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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Cabinet of Curiosities


For this installment of Cabinet of Curiosities I’ve focused on World Cinema. I’ve long held the belief that those that ‘don’t do subtitles’ really are missing out on some of the best that cinema has to offer. There are numerous foreign-language films that have been remade for a Western audience, with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, numerous J-horror films, and the upcoming Old Boy, among many others. The vast majority of these American remakes are sanitised by clueless film studios often completely misunderstanding thematic elements, especially in the case of foreign horror, where cultural mythology can play a major part in the very fabric of the story. One pertinent example being 2004’s Shutter, with a story largely influenced by Thai mythology, where a ghost hangs on to the back of a person; however for the 2008 American remake this cultural mythology was completely omitted, and they even changed the location to Japan rather than Thailand.

 So for the people that embrace world cinema here are a few overlooked gems.

600full-shinobi -heart-under-blade-posterAfter more than four hundred years of war between the Shinobi warriors of the secretive Manjidani Koga and Tsubagakure Iga clans, the Lord of the Shinobi Hattori Hanzo (Yutaka Matsushige) decrees that they must live in peace. The Lord of Lords Tokugawa Ieyasu (Kazuo Kitamura) however is convinced that the clans are dangerous threat to the newly established peace throughout the land and his advisor plots a Machiavellian plan to destroy their best warriors in a contest.

Meanwhile, the young Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Iga clan and Gennesuke (Jô Odagiri) of the Koga clan fall in love .

Shinobi is a fusion of romance/action/drama and fantasy based on the novel Kouga Ninpouchou by Futaro Yamada. Essentially a series of duels between the opposing clans as the rebellious Gennesuke and his clan try to reach The Lord of Lords to question the meaning of the contest.

Shinobi brings to mind Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s classic anime Ninja Scroll with it’s ninja with varying techniques and weapons. All of which are imaginative and portrayed with a combination of live action choreography, wire work and seamlessly integrated digital FX work from Gennesuke’s lightning fast speed (a scene where he takes out an entire team of Tokugawa ninja on his own is stunning) to Oboro’s feared Eyes of Destruction technique which is akin to something from Buronson’s Fist of the North Star, which are a contrast to the more widely used blunt in your face approach to digital imagery.

La Habitación de Fermat

Four mathematicians, Hilbert (Lluis Homar), Galois (Alejo Sauras), Olivia (Elena Ballesteros) and Pascal (Santi Millan), who have never previously met, are invited to solve an 2036-posterenigma by a mysterious host.

La Habitación de Fermat or Fermat’s Room is an interesting Spanish curio- the idea of the group of strangers having to co-operate in a bewildering environment is by no means a new idea (Cube and Exam being two good examples) however it’s the way that writer/director duo Rodrigo Sopeña and Luis Piedrahita have crafted this intriguing tale that really makes it worthy of attention. With the exception of Darren Aronofsky’s Π it’s also the only film with mathematics at its core, with Galois having just prepared a presentation on Goldbach’s conjecture before being caught up in the web of events.

Clearly influenced by Saw -but interestingly and refreshingly, not by its penchant for blood and viscera- the four, who all have pseudonyms (having been given the names of great mathematicians by their mysterious host) quickly find out that they are trapped after their host apparent Fermat (Federicco Luppi) has to leave. After a search of the room, a PDA is found and an enigma promptly appears on the screen with a time limit. Upon solving this another appears, and one of the group realises what happens if they don’t enter the correct answer in time: the walls of the room are slowly moving inwards.

A combination of excellent use of sound and a surprisingly solid cast make for an interesting and pretty unique thriller.


Mientras Duermes

sleep4Cesar (Luis Tosar), the concierge of an appartment building, is miserable and believes he is incapable of being happy. His coping mechanism for his miserable life is to make the lives of the tenants miserable too. He takes a particular interest in one tenant, the attractive Clara (Marta Etura), and things get even more twisted when her boyfriend Marcos (Alberto San Juan) comes to stay.

The opening scene is a brilliant example of the subtlety in Jaume Balagueró’s psycho-thriller. We see Cesar waking up next to his girlfriend early in the morning, and see his morning ritual before he goes downstairs and starts his shift as the building’s concierge. His girlfriend appears sometime after- only from their exchange of greetings it’s pretty obvious they aren’t a couple and the girlfriend , actually Clara, is oblivious to the fact that Cesar was lying next to her in bed. In fact nobody knows what’s going on, with the exception of the daughter of Clara’s neighbour across the hall Ursula (Iris Almeida Molina) who, rather than telling Clara what’s going on, is extorting money out of Cesar.

