FANTASIA: SASORI Review
Joe Ma's Sasori is a film that comes with all sorts of expectations and baggage attached being, as it is, not only a restart but also something of a re-envisioning of the classic 1970's Japanese exploitation series Female Convict Scorpion 701. It should come as no surprise then that reactions to the film have been sharply polarized, that this is a film that people either love or hate, but what is a bit surprising is why. It's not that the film has in any way toned down the exploitation elements, those are there in spades. It's not the fusion of Hong Kong and Japanese influences, that was expected with the film coming out of the ongoing partnership between Hong Kong's Sameway and Japan's Art Port and it falls in nicely with the bleak, hard edged 1980's aesthetic already established in Shamo and Dog Bite Dog. No, the dividing factor is that Ma tells his story in a very abstract, almost impressionistic style that you expect from an arthouse picture rather than an exploitation grinder. In many ways the criticisms against this film are the same as those leveled against recent films such as Susie Au's Ming Ming and Phillip Yankovsky's Sword Bearer, criticisms stemming from the same basic issue. Well, I am a big admirer and supporter of both of those other films so it should come as no surprise that I am also very much on the love side for Sasori as well.
Well established Japanese actress and stunt woman Miki Mizuno takes up the titular role of Nami, the woman who will later come to be known simply as Sasori, or Scorpion. She leads a happy life with her policeman boyfriend - they are wealthy young, attractive and the future seems to hold no limits for them. Their life is not only good, it is perfect. Perfect that is until a gang of viscious assassins invade their home and take Nami hostage, planning to kill her boyfriend's father when he arrives for a visit. Being truly sadistic, simply killing the father isn't enough for the group once they have Nami in their clutches, no, they also crave entertainment and they force Nami to make a choice. Either she also kills her boyfriend's sister before his very eyes or else they kill the boyfriend. The sister dies, Nami is sent to prison, and her boyfriend - seeking to block out the pain - has his memory wiped entirely clean by a hypnotherapist.
Prison, frankly, is hell. Nami becomes the target of abuse from her vicious cell mates, women who beat her to a pulp to establish their dominance. The warden - played by Lam Suet - is a cold and cruel man who forces the inmates to mud wrestle for his own entertainment so it is clear that no help will come from that quarter, not unless Nami is willing to whore herself out to him. And so she must learn to be hard, to fend for herself and survive. Violence escalates severely - all of it played out with the inmates in various degrees of undress - until multiple inmates are dead and Nami is hung b the wrists to freeze to death in the prison yard, all of the corpses dumped in the woods. There she is found by a man - played by Simon Yam - known simply as the Corpse Collector who revives her and reasoning that a person back from the dead would be good at kung fu, trains her to fight. Thus prepared, Nami takes up once again with her memory-wiped boyfriend while engaging in a bloody and violent quest for revenge against the gang that destroyed her life.
While the Japanese element is clear and strong, director Ma takes his cues for the look and feel of Sasori primarily from the gritty,hard edged world of 1980's Hong Kong Category III films. And make no mistake about it, this will very definitely be a Cat III release and it will definitely have earned the rating. The look is stark and severe, shot from extreme angles with all of it exaggerated by lurid lighting schemes. The prison scenes are brutal in the extreme, the villains of the world seemingly ripped straight from the pages of the pulp mangas where the story had its beginnings. Where the Japanese films often made some attempt at realism with their characters the characters here feel far more based on the graphic novels - there is the beautiful, sadistic woman who kills with poison; there is the squat, long haired kung fu master; there is the super strong and seemingly invulnerable force played by Dog Bite Dog's Sam Lee; there is the bizarre kung fu master embodied by Simon Yam. Even Nami herself takes on seemingly beyond-human ability by the end.
Balancing out that comic book sensibility, though, are Ma's more arthouse leanings. While it has a very clear narrative through line Sasori often feels as though it plays far more as a series of impressions and distinct moments than as a linear narrative. It plays with absolutely minimal dialog, each scene and segment self contained and laid out just so. Put that way what may seem like an arthouse indulgence actually begins to appear more in line with the story's manga origins, the structure of the film mimicking the self contained worlds of comic books cells, each one it's own self contained world that reveals larger patterns when placed in larger context.
Horribly violent and yet strangely formal and experimental, Sasori is a film that may have a hard time finding an audience. The structure makes it a bit art house for the typical genre crowd, the extreme violence makes it to harsh by far for the typical art house crowd. It is an unusual picture, to be sure, but a compelling one in my book, one that very much deserves to be seen.