Monday, June 23, 2008

THE TATTOOIST (2007) d. Peter Burger

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Like them or not, tattoos are a form of art that have steadily become more compelling and intricate over time. Whether they are created using ancient tools and techniques or with the newest technology and inks, tattoos are often like some of the great surrealistic paintings, the more you look at them the more there is to see. Like a Dali or a Pollock, there is a profundity to tattoo art that challenges the eye to find deeper imagery and see the connections between form, function and concept. THE TATTOOIST is a lot like the skin art that this film depicts. At first glance it seems fairly innocuous, but after a degree of contemplation, there is a little more than meets the eye and some very worthwhile elements to this “horror” film.

THE TATTOOIST is the story of Jake Sawyer, a young man with a troubled past who drifts from one exotic locale to another, plying his art on the bodies of those who believe his charlatan’s tale that tattoos can bring healing. In Singapore, Jake steals an authentic Samoan tattooing tool, with which he has an accident. Unwittingly, Jake has loosed an angry and vengeful spirit through his avarice and recklessness, and this spirit begins preying upon Jake’s customers once he arrives in New Zealand, searching for the Samoan family from which he stole the cursed tool. As more gruesome deaths occur, Jake knows that time is running out for those who have received his designs, and if he cannot find the answers, people will die who he really cares for.

THE TATTOIST begins as a fairly straightforward tale of “unknowing clod stumbles upon haunted item and unleashes a curse” and had it stayed that way, this film would have been unremarkable at best. Even worse, I worried for a while that the main thrust of the film was going to be “only the gifted white man-outsider can save the aboriginals from themselves”, which is SUCH a tired and disgusting western story device, but it didn’t go that way either. All of the characters are flawed in one manner or another and those flaws are forced to the surface in a screenplay where no one can run from their past mistakes. This forces cooperation and trust and makes Jake’s presence an agreeable addition and not a prejudiced mistake. After a very patient rising action in which Jake’s story is nicely interwoven with real Samoan cultural myths and legends and juxtaposed with real New Zealand locales and actors, the plot begins to combine ghost story and detective tale components with some not so subtle but effective romance elements with some very enjoyable twists involving secrets, lies, shame and revenge. What emerges is a narrative that gathers momentum over the last half of the picture and while not totally surprising is at least rewarding as a cultural myth and human drama. Some of the best qualities of this film are its authentic portrayal of ancient and modern Samoan customs, art and traditions. While this downplays some of the horror aspects of the plot, it uplifts the dramatic nature of the film, and end result is a somewhat more complex movie that gives westerners another South Pacific theatrical experience distantly akin to recent films like WHALE RIDER or THE WORLD’S FASTEST INDIAN. Since it reaches beyond its genre and becomes just as valuable as a cultural tale, THE TATTOOIST becomes a bit more significant film.

In addition to the surprisingly worthy narrative, the direction and acting of THE TATTOOIST merit examination too. Most of the performances are understated but competent, and in a film like this where the onus is on the customs and the curse, that is a benefit. I expected the youthful looking and handsome Jason Behr to be little more than female eye-candy and give a wooden performance, but he slid into his role well. One of the great surprises of the film was the character of Sina, played by Mia Blake. Her cool, languorous glamour and kind-hearted eyes and smile were a nice complement to Jake’s western “bad boy” look and appeal. On the visual side, Peter Burger’s direction was more than competent and bordered on strong. Burger’s careful and well considered use of light and shadow, his patient use of slow pans and longer holds on scenes allows the viewer to see what is happening and sense the growth of atmosphere. While the scenes involving “the ghost” of this film are usually dark and rapidly edited sequences of shots where “the ghost” can’t easily be observed until late in the film, that is not only acceptable, but part of the plan. This spirit is supposed to be something seen only out of the corner of one’s eye or in the subtle angle of a pane of glass. It is only after the mystery is solved and the menace is unmasked that we see clearly what has been haunting Jake’s footsteps.

THE TATTOIST is not without its weaknesses. As I stated earlier, the initial stages of the rising action were patient. Some might find them slow, but they will miss the point of the cultural references if they tune out. I am not a fan of rap music or rap culture and it may very well be that both have penetrated deep into daily New Zealand life, but the addition of both elements, especially to one of the climactic scenes did not win any points with me. The “magic kid” with the “essential knowledge” needed to defeat the evil is also a worn out plot device. That he was part of the rap component of the narrative also struck a nerve in the wrong way. Finally, whether it was the sound mixing of the rap music with the New Zealand accents, some of the dialogue was difficult to understand and I had to engage the subtitle function to be sure what was said. If I can understand the richly varied accent from 70s episodes of DR. WHO and ARE YOU BEING SERVED, I suspect that sound mixing may have been the culprit.

What helped to make up for these lacks was the wonderful collection of extras on this disc. There is a decent audio commentary track with director Peter Burger and actor Jason Behr. There are also three deleted scenes, all roughly one to two minutes in length. There is also a huge vault of Sony trailers. The real jewel is the “featurettes” folder where you can enjoy an 11 ½ minute “The Tattooist: Behind the Scenes” feature which is a mix of interviews with cast and crew augmented with film clips that gives you some background on the film’s creation and production. Next is a 2 ½ minute feature called “Behind the Tattoo Designs” showing the makeup process of creating and applying the film’s tattoos. After that is a fascinating 2 ½ minute interview with director Peter Burger called “Colors of The Tattooist”, which helped to validate my suspicion as to why certain colors where used in a certain manner throughout the film. Having watched that featurette, I sincerely hope that Peter Burger knows something of the great director Mario Bava, for there was no one who used color like he did. Following the “color” feature is a 3 ½ minute feature called “Real Life Samoan Tattoo” in which a Samoan islander is interviewed and filmed during his tribal tattooing sessions. Last, there is the 2 minute piece “Becoming a Chief” which had already been touched on in the initial “Behind the Scenes” feature and seemed fairly redundant. In the end, this set of compelling extras lifted my respect for THE TATTOOIST appreciably and left me with a growing esteem for the film maker and crew.

While not a ground-breaking horror film, THE TATTOOIST is worth your time. Taking a horror film to New Zealand and mixing the story with Samoan myths, legends, customs and cultural icons is a new direction and for that let us be glad. So many films in the horror genre are unspectacular, unappealing, unattractive and indigestible. When something comes along that has some valuable characteristics wrapped up in the usually bland packaging, it is a pleasant surprise. I can only hope that Peter Burger is going to be an “up and coming” force in the film world and will lend his talents to other worthy projects that will enrich the horror canon. We certainly could use more people like that.

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