Total Performance (2015): Rehearsing for Life

Tory Berner as Cori Sweeney Total Performance

With a plot that could have been lifted from Noriko’s Dinner Table (Shion Sono 2005) Total Performance, written and directed Sean Meehan, follows actress Cori Sweeney (Tory Berner) who works for Total Performance; a company that helps people to rehearse for real life “problem” scenarios.  A relationship in trouble, cheating spouses, a man wanting to fire an old friend, and in a nasty twist of fate, a cheating boyfriend who wants to ditch his girl.

At the start of the film Cori is explaining to Tim (Steven Conroy) how the job works.  As an actor, she sees it as practice, she fills in for the person who the client  needs to interact with. In the first scenario a man wants to confront his cheating wife. 

In the second, Walter Baron (Timothy J. Cox) wants to practice, or rehearse, firing a dear friend from his company.  In the third scenario, Cori learns that Tim wants to leave his girlfriend. 

Somewhat like the Shion Sono film, the actors in the company fill in for lovers, partners or friends. As Cori tells Tim earlier, they are “sparring” partners for the client.

Meehan has given the viewer a serious/comic look at relationships, lies and people’s inabilities to deal with difficult issues.  The idea of a practice run for emotionally fraught interactions is brilliant. In Noriko’s Dinner Table, the premise was filling in for missing family members rather than providing a sort of “counseling” service.

(It should also be pointed out that in the Shion Sono film, this was a subplot used to caveat the main plot line, the film, a “J Horror”  was not about the actors but a follow on to another earlier horror film.)

As the female lead, Tory Berner is everything one could hope for.  With eyes that captivate and yet still manage to convey rage (in the scene with Paul Locke, as Bruce,  her eyes combine teary anger with an impressive intensity) where needed.  We believe in this performers role as sparring partner and we also feel for her later in this short film.

The supporting players; Locke as Bruce, Cox as Baron, all feel as real as Tory’s character. Cox always delivers in his roles and his portrayal of the boss who must practice firing a friend is touching as is it amusing.

While the allusion to Noriko’s Dinner Table may only exist in this reviewers imagination, Meehan has given us a world where people have become incapable of either telling the truth (Tim) or handling the more unpleasant aspects of their lives.  The fact that a company of actors have come up with a business based on this issue is brilliantly funny and says something about modern man’s inability to cope with real life issues.

Cinematographer Chris Loughran does an excellent job of matching the camera work to the mood and the sets all look spot on. Both the camera work and the set pieces combine to make the film feel like a slice of white collar Americana.

This is Meehan’s eighth effort in the driver’s seat as both writer and director and it shows. Total Performance is a delightful gem, a well crafted humorous and ironic tale of one actress’s “Day” job. The small slice of Cori’s dilemma is well presented and we feel for the young woman by the end of the film.

A 4 out of 5 stars for giving us characters and an outside the box storyline that is comedic but also touching. Bravo.

 

Cold Fish (2010) Sono Tips the Horror Scales

DVD cover of Cold Fish

The 2010 film Cold Fish, co-written and directed by Sion Sono, aka Shion Sono, is based upon “true events.” In 2001 two dog breeders were sentenced for poisoning several customers and disposing of the bodies. Known as the “Saitama serial murders of dog lovers” as the crime took place in the Saitama Prefecture, the film version of the real criminals and their horrific deeds differ in that the “pets” on offer in Cold Fish are, by evidence of the title, fish.

Tropical fish in fact. At the start of the film Nobuyuki Syamoto, his second wife and teenage daughter are living over his small tropical fish shop. The teen is caught red-handed shoplifting in a store and the manager calls her father, Nobuyuki. He and Mrs. Syamoto go to the scene of the crime and as the store’s representative threatens legal action, a middle aged business man intercedes and talks the manager into not pressing charges.

Nobuyuki and his entire family then have their lives taken over by Yukio Murata, his wife Aiko and Tsui-Tsui another accomplice of Murata’s. Syamoto’s daughter goes to work and live with Murata, who has his own tropical fish shop with a bevy of teenage “troubled” girls who are there already. After becoming involved with the Murata’s Nobuyuki soon finds out that Yukio is a murderous psychopath. The younger shop owner is pushed into helping Yukio and Aiko get rid of a victim’s body and he gets caught up in the couple’s deadly game of making people become “invisible.”

While some things were changed considerably in the retelling of the real crime’s details the disposal methods where the victims were made invisible are exactly the same as those in the Saitama case. Sono specializes in films which concentrate on the more bizarre sections of Japan. This has led to an inevitable comparison to Takashi Miike.

