Thursday, 25 April 2013

Exte: Hair Extensions

Director: Sion Sono
Writers: Sion Sono, Masaki Adachi, Makoto Sanada
Producer: Makoto Okada
Cast: Chiaki Kuriyama, Ren Osugi, Tsugumi
Country: Japan
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: UK disc (Revolver)

Even by the standards of Japanese horror movies, Exte is a very weird film. This is a movie all about hair, not just tangentially but intrinsically. Hair isn’t the McGuffin, it’s not the setting, it’s everything. It’s the threat, it’s the driving force for nearly all the characters, it’s the focus of almost every scene.

I’m trying to think of other hair movies and there’s not many. Even Hair wasn’t really about hair, was it? There’s a 1960s Italian horror called The Long Hair of Death but I’ve never seen it and there’s the Craig Ferguson comedy The Big Tease but that’s about hairdressing rather than hair per se. There was some hair-related weirdness in Uzumaki but that was just part of the more general spiral-related weirdness. Hairdressing also features big in Exte but it’s secondary to hair itself.

And in some ways Exte makes Uzumaki look like searing social realism.

Chiaki Kuriyama (so memorable as the chain-wielding schoolgirl who goes one-on-one against Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol.1) stars as Yuko Mizushima, an apprentice hairstylist who shares a small flat with her friend, wannabe dancer Yuki Morita (Megumi Sato, who was in a Japanese remake of Korean sci-fi comedy I’m a Cyborg But That’s Okay). Yuko works at a successful hair salon, mostly sweeping up and finishing off stuff while she learns the tricks of her trade. Hairstyling is all she has ever wanted to do.

What she never planned to do was raise a kid but she finds herself in charge of eight-year-old Mami (Miku Sato - a terrific performance), daughter of Yuko’s nogoodnik sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi). There’s a nice relationship story between the two, offset by the thoroughly horrible Kiyomi who treats her daughter like a dog and will, there is no doubt, come to a horrible end.

However before any of this we have a prologue in which customs officers open a cargo container loaded with human hair, intended for hair extensions (which presumably are all the vogue in Tokyo). Quite apart from the unpleasant site of a solid wall of smelly hair, there’s a body in the container. Missing an eye and several internal organs, this is taken to the morgue where we meet Gunji Yamazaki - played to unsettling perfection by the great Ron Osugi.

Osugi may be the busiest man in whatever the Japanese version of Equity or SAG is. The Inaccurate Movie Database currently lists 179 films for him, as I type this, but a couple of years ago when I was doing filmographies for Artsmagic releases I researched a more detailed and accurate Ren Osugi filmography and I think even then it was getting on for 200 credits which is even more impressive given that he only started acting in the late 1970s! Among the better known titles are Brother, Hana-Bi and seven other Takeshi Kitano films; Audition, Sabu, Full Metal Gokudo and a dozen other Takashi Miike movies; plus Seance, Cure, Dangan Runner, Hypnosis, Parasite Eve, Weather Woman and the previously mentioned Uzumaki.

Yamazaki’s day job as a morgue assistant allows him to steal hair from corpses which he takes back to his creepy bachelor shack. The girl from the container, though shaven bald, is capable of sprouting hair from her mouth and wounds at a prodigious speed and Yamazaki takes the body home, leading to an investigation by a couple of detectives.

An unsettling child-man, Yamazaki likes to dress, when off-duty, in a stars-and-stripes shirt, dungarees and a long wig. In this get-up he wanders the streets, secretly videoing women’s hair. The man is a hair fetishist (proper, long, straight head hair - not the short, curly sort) who is clearly neither capable nor desirous of forming any real relationships with women. Just occasionally he lets slip an unguarded comment about “dirty women with filthy hair” that reveals the angry misogyny beneath the disturbingly eccentric surface.

These two story strands cross when Mami, distraught at accidentally trashing Yuko’s apartment, runs away and wanders the streets. Attracted by the child’s hair, Yamazaki takes her to her aunt’s place of work where he is especially attracted to Yuko’s own very long, straight locks.

The next day he’s back at the salon, offering samples of the hair extensions which he sells and which are normally derived from the heads of corpses at the morgue. Except that these come from the purloined dead body, lying in a hammock in Yamazaki’s shack and sprouting hair from all sorts of places at a rate that anyone except a psycho like Yamazaki would find bizarre and unbelievable.

So the basic schtick here is that the hair extensions are cursed or alive or something. Various hairdressers who have bought hair extensions off Yamazaki become killers or commit suicide after experiencing memories of the dead girl’s kidnapping and torture when the hair extensions slide into their brains via their ears. Eugh.

If you think about it, hair is an interesting ‘monster’ and it’s comparatively easy to create in CGI, as individual strands or moving en masse. The detectives investigating the corpse’s disappearance from the morgue find themselves involved in investigations into strange deaths of hairdressers and customers including one of Yuko’s colleagues. As the staff there are questioned, the realisation dawns that the hair extensions are the common factor and Yuko realises with horror that she put some extensions onto Mami that morning...

Exte is certainly original, you can’t deny that, and it’s pretty exciting, occasionally gruesome but never excessively gory or sadistic. For a film that is basically an excuse for weirdness, the characterisation is surprisingly good. We care about Yuko, Yuki and Mami, we dislike heartless slapper Kiyomi and some of the snootier stylists at Yuko’s salon, we’re creeped out by Yamazaki and we’re intrigued by the police procedural subplot with the two cops. The supernatural hair threat builds and builds, taking over people’s lives and homes until we almost believe it. Interestingly, there’s no sexual element here. In fact, apart from the bastard that Kiyomi hangs out with, there are no sexual relationships at all. Even Yamazaki’s ‘love’ for his hair-growing corpse seems almost platonic.

One of the oddest aspects of the film is recurring use of Christmas imagery and ‘Silent Night’ on the soundtrack. I think this is because when the girl was kidnapped and killed it was Christmas and there was a Christmas tree in the grim warehouse where she met her end. Or something. Little tinkly Christmas bells in those flashbacks are matched by little tinkly bells on the hair extension samples which Yamazaki offers (which he keeps in a birdcage) and on cut-aways to a cat with a little tinkly bell on its collar (although there is no explanation of whose cat it is or where it is).

Where the generally good script falls down is in the contrived introduction of Yuki and Yuko, done through extensive infodump monologues about themselves which are then excused by the conceit that they are copying something which they recently saw in a bad movie. Sorry but no, that doesn’t wash at all.

Exte is the first feature I have seen from Sion Sono, writer-director of the notorious Suicide Club, although apparently he has made more than a dozen other films. This script was co-written by Sono with Masaki Adachi (who was 1st AD for Takashi Shimizu on Dark Water and both Ju-on: The Grudge films) and Makoto Sanada. Producer Makoto Okada was also behind Takashi Miike’s Zebraman and Dead or Alive trilogy and at least one of Takashi Shimizu’s Tomie sequels.

The IMDB (and some other places) insist on calling this Ekusute but though that’s not in any way the title. It’s just the phonetic English spelling of the phonetic Japanese spelling of the title which, as with many Japanese films, is in English. In other words, it’s a phonetic approximation of saying the title with a thick Japanese accent - a common practice among western fans of Japanese cinema which is both ridiculous and slightly racist.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 20th July 2008

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