Sunday, November 30, 2008

EM EMBALMING (1999) d. Shinji Aoyama

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Westerners have a tendency to lump all “Asian” film into the same category and not really notice the differences in tone, style, pacing and imagery that differentiates Hong Kong, Philippine, Thai, Japanese, South Korean and Indonesian film, to name just a few. Hong Kong films use to be known for their incredible action sequences, but are losing that title a little more every year to the intrepid Thai film makers. Korean films seem to be eclipsing their Japanese competitors in creating atmospheric and visceral cinema. The Philippines use to be the country where you’d see some mind-bending flicks, but the Indonesians are producing some of the most bizarre movies based on their rich and exotic cultural mores. What sets Japanese film apart from the rest is not always their quality, but rather the close relationship their Film Production companies have with American counterparts, and as a result it has generally been more common to see Japanese cinema here in the West. The general description of most Japanese motion horror and suspense pictures is their use of dark and moody imagery blended with some good story concepts but often marred by slow pacing. That generalization may not always be the case or even be fair, but it fits EM EMBALMING (aka Embamigu) to a tee.

EM EMBALMING is the story of embalming specialist Miyako Murakami, a talented, young medical professional working for the Josei EM Center. She is invited by Detective Hiraoka to take part in what appears to be a suicide, but during the embalming procedure, Miyako discovers evidence that suggests the death might have been a homicide. Before long, Miyako finds herself enmeshed in a tapestry that includes The Daikotu Temple’s leader, Chief Bonze Jion, a young girl named Rika who exhibits multiple personality disorder, an organ trader named Dr. Fuji with a dark and mysterious past and even governmental officials with secrets they are trying to hide. Psychological experiments, insanity, stolen body parts and religious fervor create a whirlpool of deception and intimidation as Miyako is forced to plumb the depths of medical and clerical depravity to find the answers she is seeking.

On the dvd jacket, EM EMBALMING is compared to CSI, but that is a bit of a stretch, for one of the main characteristics of American TV is brisk pacing and EM EMBALMING suffers from a case of the “slows”. It is unfortunate though for there are some things to like about this film. The general plot premise and basic narrative structure and components are compelling and I found myself getting drawn into the story despite my best efforts to be bored to death by its occasional deceleration. In addition to a nightmarish premise and some interesting dramatic twists and turns, this film is relatively rich in atmosphere. A portion of the moodiness is generated by some of the characters who have a soulless quality, while others evidence some very quirky acting portrayals, all of which make this film feel bizarre and a little creepy. Most of the interior sets have a stark, sterile and harsh look and feel, intensifying the aura of unpleasantness. The entire film is shot with the care of a surgeon and an immense amount of minute detail is captured in very long, slow shots, from blood running down gunnels, to stitches being taken in dead bodies to tormented looks on character’s faces. While the color schemes and the overall architecture/décor were not overly impressive, the focus on people, places and mood helped to create a sense of menace that greatly aided in maintaining a degree of forward progress, momentum that EM EMBALMING desperately needed. It also helped that some of the medical imagery was grotesque and gory at intervals. You need not fear a SAW-like gore-fest. The shock scenes are woven in with purpose and add another layer of macabre to this film. They, like the atmospheric elements, were essential to EM EMBALMING keeping its head above water.

While I will always vote for a patient movie over modern “rocket rides” that do not allow for any character or atmosphere development, Japanese cinema has a deserved reputation for moving somewhat glacially through a plot, and EM EMBALMING is no exception. There were long stretches where character development gave way to cinematic circular motion and the story began to grind to a halt. In addition, many scenes were made unnecessarily long by shots that were held for a much greater span of time than most Westerners are use to. In bygone days, one might have suspected the long holds were done to pad out the length of a feature that was a bit too short. Here it is all about creating a degree of artistry much akin to watching a blade dangle over a helpless sacrificial victim. The idea is to create suspense and a sense of approaching peril, and so it does, but it is sometimes at the cost of essential velocity. Just as a meteor’s speed must be great enough to keep it from being sucked into a planet’s gravitational well, a film must maintain a sense of momentum or it risks being drawn into the ever-present “bog of boring flicks”. EM EMBALMING never sinks into the quagmire, but it does gets itself slimed a few times. There are lengthy stretches where there is sparse or even no dialogue, and once again, this can often be a benefit to a film. Occasionally, the lack of chatter is a plus in EM EMBALMING, but at times it makes the movie a little overly contemplative. In the end, I’d prefer to see a flick that is a little too thoughtful rather than some of the moronic fare that is far too common today, but I want my thought-provoking imagery to also ignite an emotional spark within me. The cognitive fires were burning as I viewed this film, but the affective coals were low in slumber.

EM EMBALMING has a small but interesting set of bonus features. Being a slightly older film/disc, there are six bios/filmographies of the director and cast, a feature that has become nearly extinct in the modern world of dvds and one I wish would return. I don’t always want to have to turn to the IMDB to learn more about a movie’s denizens. There is an audio commentary with author Jasper Sharp, he who co-wrote MIDNIGHT EYE, a Japanese Film Guide. Finally, there is a 20 minute interview featurette with director Shinji Aoyama which is very worthwhile. Learning more about the entirety of any film project always makes me think better of it.

If you are a fan of sinister and gloomy Japanese cinema like the original RING or DARK WATER and want something that is a little out of the ordinary from the usual supernatural fare, EM EMBALMING may be for you. It requires patience and reflection, but it is not an overly complex tale that will leave you scratching your head. It combines some very tried and true elements that most people tend to fear, medical science gone awry, psychotic persons run amuck, religion wielding far too much power in places that it shouldn’t and EM EMBALMING weaves into this nest some creepy visual threads that older viewers will probably appreciate. This film is probably one for more mature tastes for it is not all bangs and flashes, although it has got its shocks every now and then. Go in expecting your ride to be like that of a walk through an excellent art museum. You’ll like what you see, but you’ll also find some of the experience a little tedious here and there.

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