Erotic Nightmare (Wai-Man Cheng, Hong Kong, 1999)

Cracking, sexy variation on the old ‘dreams can kill’ scenario with the great Anthony Wong as a sexually frustrated husband (wife has a heart problem) stitched up like a kipper by an occultist who offers him sizzlingly hot erotic dreams for a price. At first it’s great fun for our Anthony but corpses soon begin to turn up around the house because the occultist turns out to have complete control over Wong’s actions in his dreams. He can force the guy to do whatever he wants and ends up blackmailing our hero for control of his business. Poor Anthony doesn’t have a chance. So it’s up to Wong’s brother and the occultist’s much battered female assistant to take down the bad guy and save the day.

So what can I say about this delirious slice of highly enjoyable sleaze? Well for starters the girls are hot, hot, HOT! It’s softcore but the sex scenes are pushed about as far as they can and unlike the usual joyless/embarrassing/tedious excuse for humping that passes in so much of genre cinema the dreams – in which Wong is seduced by some willingly submissive schoolgirl babes – manage to be really erotic and really hilarious. The POV blowjob amused me no end and I couldn’t stop laughing at the scene in which Wong is a PE teacher urging the line up of luscious babes in front of him to bend lower so he can cop a better eyeful of their gorgeous tits practically bursting out of those tight gym tops. With blood soaked dismembered corpses and sexy dreams that always end badly for Anthony (in one memorable scene his shagging is interrupted by an old lady who charges him with a pair of garden shears determined to cut off his knob) it’s classic Hong Kong exploitation cinema, wild, demented and yet somehow just holding together through sheer zest. It’s also a winner because not only do the actresses seem up for a laugh but Anthony Wong shows just why he’s so damn good in this sort of stuff. He can play it straight and serious but beneath the surface one senses a gleefully devilish streak in him that’s clearly loving every second of it. Equally effective is that the villain turns out to be a right sadistic sod in torturing and beating the shit out of his assistant so much that when the tables are turned and it’s the occultists’s turn to be put to sleep – even as he fights desperately to stay awake – his assistant’s crooning of ‘Go to sleep little baby’ proves a delightful, delicious moment of well earned revenge on a creep who ends up trapped in a dream hell being fucked in the ass by a couple of big black dudes for all eternity. Serves him right!

Spider Forest (Song Il-Gon, South Korea, 2004)

At a cabin deep in the woods Kang (Gam Woo-sung) is witness to the blood-soaked corpses of two murder victims, one of which is his girlfriend Su-yeong (Kang Gyeong-heon). While chasing the killer Kang is badly injured and nearly killed when he stumbles into the path of a passing car. Waking up a fortnight later in hospital Kang’s first action is to call for the police. But as an official investigation gets underway troubling gaps in Kang’s recollection of events not only throw into question the identity of the killer, but a witness who could testify to Kang’s innocence can’t be found and even the nature of what exactly happened on that night seems increasingly uncertain.

Had this remarkable film been played as a straight down the line amnesiac murder mystery that would have been fine enough but writer-director Song Il-Gon is only really interested in using the thriller aspects as a peg on which to hang a mesmerising portrait of a grief-stricken man recovering from some shattering trauma in which remembrance is the key (it’s pretty obvious from the start who the shadowy figure pursuing our hero is but in any case that isn’t really the point). Instead we’re presented with a succession of flashbacks filling in Kang’s life, the most suggestive of which has him sent on a work assignment to the sticks (he’s a tv news editor/cameraman) to interview a pretty photo store owner, Min Su-Jin (Suh Jung) about a legend concerning a nearby forest. According to Min the spiders of the titular forest are really human spirits waiting for someone to remember them before they can be freed. At this point the story audaciously reworks the thriller elements of its grisly double murder into myth. For Min tells Jung that long ago two schoolchildren – a boy and a girl – lived happily in Spider Forest. But the girl died in circumstances (presented with sudden and terrifying abruptness) which ominously echo the present day cabin murder. In this way the film not only blurs the line between fantasy and reality it raises further possibilities; what if the amnesiac Kang was the little boy in that story? If he was – and since the police have yet to discover any evidence of his murder claim – then maybe what’s going on here is a severely traumatised man whose long repressed childhood memories of a gruesome double murder are bubbling up to the surface of his mind and manifesting themselves as delusions.

We then learn that Kang’s first wife (Suh Jung, in dual roles), was killed in an air crash shortly after he saw her off at an airport. In the tale of the two children related by Min the last the boy sees of his girl is when she literally floats out of his arms into the sky above Spider forest. Su-yeong, the female tv producer Kang begins a relationship with after his wife’s death, is murdered for what appears to be the same reason that motivated the slaughter witnessed by the two children. We’re told that afterwards the boy suffered an illness that caused him to forget everything that happened in the forest. Later, a teacher at the boy’s school contradicts the story, telling Kang there was no double murder and that the little girl simply fell ill and died. As these contradictory details emerge not only the motivation of the mysterious killer but the very fact of the double murder that kicks off the film begins to waver. About all we can be sure of is that Kang is hurting because of the traumatic loss of someone he loved. But who that someone was remains tantalisingly ambiguous. The director’s casting of pretty Suh Jung as two of the women who loom large in Kang’s life is suggestive but everything we see here is given equal dramatic weight. Granted, this style of narrative is as likely to infuriate as delight but handsome Gam Woo-Sung is excellent as the dreadfully injured protagonist searching for answers. That the film works as well as it does is primarily because Kang’s plight so involves us emotionally and let’s face it – that empathy is what you need to carry you through a film as narratively ambiguous as this.

