Over the next month or two, I plan to go through the oeuvre of Japanese director Sion Sono (aka Shion Sono). Sono is a director who currently has quite a reputation for making bloody, violent and disturbing films that often have him compared to his countryman Takashi Miike. Both directors seem attracted to the bizarre and the perverse, and both have the ability to work at a good pace, so you never have to wait too long for a new film from each director. From a personal standpoint, I am still not sure whether or not I consider Sono to be a great filmmaker, which is the main reason for this little project. If you look through this blog, you will see that I have already reviewed two of his recent features with mixed opinions (I thought “Cold Fish” was inspired, while “Guilty Of Romance” was a disappointment). Previous to these I had already seen “Suicide Circle, which was the film that put Sono on the map, due in no small part to its very confronting opening scene. The first film I decided to check out for this self-made retrospective was “Exte: Hair Extensions” which was made in 2007 and is about killer hair extensions (I know what you are thinking, not that tired old cliché again). So was it any good? Let’s take a look and see.
During a routine search of a shipping container full of human hair, which is being readied to be made into hair extensions, two custom officers stumble across the body of a human corpse inside. After an autopsy, the coroner explains to the officers that the girl had been killed for her internal organs (as well as one of her eyes), to be sold on the black market, and that her body had been filled with her own hair. A worker at the morgue, Yamazaki, who is more than a little bizarre as well as having a fetish for hair, soon realizes that the hair on the corpse is still growing and at an incredible rate. Seeing an opportunity, the man steals the body from the morgue and takes her home where he uses the corpse’s hair to create new and quite beautiful hair extensions. Meanwhile, in another part of the city, we find Yuko, an apprentice hair-dresser who is living with her best friend Yuki, an amateur dancer. Yuko is currently preparing for a big hairdressing exam that is coming up, when her horrible sister dumps her daughter, Mami, on Yuko’s doorstep, explaining (via letter) that Yuko can now look after the young girl. Suddenly, Yuko’s perfect world is disturbed by the unexpected arrival of her young niece. Without being able to get in contact with her sister, she must look after Mami, all while continuing to go to work and study for her exam. Things get more serious when Yuko notices all of the bruises on Mami’s body and understands that her sister, Kiyomi, has been abusing the girl. While all this is going on, Yamazaki has visited the Gilles De Rais salon, where Yuko works, and offered the workers free samples of his new hair extensions, so confident he is of their quality. When the hair-dressers start using these extensions strange things begin to happen to the wearer as the hair takes control of them and kills each of them.
The idea of killer hair extensions is obviously a ridiculous one, and luckily Sono knows this, and to battle this problem “Exte: Hair Extensions” is presented as a horror comedy. That is not to say that moments in the film are not treated seriously, because the whole subplot of Mami’s abuse is handled with extreme seriousness by both the filmmakers and the actors. Personally these dramatic moments I felt were the strongest of the film and held the most resonance. It is heartbreaking seeing the bruises and scars on this young girl and in the way she reacts towards other human beings. She is always afraid of being beaten and is so timid and apologetic for everything she does. It is then quite beautiful seeing Mami come out of her shell and trusting Yuko, after all of the kindness she grants the young girl, and this creates an anchor for the audience while watching the film, it gives us something and someone to care about when the horror kicks in.
In regards to the horror scenes, these are not handled as seriously, but as I’ve already mentioned, how can they be, we are talking about killer hair extensions. Instead Sono delivers these scenes with a tongue firmly planted in his cheek. They are rarely terrifying, but visually they are quite something to behold. While most of the effects are of the computer generated variety, they are all done extremely well with scenes of the killer hair appearing from open wounds or human orifices being particularly gruesome. One scene where a girl is pulling a single strand of hair from underneath her eyeball had me on the edge of my seat. The only problem with the horror is the connection between the victims and the rage-filled corpse that is controlling the hair. While we learn the reason why she is so angry, we are never given any reason as to why she attacks the people she does and more importantly we are never given any proper explanation as to why she stops at the end, why she is suddenly at peace. This is something that I feel that is important because without it, the reality of the situation suffers. The film needs to have its own rules and once explaining them must then abide by these rules. However here I feel the motive of the “ghost” is muddled and needed further explanation.
Something that I mentioned in both of my other reviews of Sion Sono films is the fact that he has problem with letting members of his cast overact. He again falls into this trap here with Ren Ohsugi’s performance as Yamazaki. He lets Ohsugi go so far over the top that it borders on ridiculousness. Granted his character is rooted more in the comedy section of the film, but for me it just did not work at all, and it took me out of the film whenever he was on screen. The early scenes at the morgue I thought he was genuinely creepy, but after he steals the corpse and wears that stupid wig, not to mention singing that insane hair song, well he feels like he has walked out of a completely different film. This may be a personal preference because I am not a huge fan of comedy in my horror (unless it is of the darkest quality), and I have read a lot of people’s opinions who think Ren Ohsugi’s performance is the highlight of “Exte: Hair Extensions”. While not suffering quite as bad, I also felt that Tsugami’s work in the role of Kiyomi, Yuko’s selfish and abusive sister, was also not grounded enough in reality and bordered on caricature. As opposed to Yamazaki, the character of Kiyomi exists in the scenes that are handled the most realistically, where we are witness to the little girl’s abuse, and I believe if Tsugami had toned down her performance just a little, these scenes of true horror would have been much more disturbing.
At the other end of the acting spectrum is Chiaki Kuriyama’s truly wonderful performance as Yuki. She is everything that the character needs as she is bubbly and fun in a naïve and innocent way, but when the child abuse drama is revealed she is able to pull off the necessary weight needed to give it the respect that it deserves. As the film goes on, we also find out that Yuki is carrying with her the guilt of an action she committed in the past, and again Kuriyama delivers the goods in these scenes. It is this performance that grounds the whole film in reality while everything around her is basically insane. Another thing in her favour is that Chiaki Kuriyama just has a lovely screen presence, you cannot help but love her, and as I have mentioned many times before, this can only help a horror film when you actually care for the characters you are following.
Overall, there is much to like about “Exte: Hair Extensions”, but it also has its flaws. While the film is definitely worth watching for Chiaki Kuriyama’s thespian abilities, once again I feel that director Sion Sono has let one of his actors go too far over the top to the detriment of the film. Sono has created some outstanding visual images with regards to the hair horror scenes, however I never found these scenes to be scary, although it can be argued that they are played more for laughs anyway. Although the film is often described as a horror / comedy, serious themes and issues are addressed within in regards to child abuse, and it is during these scenes that the film shines at its brightest. Personally, I thought “Exte: Hair Extensions” was a great way to start my Sion Sono retrospective and as such recommend it and I now look forward to what comes next. Oh, and I have to briefly mention the final kill in the film, which is ridiculous to the extreme……….only in Japan.