The perspective shift of Mientras Duermes or Sleep Tight has the viewer following Cesar as he goes about his routine of making others miserable. Feeding an older tenant’s dog the wrong food on purpose so it gets sick, watering another tenant’s plants at the wrong time so they wither and die, and his numerous transgressions against the oblivious and upbeat Clara- including sending her numerous anonymous text messages and letters, which he pins on the son of the building’s cleaner.

There’s a vicarious and voyeuristic feeling in watching Cesar go about his routine, especially in one sequence where Cesar gets caught out in Clara’s apartment after her boyfriend unexpectedly comes to visit. Thanks to the acrobatics of the amorous couple Cesar, waiting under the bed, ends up accidentally doping himself with the drugs he usually uses on Clara, and we see him struggle against the effects as he attempts to get out of the apartment before he is spotted.

Sleep Tight is a skin-crawlingly disturbing but undeniably impressive affair with a gutpunch of an ending.


Austrian Michael (Michael Fuith) has decided to go to Berlin to win back his his ex-girlfriend Gabbi (Anka Graczyk), only upon arriving at her apartment he finds she is notrammbock-poster there, and is instead greeted by two plumbers working on the property. Minutes after meeting the pair, one of them goes crazy and tries to attack both his apprentice Harper (Theo Trebs) and the bewildered Michael. It suddenly dawns on them after barricading themselves in the apartment that this isn’t an isolated incident, as they discover via a radio broadcast that a virulent pathogen is affecting the inhabitants of Berlin. Michael teams up with Harper, determined to find Gabbi, and befriends fellow resident Anita (Emily Cox) in the process.

Director Marvin Kren and writer Benjamin Kressler’s Rammbock  is a profoundly lo-fi affair. There’s no sweeping crane shots of Berlin succumbing to a frenzied horde of the infected here. The focus is on Michael and the apartment complex he finds himself in. Barricaded inside, he is reduced to watching the chaos unfold in the courtyard below with Harper and his fellow residents. Communicating via subdued voices across the courtyard, one resident points out they need to close the gate to the courtyard but isn’t volunteering to do it, saying “the big man with the tattoos should do it”. One of the more gung-ho alpha-male residents volunteers and promptly regrets it.

There’s an inherently realistic vibe as things unfold more as a slice of life drama than an in-your-face horror film. The world may have gone to hell, but Michael is still determined to find Gabbi despite the chances of her survival being somewhat minimal. There’s plenty of neat touches, like Michael and Harper debating about going to get Michael’s phone (which he left on the stairwell in the earlier chaos) hearing it ringing through the thin door and knowing that the battery is running down with every ring.

It’s well-written and the cast is impressive, and it’s not content to merely settle for the horror genre- there’s an unobtrusive love story here too which is quite poignant.

Things wrap up in just over an hour, making this seem more like a well-executed and impressive TV special rather than a feature film, but this isn’t a particularly bad thing as there’s nothing more annoying than a story which is stretched out. I can see how they could’ve added to it, but as it stands it works.


Cyborg She

Cyborg-She-2008-J-Movie Jiro (Keisuke Koide) is a lonely student who meets his dream girl in the form of Haruka Ayase’s beautiful cyborg. As he gets to know her, Jiro discovers that she is from the future and was sent back in time by his future self, but she can’t tell him why; she isn’t allowed to talk about the future as this will affect the time line.

Cyborg She is a brilliant example of why foreign cinema is so much better than the flotsam and jetsam that Western studios churn out ad nauseum: a hybrid mix of romantic comedy and science fiction, the likes of which would no doubt be an utter mess in the hands of a hamfisted Western studio. The development of Jiro’s relationship with his new girlfriend/bodyguard is at turns funny and moving. The FX are excellently done with numerous examples of Ayase’s super strength, speed and other abilities, most of which are done with impressive comedic style.

Andy Haigh
Andy Haigh
Andy Haigh started writing to counteract the brain atrophying effects of Retail Hell, now it's an addiction. Andy is an unrepentant sequential art absorbist and comics are one of his passions. Other interests include Film, Music, Science Fiction and Horror novels and quality TV like Game of Thrones. He can talk about these at great length if only someone would listen. He lives a somewhat hermit like life in The Shire, spends too much time on social media and is still waiting to go on an adventure.

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