The happiness in Kang’s life seems constantly overwhelmed by undeserved misery and Woo-sung has such a pleasingly gentle, receptive quality as an actor you feel tremendous empathy for him. In an intimate moment with wife Suh Jung on the eve of her doomed flight the pair make desultory small talk over a glass of wine, she does a silly little mime involving an apple (something later echoed during one of the film’s more disturbing scenes) and the way Kang watches makes it abundantly clear just how much he loves her. His mental paralysis as he receives the news of his wife’s death at work is very nicely played. He’s a good physical actor too; watching Kang haul himself from his hospital bed, his face a mass of hideous purple bruises, blood and brain fluids leaking from a ghastly head wound, agonisingly dragging himself back and forth to the scene of the crime like some refugee from The Walking Dead has you flinching inside at his every move. Suh Jung is equally effective as the film’s other major character, photo shop owner Min Su-Jin. She occupies a fascinating position in what turns out to be a psychodrama playing out entirely in one man’s mind. My own theory – for what it’s worth – is that she’s actually Kang’s dream of what the schoolgirl he used to know would have become had he not fallen ill and forgotten her. That right at the end of the film Min asks him not to forget her seems to tie in with the legend of Spider Forest and the implication that the forest itself is really a metaphor for Kang’s own subconscious. Indeed, the film is full of the symbols of dreams. Reflections, tunnels, keys and doors all figure prominently. Il-Gon constructs a web of allusions in which fantasy and reality, past and present, all overlap each other and the meaning seems to hover tantalisingly just out of reach.

The other strong element here is Song Il-Gon’s direction which is clever in the way it implies links between events in different time frames through repetition of a particular camera angle or movement within the frame. The certainty of tone means the film juggles the thriller/investigative elements with romance, character drama and even a few outright fantasy moments with equal aplomb. I especially liked the touch of black humour Il-Gon finds in the midst of a brutal murder scene in which the killer’s rampage is temporarily brought to a halt because the sickle he’s using has gotten jammed in the skull of one of his victims and no amount of pushing and pulling seems able to free it. Ever since I saw Spider Forest in 2005 it’s been one of those films that’s stayed with me. A rewatch 12 years on proved every bit as compelling as it did the first time. I still can’t figure it all out even though its writer/director claims to have written the original script as a straightforward linear thriller before deciding to rearrange the sequence of events into something determinedly non-linear, but as enigmas go this one’s a pleasure to spend time with.

Gun and Key (Satoshi Isaka, Japan, 2001)

Two strangers who’ve met on the internet, a young computer expert nicknamed ‘Gun’ (Kazuma Suzuki) and an ageing locksmith known as ‘Key’ (Kenichi Hagiwara), plan to rob the office safe of a businessman with gangster connections. The robbery goes fine but on the way out the lift carrying our heroes gets stuck between floors. As the hours pass and the threat of discovery grows Gun and Key’s attempts to escape become increasingly desperate.

Also known by the title of Doubles this is an entertaining crime-comedy about two hapless robbers stuck in a lift while their women (Airi Tair as a schoolgirl and the stunning Ayako Kawahara as the older woman) spend the night in a nearby bar musing about the unreliability of their respective partners. Director Isaka gets round the inherent limitations of the setting through a variety of escape scenarios all of which turn out to be fantasies conjured up by our two heroes who really are stuck. He also keeps us engaged regarding the unfolding connection between two women in an all night bar who befriend each other and the drama unfolding in an office block just across the river from them. Slight though this is what I most liked about Gun and Key is that it’s as much about these guys wanting to do right by their long-suffering women, even if they fail trying, as it is the heist thrills in which the pair end up in serious peril at the hands of a bunch of Yakuza mobsters. The performances are very assured from all four actors. Paired off for the duration, each has good chemistry with the other. Hagiwara’s world weary crook is a most amusing foil for Suzuki’s flash nerd and they’re matched by Tair and Kawahara as the strangers who bond over drinks and discover that despite their differences of age and status they have more in common than they think. Wisely, there’s no solution to the ‘can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em’ conundrum raised here and events conclude pretty much as they begun. Like I say, slight but charming.

Vital (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Japan, 2004)

A young man named Hiroshi (Tadanobu Asano) loses his memory in a car crash which also kills his girlfriend Ryoko (Nami Tsukamoto). After recovery he enrols at medical school only to discover that the female body he’s dissecting in the mortuary is… well, you can probably guess. As Hiroshi digs into Ryoko’s corpse his memories begin to return and he finds himself forced to come to terms with both his love for Ryoko and his pain over her loss.

Despite the schlock premise this is a poignant, affecting drama about grief and memory, love and loss, and very well played by its star Tadanobu Asano (who with his long hair kept reminding me of a young Ian Gillan). Asano gives a movingly underplayed performance as the amnesiac student whose buried memories are slowly triggered by his investigation into Ryoko’s corpse. Although its director’s pedigree (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) and the unsettling tone of Vital might lead one to expect gross out body horror the autopsy scenes are done with unexpected restraint and the film’s flashbacks and beguiling post-death dream meetings between Hiroshi and Ryoko potently evoke the emotions – the protectiveness between lovers – that come with knowing such interludes can’t last and the recognition that one must eventually bade farewell to the dead. Hiroshi’s emotional journey from grief to acceptance is reflected in a lighting scheme that starts off lurid and sickly before gradually giving way to something much more naturalistic. It’s a stylish looking film but it’s style in the service of substance. If I was reminded of anything while watching this it was less Cronenbergian body horror than it was one of Nic Roeg’s fractured time/space examinations of doomed relationships. Yeah, I liked Vital a lot.