Certainly Sono does have the same tendency as Miike to use copious amounts of claret in his death scenes, but he lacks the complete eccentricity of using the parts of Japan that one does not normally see. For example, Miike’s apparently hermaphrodite “Schoolgirl” in Fudoh: The New Generation or the villainess in Audition as well as other films feature the “underbelly” of Japan and Sono may come close but he still has a way to go in the Miike department.

Most of Sono’s work seems to be taking a sly dig at Japanese societal mores while turning most of his horror films into black comedies. The director’s take on these true life murders is no different. He makes his characters all that bit more eccentric and because of this the more horrific scenes take on a dark comedic slant. He does insure that the tragic elements remain. In the scene where the murderous Yukio is dying in the back of Nobuyuki’s car, the ramblings of the man reveal the horrific facts of his childhood.

Sono specializes in this juxtaposition of elements in his films. EXTE: Hair Extensions has a antagonist who is undoubtedly the oddest villain ever seen in a horror film. Singing about hair, his fixation, while the stuff engulfs his entire apartment is one of the weirdest and funniest scenes in the movie.

Cold Fish does not offer the same sort of comedic moments in its retelling of murder and a small dysfunctional family unit. There are scenes which can be described as amusing but not overtly funny. The surreal nature of the film overrules any other feelings that the story and the action may attempt to induce.

The viewer really feels as though they are trapped with Nobuyuki as he vacillates between fear and revulsion although his decision to go along with the whole thing instead of running down to the nearest police station does defy belief. At one point the local cops stop him outside Yukio’s massive fish store and question the hapless accomplice.Amazingly, the reluctant participant says nothing.

Sion Sono has delivered yet another quirky film with Cold Fish. The movie won several awards, not least of which was Denden (Yukio Murata) getting the Best Actor award from the Japanese Academy for his portrayal of the serial killing fish shop owner. This is a fascinating film and well worth the trouble spent (for those who do not like subtitled films) reading the English translations of the original dialogue. A real 5 out of 5 stars for entertainment.

A word of warning: The subtitles on the trailer below are slightly different from the DVD I watched.

EXTE aka Hair Extensions (2007) Hirsute Black Comedy

Poster for Hair Extensions aka EXTEEXTE OR Hair Extensions is a 2007 black comedy horror film made by the Shion Shono (who made the “based on a true story” horror film Cold Fish in 2010) and in EXTE Chiaki Kuriyama (Battle Royale, Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2) plays very much against type as a hairdresser in training who must take on a madman and a lot of cursed hair extensions to save herself and her niece.

At the start of the film two Japanese character actors who seem to be in pretty much every J-Horror film ever made open a shipping container because it smells. Upon opening the thing, they discover it is full of human hair. A body is also found and taken off to the police morgue.

Once it arrives, assistant and hairdresser(?) Tatsuo Sugarawa, played by Ken Mitsuichi (Audition, 13 Assassins) becomes obsessed with the bald-headed corpse and takes her home. Once there, he discovers that she is continuing to grow hair which he cuts off and sells, or gives away, to local hairdressers.

Unfortunately the hair is possessed and whomever gets one of the extensions soon dies, some after they’ve killed someone else. It seems the hair contains memories of the dead young lady who was murdered for her organs. Yuko and Yuki are roommates, the first a hairdresser in training and the latter a dancer in training.

Yuko (Kuriyami) is an optimistic, funny and good natured girl whose dream is to become a professional stylist. Her sister, Kiyomi is a nasty bit of work who abuses her daughter Mami and drops her off with Yuko when she wants.

As the hair begins claiming more victims, Tatsuo becomes more and more consumed with his dead girl and he begins behaving bizarrely. The film has its funny moments and other times there are scenes which are surreally entertaining.

In terms of the Asian fascination with long black hair, this movie is the ultimate homage to all things hirsute and creepy. Some of the scenes with the hair extensions are difficult to watch and others just are just flat out horrible. Despite this urge to turn away from the screen, or to at least watch through one’s fingers, overall the movie is more funny than scary.

It has to be said that the scenes with the girl after she is caught by the organ traffickers (with its Christmas music background) are more sad than terrifying and while these are disturbing to watch, the film does fall firmly into black comedy territory.

For those who do not like subtitled films, EXTE comes with dubbing that, to be honest, is not too horrible. At least the American market one features “normal” voices and not those cut glass English accents of The Grudge fame. A definite winner from the chap who brought the brilliant Cold Fish to screen.