Neil Young’s Film Lounge – St John’s Wort

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

ST JOHNS WORT

6/10

Otogiriso : Japan 2001 : Ten Shimoyama (aka Shimoyama Ten) : 85 mins

Student Nami (Megumi Okina) and her boyfriend Kohei (Yoichito Saito) explore the crumbling mansion which Nami has just inherited from her estranged father. They film their expedition with digital cameras, beaming the results back to the video-game company where they work. As their colleagues construct a new game around the footage, Nami and Kohei make a series of increasingly grisly and terrifying discoveries

St Johns Wort is as refreshingly unusual as its title: a more-than-slightly bonkers Japanese horror movie with an engagingly freewheeling post-modern edge. Though the story involves much high-tech gadgetry, its clear that this is by no means a big-budget production instead, director Shimoyama and cinematographer Kazuhiko Ogura digitally tweak nearly every image, heightening colours, freezing the action into awkward, pixellated frames, inserting computer-style text-boxes and graphics that turn the movie into something very close to a game itself: Its all computerised!, as someone says of Namis spooky mansion.

By these means, were provided a coherent (if somewhat loopy) back-story for St Johns Wort the real-life video game on which the film is based, itself an adaptation of a lurid novel by Shugei Nakasaka. As such were a world away from the more prosaic approach taken by Hollywood when it brings games to the screen the likes of Resident Evil, Lara Croft : Tomb Raider, and Final Fantasy The Spirits Within.

But this technique, while original and often amusing, comes at a price. Its hard to pay proper attention to the convolutions of the actual plot when were being bombarded with such a stream of distracting, self-conscious, self-referential gimmicks. Shimoyama isn’t too comfortable with the straight horror aspects, and Namis flashbacks to her various childhood traumas soon become tiresomely repetitive. We build to a deliriously over-the-top fiery-conflagration climax straight out of a Hammer or Roger Corman classic or do we? Technology intervenes, and provides us with a slightly less harrowing alternative. A clever touch but also one that dilutes whatever horror and suspense might otherwise have built up.

On the plus side, the film scores points on the classiness front by having the enigma revolve around a series of paintings produced by Namis crazy father his daubs an amusingly blood-thirsty hybrid of Aubrey Beardsley and Francis Bacon, prominently featuring St Johns Wort – the flower of revenge, were told. And stick around for the closing credits in full they showcase an editing prowess and use of music that’s much more striking and confident than anything in the movie itself.

21st June 2002
(seen 12th April 2002, De Balie, Amsterdam : Fantastic Film Festival)

by Neil Young