Country and Year: HK/Japan (2008)
Review By: David Austin
SASORI PLAYS AT THE IFC CENTER THURSDAY, JULY 3D AT 11:55 PM
Sasori, a remake of the classic Japanese surreal exploitation series, Female Convict Scorpion, is a throwback to the trashy Hong Kong films of yesteryear. It’s actually better to put the fact that it’s a remake out of your mind – were it not for references like the title, the name of the main character being Nami Matsushima (the same as Meiko Kaji’s classic character) and the appropriation of the original’s theme song, “Uramibushi” over the end credits (though not in its original Kaji-sung version), I probably would not have even connected the two. Frankly, Sasori is better off without the comparison – while the plot outline is roughly similar, the feel and spirit of this film and the originals are very different.
Indeed, Sasori will inevitably suffer if comparison to the original. The first two Female Convict Scorpion films were flat-out exploitation masterpieces, something this film is not. Moreover, Meiko Kaji brought an untouchable cool and intensity to the lead role that newcomer Miki Mizuno cannot hope to equal. Kaji was the very essence of Woman Wronged – she rarely spoke but her very gaze was enough to shake her opponents. Mizuno’s interpretation is a weaker, far less iconic character.
Mizuno’s Nami is a mild-mannered woman who is attacked and then framed when her policeman boyfriend’s father is assassinated. The reasons behind the assault will be explained later (and don’t really make much sense or matter a whit) but the result is that Nami finds herself locked away, hated by her boyfriend, and a victim for every jailhouse thug she encounters. Only in prison does she learn to fight back. After being left for dead by the authorities, she is seemingly resurrected by the mysterious Corpse Collector, trained in kung fu, and sent out to wreak a terrible vengeance on those who wronged her.
As I said, though, Sasori has its own spirit and is performs well on its own terms. A better comparison would be the kinds of productions Hong Kong was notorious for in the 80’s and early 90’s – Sasori is far more Naked Killer than Female Convict Scorpion (I’m surprised Wong Jing did not have a hand in the film). This Japanese/Hong Kong co-production subverts the plot of the original into the Hong Kong idiom without a look backward.
Sasori also calls upon some serious Hong Kong and Japanese star power. Lam Suet cameos as the sleazy Warden and Simon Yam brings his customary freakiness to the role of the Corpse Collector (a similar role to that played in Story of Ricky by Tetsuro Tamba). Nami’s assailants are a mixed group of creepy killers –nerdy, glasses-wearing Cyonron (Sam Lee); mini-skirted Sen Sou (Emme Wong); uber-pimp Tetsujin; and freaky martial arts master Akagi (Bruce Leung). Sam Lee (of Dog Bite Dog and Bio-Zombie) and Bruce Leung (the toadlike Beast in Kung Fu Hustle) are particularly effective – Lee again shows he can disappear into a role, managing to conjure both pathos and genuine unease in his few scenes while Leung is a grotesque in Russian hat and clashing fingers full of rings – his duel with Nami on and in a moving truck is a high point of the film.
The jailhouse experience is a classic. Lam Suet plays the Warden in full pimping style, a la John Vernon in Chained Heat. Like Story of Ricky, there is no law and order in this jail, prisoners stage mud-wrestling bouts for the staff’s amusement and infractions can be punished in the most brutal of fashions. .Interestingly, for all the star power in the rest of the film, it is actually Nana Natsume as the vicious gang boss Dieyou who steals every scene she’s in. Dieyou is the one who torments Nami and forces her to turn into an unapologetic killer herself – their final confrontation in the jailhouse showers is brutal in a way the later, more stylized fights are not.
The fights, once past the sweaty fisticuffs of the prison scenes, are full on wire-fu fests straight out of the Hong Kong New Wave. Characters fly at each across the screen and every kick sends someone careening into a wall. Similarly the lighting of the film mimics that of early ‘80s Hong Kong horror. Lurid pinks, greens, yellows and reds compete to jaundice the screen. It’s as if the film took place on the old 42nd Street – raunchy and unapologetic.
Sadly, Mizuno is truly the weakest part of the film as Nami. She has a longstanding role in the popular Bayside Shakedown series and did a decent job as the lead human in the second modern Gamera film, but she is completely overmatched here. As an actress she is adequate, as a tough girl she fails. Part of it is the character as written – unlike the original, betrayed even by her lover, this Nami’s vengeance seems a little contrived – but more is the fault of Mizuno herself. Her characterization of Nami never grabs the screen with the energy of a Kaji or a Pam Grier, and she pales in comparison to Emme Wong and Nana Natsume’s ferocious turns. Fortunately, despite this central void, Sasori is a more than satisfactory experience – enough good surrounds Mizuno to compensate for her failings.
Recommended? Sasori, taken on its own terms, is a mean-spirited, trashy little film, and I mean that in the best way.
If you like this, you might like: Naked Killer, Shamo, Ebola Syndrome, The Cat, Story of Ricky, Female Convict Scorpion, Zero Woman – Red Handcuffs
© David Austin
Filed under: Movie Reviews and Movie Reviews: Hong Kong and People: Simon Yam and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2008