Dir: Sion Sono
I've now seen four of Sion Sono's films, and from the thematically linked Suicide Club and Noriko's Dinner Table to his insane Love Exposure (a four hour epic about original sin, romance and upskirt photography) and this offbeat serial killer movie, each one marks him out as one of the most original, daring, and downright odd filmmakers in the world.
Cold Fish is very loosely based on a real case in which a rare dog breeder and his wife were hanged for at least four murders by poisoning, and one of their employees was jailed for three years for helping them dispose of the bodies. From this starting point Sono weaves an operatically over the top (and appropriately lengthy) tale of milqetoast rare fish breeder Shamoto (Mitsuru Kukikoshi) who is befriended and then made an accomplice by psychotic competitor Murata (Denden) who, along with his pretty young wife Aiko (Asuka Kurosawa) turns out to be a serial murderer (by the end of the film he has ammassed something like 60 victims, taking into account those he boasts of killing before meeting Shamoto). Murata uses threats against Shamoto's own young wife (Megumi Kagurazaka) and teenage daughter (Hikari Kajiwara) to make him help in making his victims bodies 'invisible'.
Cold Fish is not a reserved or a subtle film. The performances are loud and demonstrative, dialogue is often bellowed, violence is gross and bloody and humour is slapsticky. In short you have to make a decision to surrender to the film, to sink into this heightened and extreme world. I highly recommend that you do so, because once you do you're likely to find, as I did, that Cold Fish is tremendously entertaining as it mixes horror and humour, often in a single moment.
The central performances of Denden and Mitsuru Kukikoshi work for most of the film as yin and yang. Denden is all gleeful malice, doing exactly what he wants with near manic energy from one moment to the next. To begin with he comes across as the fun uncle (certainly that's how Shamoto's daughter Mitsuko is encouraged to see him), but his true colours emerge in a disturbing and well performed single take scene in which he molests Shamoto's wife Taeko with the cool detachment of somebody completely corrupt. Though he's in his late 50's, Denden plays Murata almost as a sugar high ten year old, only rather than candy his pleasure is murder. It's a creepy turn, and a paradoxically amusing one. If Murata is the rampaging id, Shamoto is the terrified part of the brain that processes consequence. He's shown as emasculated at home, repressed and fawning in his interaction with others, a weak man. However, Kukikoshi does demonstrate how Shamoto's association with Murata pushes him closer and closer to the very edge of sanity. When, in the film's deliriously overblown and spectacularly violent last half hour, he finally snaps, Kukikoshi does a spectacular 180, turning Shamoto into a more outwardly cruel version of his recent mentor, with none of the humour or pretence.
Another tremendously entertaining performance comes from Asuka Kurosawa, provocative and sexy at first glance as Murata's young wife, but emerging as probably the most dangerous character when the film shows its hand. Murata seems to kill largely for money or revenge. Aiko kills because, it seems, it turns her on. In fact the whole process of murder seems to turn her on, in one notable scene she makes out with a female co-worker just before going into a meeting where her husband and Shamoto are attempting to cover up a recent killing. Kurosawa convinces on all the levels the film asks of her; she's seductive, and can play the sweet, dutiful wife, but she's also mercenary and dangerous (see the moment when she beats another character to death with a TV).
Sono clearly has a dark sense of humour, and one that tends towards the absurd. It's best summed up in an image from the final scenes, as one character hugs the disembowelled corpse of another in a moment of truly perverse (and rather belated) tenderness. The sheer level of blood and violence on display can also be funny, often taking on the feel of an insanely brutal Looney Tunes cartoon (aided by a bombastic, drum driven, score). And yet, Sono also attempts to ground the action in reality, making use of a grainy aesthetic which gives a slightly dirty, homemade, feel to the film, emphasising even more the extremities it indulges in.
What I found so thrilling about Love Exposure was the dizzying invention on display, and that hasn't changed with Cold Fish. Sono keeps you on your toes for the whole of the film's 146 minute running time, and nothing ever quite happens as you expect it to. I can't say that this film or its director will be to all tastes, but so far I'm enjoying being in the hands of this particular madman.
Third Window are releasing Cold Fish in a double disc special edition, with the film getting the Blu Ray disc all to itself, and extras on a bonus DVD.
The film looks great, with easily readable and well placed subs, and a faithful rendition of the films visuals, emphasising film grain in all the right places, but with quality sharp enough to render landscape shots as if we are looking out of a window. Colours (including, happily, blood red) are faithfully reproduced and blacks look deep and true. Towards the end of the film I saw slight blocking in a fight scene, but this may well be an issue confined to the screener. On the whole this is a beautiful HD transfer, and it's sure to make the DVD look dull in comparison.
The extras on this special edition are not numerous, but they are in depth and interesting. First up is an interview with the film's screenwriter, Yoshiki Takahashi which last 50 minutes. It's a chummy chat in English, covering a lot of bases in detail, and is particularly interesting on the differences between the draft screenplay and the film, the amount of detail in the scrrenplay and the collaboration with director Sion Sono.
Next is a 39 minute interview with Jake Adelstein, an American journalist working a crime beat in Japan, who talks about the real case that Cold Fish is based on. Again this goes into impressive and fascinating detail, and it benefits from Adelstein's first hand knowledge (he actually met the guy on whom Murata is based). Writer Yoshiki Takahashi comes back for the final featurette, which is about the film's Japanese poster, which he designed. He discusses the influence of Straw Dogs, on the design, his philosophy behind the image and poster design in general. It's another interesting eight minutes. The extras package is completed by trailers for Cold Fish and other Third Window releases.
This is an unusual extras package, well matched to an unusual film, and it adds up to an exemplary DVD and Blu Ray release, which you should be rushing out (or clicking below) to buy.