Although “A Living Hell” came out several years ago in Japan, the film has only recently been gathering word of mouth in the West as a “must see” cult item. Comparisons have been made with other Eastern films such as “Audition” and Western films like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”; in fact, the DVD helpfully carries the tagline, “The Japanese Chainsaw Massacre”. The film has gained a reputation for being terrifying and sadistic, with some even likening it to the infamous “Guinea Pig” series. Again, the DVD box plays on this overtly, with gory images and lurid hints of the bloody torture contained within.
I was quite surprised to find a different film awaiting me, for “A Living Hell” is more of a black comedy and an unhinged exploration of inherited evil. The plot begins with deceptive simplicity: Yasu (Hirohito Honda from “Battle Royale”) is wheelchair-bound and living with his brother, sister and often-absent father; into their lives come an old woman and young girl, distant relatives needing a place to stay after the last family they lived with mysteriously died. Right from the start, it’s obvious that there is something strange about the new arrivals, but Yasu’s family dismisses this as eccentricity and senility.
However, as soon as they are alone in the house, the two inflict a series of tortures on Yasu that escalates from humiliation to assaults with pliers, a stun gun, and worse. Unfortunately, his family refuses to believe that anything untoward is happening, suggesting instead that he may be going a little crazy himself. Meanwhile, a local journalist investigates the sinister past of the old woman, rapidly learning that things are more complicated and twisted than they seem.
The biggest asset of “A Living Hell” is undoubtedly Shugo Fujii’s direction. A first-time auteur, Fujii also wrote and acts in the film, using a number of camera tricks and off-kilter angles to create an effectively unsettling atmosphere. Although the film is obviously quite low budget, Fujii directs with assurance and style, without an over-reliance on cliché. The feeling of menace that pervades the first two thirds of the film is built up gradually but persistently, with the viewer’s discomfort growing as the tortures intensify.
Most of the violence is offscreen, or is sadistic without being bloody, and the movie is all the more effective for this. Had the film simply relied on gore, it would have become something quite different, and would have had far less impact. Unfortunately, this may leave gorehounds feeling shortchanged, especially given the film’s reputation. Although there is some blood towards the end, the film is quite subdued in this department, working on the mind and nerves rather than the stomach.
On reflection, since the gore effects that are shown are not of a very high standard, keeping the gore limited was probably a good idea. It’s fair to say that there is nothing particularly original on show here, but “A Living Hell” is nicely paced and keeps the viewer interested by making the bold move of investing some time in expanding its characters. It was also quite nice to see an old woman as the central fear figure in an Asian film after being bombarded with so many “Ring”-style little girls with long black hair.
Like many other Japanese films, the third act of “A Living Hell” brings a wild shift in tone, including several bizarre plot twists. Without spoiling anything, it is at this point that the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” comparisons become apparent, as the film hurtles into a hyperactive freefall of gibbering insanity. I guess this may cause some viewers to lose interest, as the dementia that follows is quite at odds with the rest of the film. I myself enjoyed these scenes immensely; even though some of the plot twists were a little ridiculous, they were nevertheless thrown into the mix with a great deal of enthusiasm and picked up the pace nicely.
It has to be said that “A Living Hell” is not all good. The acting in particular is pretty poor, especially Hirohito Honda, whose constant look of wide-eyed, open mouthed shock quickly becomes ridiculous. Similarly, as the film gets increasingly deranged, the other performances derail somewhat, degenerating into eye rolling and shrieking, though I found this to be quite entertaining. On a more positive note, Yoshiko Shiraishi is terrifying as the old woman, tormenting Yasu with an awful blank look on her face.
Overall, I was very impressed with “A Living Hell”. Far from being the all-out atrocity I had been led to expect, it’s actually a subdued, creepy exploration of human cruelty. Until the last half hour, that is, after which all bets are off and your enjoyment probably rests on your tolerance for screaming and over-the-top Asian wackiness.
Shugo Fujii (director) / Shugo Fujii (screenplay)
CAST: Hirohito Honda …. Yasu
Yoshiko Shiraishi …. Chiyo
Rumi …. Mami
Kazuo Yashiro …. Ken
Naoko Mori …. Yuki
Shugo Fujii …. Mitsu