It is starting to get weird around here. The most unexpected word there probably being ‘starting,’ as we are already one week into the New York Asian Film Festival. But, the beginning being, for me, mostly about the masterful film work featuring actor Choi Min-Sik, it is now getting around to that time when the crazy genre head trips are being rolled out. Today it was afternoon delight ZERO MAN VS. THE HALF VIRGIN (Japan) and then back for the late night screening of DEAD BITE (Thailand).
When is a comedic sex romp not a comedic sex romp? Or rather, is it possible for it to be five tenths of one? nine tenths of one? Zero Man Vs. The Half Virgin poses the same question about the status of one’s virginity, when amnesiatic, superpower besieged, and generally awkward beat cop Kenichiro Sakuragi perceives the slowly increasing decimal on a constantly reappearing young lady’s forehead as the number of sex partners she has had. This confounding detail coincides with a memory of a grand purpose that hits the main character like a bolt from the sky: to put every effort into having sex with a virgin (an act which would also rid himself of his own nagging virginity). Lest you wonder how Sakuragi can know for certain that he is still a virgin with all the gaps in his memory, he is basing things on the less problematic whole number zero that appears on his own forehead. And oh yeah, these numbers appear to him only when he is, um, doing something rather impolite...with his hand...down there. Yup.
With its fair share of exposed skin, this Japanese film oddity most often gets into headier raunchy territory via dialogue, much like this year’s festival opener VULGARIA, and also like that film there is a great deal of humor. Even its big late bloomer coming of age moment is more focused on facial expressions than other parts of the body.
While the taboo subject matter is the source of many laughs, it wouldn’t be the case without some surprisingly sharp dialogue. Besides deadpan exchanges between Sakuragi and a fellow officer, there is a fantastic comedic turn by gaijin actor Don Brown. I am often dubious of foreigners popping up in awkward and seemingly random moments of international films, but here a horribly affected nonnative Japanese accent is used to pull off some very clever and ludicrous dialogue jokes.
For such an outlandish concept, the story rolls along at a slow, loping pace that some may lose patience with. Still, consistent with some of the director’s more renowned writing work, for instance the even stranger Miike directed film GOZU, the story becomes more twisted and even weirder as it settles into its final act.
There is also a strange uncomfortableness (that I can’t help finding a little fascinating) in the film’s teetering back and forth between whacked out fantasy and bizarre but entirely possible morbid situations. Molestation, underage call girls, and incest are all realities that come up in some form or other, and are not played up for laughs. Yet, before you can get too focused on those unsettling details, the Zero Man myth is explored and defined even deeper, with moves that reference and parody the culture of 70s and 80s rubber suit monster fighting super heroes.
There are enough vulgar laughs and mildly intriguing plot twists to make this something to see, before it is sure to vanish from the Western World that this film is definitely not long for.
Thailand’s DEAD BITE breaks the rules. It is a film that technically should not have happened. It is an out and out zombie cannibal b-movie made on a gigantic budget, one that should never be spent on such a movie, lest you come upon something like this -- so gorgeous to look at and 1,000 % insane. But owing to a major Thai pop star’s larger than life imagination and his acquaintance with Will.I.Am, which allowed for some significant financial backing, you have the making of the impossible.
It begins with Joey Boy, the real life celebrity/leader of Thai hiphop unit Gangcore, playing Joey Boy, the real life celebrity/leader of Thai hiphop unit Gangcore. He is in a pitch black space, surrounded by other bodies and pools of blood, answering someone else’s cell phone in the hopes of getting help. But before you can think about that too long it is time to watch Gancore in action, with a blend of hiphop meets bubblegum techno pop, blasting their way through an outdoor concert. Their bubbly, energetic show is cut short by an audience that has turned into toothy, bloodthirsty creatures, but this is not enough to turn them off from a suddenly scheduled video shoot with beautiful girls at an island get away spot.
What comes next is an annoying sequence of the band playing around with girls and mugging for the camera, while shooting a cool promo. It’s pretty ingenious because it is a movie about a band playing around with girls and mugging for the camera while shooting a cool promo, before the island’s various nasty inhabitants emerge and turn things into a living hell. This might all sound like a typical fun cross promotional vehicle, perhaps less out of place in the ‘70s or ‘80s, putting a popular music artist in an adventure movie setting. But I ask you...would you expect that kind of vehicle to kill off band members in a giant rush of aquatic zombies? Have one of those band members turn into one of those zombies? Have another one’s leg amputated in crude fashion? Take the biggest star’s love interest and have her head bashed in by giant-stone wielding natives? And yet, all of these things happen. Fear not, I would not give those details away if they were among the film’s most deranged moments. No, there is far more in store.
Somewhere between the sudden and violent attack of the island’s elements on the band plus their crew and the violent battle that occurs again as the band tries to escape the island (all taking place with an impressively CGI rendered rainstorm in the background) other weirdness happens. Japanese tourists with their own agenda enter the picture. An alliance forms between the members of Gancore. A sea monster laments the mistreatment of its son. And there is plenty of bloody violence.
The island’s onslaught is straight out of retro midnight movie KUNG FU CANNIBALS, a combination of undead hordes and magic ritual conducting inhabitants. Like that movie and this year’s NYAFF midnight feature BOXER’S OMEN, DEAD BITE offers a fever dream of black magic and mythology that you won’t find coming out of the less superstitious West.
The big question you’re probably still left with is, does the band do a fun, loud live performance before the credits roll? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
ZERO MAN VS. THE HALF VIRGIN plays again Saturday, July 7 1:30 PM.
DEAD BITE plays again Wednesday, JULY 11 3:50 PM.
For more information, check the Subway Cinema website.
Me on twitter = @mondocurry.