Movie Review: Gozu

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Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Hiedki Sone, Sho Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Keiko Tomita, Harumi Sone

As I noted when I reviewed the much-anticipated (by me) and long-delayed The Hole a month or so back, anticipation can sometimes be better than getting what you’ve been waiting for.

Though I wasn’t entirely sorry to say it with The Hole, I am sorry to report that my anticipation wasn’t paid back with Takashi Miike’s latest, Gozu. I’m even more sorry to say it since Miike is such a consistently interesting director and he’s responsible for what is, most likely, my favorite horror movie, Audition.

Miike’s frenetic, legendary output (64 movies in 13 years) necessitates that some of his films are awful, some are competent, and a few are terrific. English-speaking audience have been spoiled in recent years as we’re largely been treated to Miike’s better works – Audition, Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer, The Happiness of the Katakuris, Dead or Alive. But now, as Miike’s stature and audience have grown on this side of the Pacific, we’re getting all his movies, regardless of quality.

It’s not always hard to see which of his films are bound to be good – there’s just something about the good ones, about their marketing, their concepts, their style that marks them immediately as worth watching. His bad films are equally recognizable.

This makes Gozu all the more disappointing, since it has all the hallmarks of being one of Miike’s good ones. Sadly, it doesn’t fit the mold.

Gozu is the story of a young yakuza, Minami, who is sent on a mission with his mentor Ozaki, also called Brother. Minami, unbeknownst to Brother, has been ordered to kill the unstable, dangerous Brother. He does so sooner than intended, though, and when Brother’s body goes missing, Minami descends into a surreal nightmare world.

Minami spends much of the movie in a provincial town, contending with the debased brother and sister who run a local inn and other strange inhabitants of the area while trying to solve the mystery of where Brother’s body has gotten to.

When Minami finally does find Brother, nothing is as he expects. Brother is now more like Sister.

Minami’s journey has its highlights and tense moments, but it also borrows scenes and ideas from earlier Miike films, especially Visitor Q. Minami confronts strange people, domestic violence, and twisted sexualities. He also descends into moments of exquisite surrealism, such as his late night encounter with a man with a cow’s head.

Gozu bears the marks of Miike’s excretory interests: a middle-aged woman who is lactating and frequently milks herself, scenes of characters pooping, semen flung around various scenes. All were present in Visitor Q as well, but in that film, they seemed fresh, shocking, even sometimes funny. In Gozu they seem a bit unnecessary, perhaps a concession to Miike’s drive to push limits or shock, but when he’s already showed us these scenes, they lose some of their power for him. (Admittedly, the lactation makes thematic sense given that gozu means “cow’s head,? but its use with another middle-aged woman is too repetitive.)

This repetition could be easily forgiven, understood even as themes and obsessions in his work, if the movie were more interesting. But Miike takes nearly two and a quarter hours to tell his story – much more than the story could easily carry. Instead of being consistently tense or engaging, the film falters too often, losing its momentum each time and letting the audience’s interest flag.

Miike’s most interesting movies – to my eye – are his stranger films, the ones that use horror, fantasy, and surrealism in their filmic toolboxes. While his ultra-violent sagas can be great fun (Ichi, Fudoh, etc.), I just don’t find them as interesting. Sure, Miike’s violence is remarkable (remember the scene of a face, separated from its head, sliding down the wall in Ichi?), but how many movies can anyone make to push the violence envelope?

As Paul Barman tells us, when you consistenly push the envelope, eventually the envelope will say “excuse you.?

We’ve had other strange films by Miike since Visitor Q, but none of them seemed as promising, or had the pre-release buzz, of Gozu, so it’s a shame that to be let down.

But, like the next bus that will be along in a few minutes, Miike’s prolificness means that we’ll only need to wait a few more months for the next potential masterpiece by one of international cinema’s most interesting directors.

Buy Gozu from Amazon.

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