Neil Young’s Film Lounge – A Living Hell

Published on: March 23rd, 2004



Iki-jigoku : Japan 2000 : Fujii Shugo : 114 mins

ONE-LINE REVIEW: Enjoyably demented psychological-horror-farce defies for a while – the limitations of an obviously shoestring budget.

For an hour or so, A Living Hell is a remarkable piece of work, as 28-year-old writer-director-editor-performer Shugoo sustains a jagged, hysterical mood that traces the lethal razor edge between terror and humour. The basic situation is straight from those sweat-and-blood-soaked bad dreams where were attacked in our homes by vicious, unstoppable, inescapable foes. This is the fate that befalls Yasuto (Hirohito Honda), a surly twentysomething confined to a wheelchair (by anxiety!) and thus largely trapped in the nondescript suburban house he shares with his inattentive family. It isn’t a large dwelling, and feels even more cramped than usual when a pair of distant relatives suddenly move in: elderly crone Chiyo (Shiraisihi Yoshiko?) and her apparently autistic, mute daughter Yuki (Rumi). Yasutos instinctive dislike of the new arrivals is soon justified, the pair wasting no time in subjecting the lad to an apparently motiveless campaign of mental and physical abuse that rapidly slides into torture

A Living Hell is anything but a slick production, often sporting a notably cheap look and a scattershot application of shock music effects. Shugo has more than enough imagination and talent to transcend an obviously limited budget, however, and the small number of locations and actors actually ends up working to the films advantage. We feel the relentlessly oppressive claustrophobia of Yasutos house, and get to know its various faceless rooms at least as well as our own. The films horrors are explicitly domestic the psychotic pair make sinister use of many everyday, household implements giving its excesses a surreal edge while simultaneously allowing Shugo to make a few sly points about current Japanese society in general, and the problems of extended-family living in particular.

But although the films wild, dementedly original energy is undeniably impressive both Takashi Miike and John Waters would surely approve once it starts to flag, Shugo rapidly loses control of his material. The final half-hour features a series of increasingly desperate twists, and one interminable, almost unwatchable scene in which the performers take turns gurning and hollering into a static camera that represents the immobile Yasutos fixed perspective. Even worse, Shugo tacks on something approaching a rational subplot – in which a journalist tracks down the truth behind the main protagonists – that feels like an arbitrary attempt to pad the material out to feature length with pseudo-scientific explanations. But the strong suit of A Living Hell lies precisely in its early stretches absurd irrationality. It seems that the best nightmares, like the best jokes, should never be exposed to too much analysis.

1st July 2002
(seen 14th April, Melkweg, Amsterdam : 18th Fantastic Film Festival)

by Neil Young