lthough "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
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 clichés. 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
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