It's the latest film from the director of Strange Circus and Suicide Club. It's also a J-horror movie about killer hair extensions. Oh, and it's sweet and heartwarming.
You might be thinking that those three sentences do not go together, but that assumption would be wrong. What keeps it coherent is its humanity. It's a charming film with the kind of energy that only comes from a well-developed sense of humour, even if the film itself doesn't actually contain gags. The characters are full of quirks and little eccentricities. The bullying policemen made me smile with their trivial bickering, not to mention the way one of them says "hito" on discovering a corpse behind his superior. The morgue attendant is a complete freak, played by Ren Osugi. This is a cast you want to spend time with, even the bad people.
Most important though are our heroes. The lead role is being taken by Chiaki Kuriyama, playing someone who's the complete opposite of her scary murderous psychos in Kill Bill and Battle Royale. She's lovely. She's so happy, optimistic and funny that she's more like an anime heroine than a real person, but she's about to hit enough pain and nastiness to more than compensate for that. She only wants to transform people's lives through the magic of hairdressing, which she does at her worryingly named hair salon, Gilles de Rais. (Famous murdering sicko. Look him up.) The salon is a friendly place and it's always enjoyable to spend time there, although Kuriyama's boss is a bit scary. Fair-minded and laudably dedicated to her staff and customers, but not the kind of lady you'd like to cross. Anyway, Kuriyama's been working there for two years and all that's going swimmingly.
What's going less well is the subplot with Kuriyama's niece and half-sister. The half-sister is a BITCH. (I initially wrote that in small letters, but it needed shouting.) If anyone ever deserved to die a ghastly horror movie death, this is that person. The list of her notable qualities starts with the fact that she hits her daughter and only gets worse from there. However even she's fun to watch, being outstandingly attractive and a dedicated party girl. Her daughter however is the emotional key to the film, being a downtrodden ten-year-old who's pretty much forgotten how to smile and whose instinctive response to anger is to apologise and ask not to be punched.
These characters come together with a bang. That's essentially the film. There's lots more cool and important stuff too, but Kuriyama and her niece are the movie's heart. Even when the killer hair action's getting downright silly, you're watching because you care about our protagonists and you want to know that everything will turn out well for them. You don't often get this level of emotional connection in J-horror and I was both surprised and impressed.
So you've got a very human cast who'll make you care about them. That's the first side of the film.
The second element is the killer hair extensions. Obviously this is a ridiculous idea for a horror film, but what's important is that we're talking here about Shion Sono. Suicide Club showed that he knows all about finding the fun in really extreme material. I'm talking about fun for the audience, not just the filmmakers, incidentally. I've even seen Exte called a parody of J-horror and I can see the argument for that, even if I don't know if I'd go that far myself. Note that long black Japanese hair is one of the inescapable motifs of J-horror, usually hanging down to cover some female ghost's face. Sono's just taking that idea a bit further. Crucially he's neither apologising for the silliness nor trying to have his cake and eat it with self-referential dialogue. Instead he's simply pushing the idea as far as he possibly can, resulting in what's probably the definitive Killer Hair Movie. I think that's an achievement of which any of us would be rightly proud.
Finally the third element is the fact that the film also stands up to detailed scrutiny. It's got themes and it's got something truly horrible under all the po-faced camp. Despite appearances, Exte is a ghost story. A girl was kidnapped in a foreign country and something unspeakable was done to her, but that wasn't the end of it. Her corpse ended up in Japan, but that wasn't the end of it. Further indignities were done and the murdered girl's spirit became angry. Thus began the killing. There's nothing even slightly camp about the backstory of what set this film's events in motion.
Furthermore I also perceive a theme. Admittedly it's a fairly general one and it might all be my imagination, but my theory is that this film is about the abuse of power. Both the Ghost Hair Girl and Kuriyama's niece were trapped in a situation where terrible things were being done to them for no reason at all. They hadn't done anything wrong, but their captors would still mock them with, "You're a bad girl." Note the way in which the Ghost Hair Girl's flashbacks are accompanied by a childish Christmas carol (Silent Night), which further accentuates the parallels.. Kuriyama tries to save her niece, but even she eventually finds herself behaving cruelly towards her. She didn't mean to. The message is that even good people can do bad things... it's just that some of us will then realise, apologise and try to make amends. Everywhere you look in this film, there are power relationships. Kuriyama's relationships with her sister, her boss and her niece are all given this dimension. You have the policemen bullying other people and each other, but then this being reversed for the finale (by someone they'd previously bullied).
To my astonishment, Dad wasn't wild about this film. Admittedly it seems to get a bit predictable for a while in the third act, partly because some of the more interesting characters have been killed. However the film kept going past the point where I'd presumed it was going to end and got stranger and more interesting again. I should emphasise though that it doesn't just wibble off into random weirdness like... ooh, Suicide Club. It's a proper ending and a satisfying climax to the story.
This film is cute, charming and touching. It's the perfect film for anyone who'd like to be able to enjoy J-horror, but has always found it a bit distant and emotionally uninvolving. I also love the way it doesn't just turn hair into a monster, but also makes it the emotional focus of our heroine's hopes and aspirations. She loves and wants to cut it. Hair kills people, but it also makes them happy and gives them their livelihood as well.
Have you ever wanted to see something that's at once horrible, silly and heartfelt? If this is a parody, it's one that's being played honestly enough that it's also an outstanding example of what it's parodying. Watch Exte.