayard's sense of dread when she reveals to him that she is being stalked by her old fiance, a madman who may or may not be the shadowy Shundei Oe. Oh, and she's pregnant with the child of an equally shadowy businessman, Ryuji Mogi ( Ryo Ishibashi, wasted in the small supporting role) who may also be Oe. Fayard must find out the truth in order to protect the honour of the delicate (and totally kinky) Tamao.

You only need to look at some of the other Rampo-based films mentioned above to understand why I say that "Inju" fails because it never comes to terms with its source material. Rampo's stories are overwrought, sensational, pulp magazine literature, and there's nothing wrong with that, but the Japanese seem to understand this, imbuing their movie versions of the authors works with a campy, surreal quality that while they may not make them more plausible at least make them more palatable. Besides the film-within-a-film that starts "Inju" Schroeder plays Fayard's battle with Oe totally straight, so that the B-grade cat and mouse plot becomes that much more conspicuous. If he had set the film during Rampo's lifetime (1894-1965) and had a little more fun with dialogue like "Death is just a caress" he might have been able to introduce Western moviegoing audiences to Japan's answer to Edgar Allan Poe. Better luck next time.

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