06/21/2016

NYAFF 2016: “Creepy” & “The Tenants Downstairs”

by Matthew Hawkins

My survey of the New York Asian Film Festival 2016 continues! What’s up next? Why, two films that are all about how wonderful one’s neighbor can be…

Creepy

As noted in festival reports past, I’m a fairly huge fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, largely due to the fact that whenever he tries to make a scary movie, it’s actually scary! Despite being widely regarded as an innovator of the genre, Kurosawa actually doesn’t make J-horror movies; he simply makes horror movies that happen to be from Japan. And Creepy is a fine return to form for those who have fond memories of his earliest output, like my personal favorite Cure. Once again our hero is a detective, Koichi, who retires early into his career after sustaining an on the job injury. So him and his young wife Yasuko move to the burbs, where he becomes a college professor, teaching criminal psychology. It’s a cushy gig, as well as a boring one, hence why Takakura allows himself to be wrapped up in an unsolved mystery from his past. At first Koichi is hesitant in helping a former colleague on the force finally crack one particular case after so many years, yet basically can’t help himself. It involves a family that seemingly vanishes in thin air, except their daughter, whose less than reliable memory is why it has remained unsolved in the first place.

Meanwhile, Yasuko tries her best to be a good neighbor and quickly discovers that everyone on their block is rude and stand off-ish. But then there’s the guy next door, who is just a total weirdo. Also, creepy. Nishino is his name, brilliantly portrayed by Teruyuki Kagawa, who was in the last J-horror flick that I actually enjoyed (Tormented, which was screened at Japan Cuts 2012). At first he appears to be socially awkward yet ultimately harmless, though before long it’s clear as day that he’s a sociopath top to bottom. Nishino has a wife that we never see (at first) and a daughter that’s oddly cool and aloof (but not like all teenage daughters around their dads). The first real sign of trouble is when she tells our hero that, “He’s not my father, he’s a total stranger.” A warning that should have been all that Koichi needed to cement Nishino as being more than just some odd fellow but a legit threat to himself and his dear wife. Yet it’s not, and that’s my issue with Creepy; despite borrowing a number of the same winning elements from Cure… i.e a determined yet somewhat inept man of the law facing off against a master manipulator, with foggy memories making the back and forth complicated… you also have character traits that’s rather foreign in a Kiyoshi Kurosawa flick. Specifically how Koichi and Yasuko are kinda dumb at times. Not infuriatingly stupid like those who populate most horror flicks. Plus the befuddling actions of Yasuko in particular (basically how she tries to be pals with Nishino, despite all the red flags) are designed to reinforce a primary argument that the film makes, which is how the most dangerous state of mind can be loneliness. The latter half reveals that the happy couple is, in fact, not very happy.

Nevertheless, there exists moments in which the audience knows better than the characters, again like in most other scary movies, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s are supposed to be better than that. Furthermore, elements that are not explained and which defy logic ends up feeling a bit contrived, such as how Yasuko comes to realize that the person behind the missing person’s case might be his neighbor! Not to say that everything in his movies always make sense, but a trademark of his is being told only what is absolutely necessary, with any lack of info related to reasoning excused via the unique atmosphere that is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s true signature. Which ends up being lost as a consequence of of the slightly different approach; instead of things being all dark and gloomy, everything is bright and sunny, which actually helps to enhance the don’t believe what you’re seeing sentiment that’s pushed. For better or worse, whenever you try something that’s a bit more traditional, many of the preconceived notions and biases come along for the ride. Regardless of the issues, and like the very best the genre has to provide, instead of wanting the protagonist to die because he or she deserves death you end up ultimately rooting for Kagawa and are truly disgusted by Nishino’s actions. The film’s saving grace is its sense of humor, which is doled out in very controlled doses, like how the antics of rapists and murders in Japan can’t compare to those in America, cuz “They do everything bigger in the US!” In the end, even though I was disappointed by Creepy, I still enjoyed the hell out of it. Was even completely caught up in the ending, hook, line, and sinker, even though it was super predictable. Hence why I still recommend catching it next Wednesday, June 29 at Lincoln Center, especially for those not familiar with Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Just be sure to catch Cure via Hulu afterward.

The Tenants Downstairs

The Tenants Downstairs is this year’s NYAFF Closing Night presentation, and boy oh boy, what a perfect choice. I could discuss at length as to why the NYAFF is so vastly and absurdly superior to all the other film festivals out there, especially in the city (speaking as someone who is profoundly over NYC and actively looking to get the hell out of dodge, it’s seriously one of the few remaining reasons why I’e stuck around). But my favorite is how it consistently showcases movies that will actually make you say “Holy f’n shit, I cannot believe I just saw that.” Others promise such a reaction, but the NYAFF actually delivers. So where to begin? The film’s absurd; at times you won’t believe what you’re seeing. It’s grotesque; at times you’ll want to look away. It’s gorgeous; at times you won’t be able to look away. It’s problematic; at times what you observe will make you angry. Some may view the movies as a work of genius, others will believe it’s total trash. There will no doubt be those who think both. It’s hard to say how you’ll react, but here’s one prediction I’m 100% confident in making: rest assured you’ve rarely seen anything like The Tenants Downstairs.

The great Simon Yam plays a landlord who keeps extremely close tabs on all his residents, via security cameras that are hidden in each apartment. Regarding those whose privacy he loves invading, you’ve got: a single father with elementary school aged daughter, a young man who is fairly well built thanks to his job as gym teacher, a young woman who is fairly flirtatious and constantly banging coworkers, a gay couple who are totally in love though it’s more of an affair for one since he’s also married with children, a loser college kid that does nothing but play video games and read tons of comics, and finally a very mysterious woman in white. The landlord keeps tab in every single detail of everyone’s lives, some intimate, other mundane, often a mix of both. Yet the woman in white is literally a blank piece of paper; he ends up taking virtually no notes since there’s ultimately nothing to write about. At any rate, the landlord is essentially all-seeing eye of God, who simply kicks back and enjoys the show that his subjects unknowingly perform for him, day in and day out, via the silly routines that they are stuck in. And he’s never gotten involved until something happens to shake his worldview; the woman in white brings some dude back to her place where she tortures him to death. This freaks him out, but not enough to call the cops. He soon starts to enjoy this all new, all different kind of show, and later has an interaction with it star, in which she states her desire to live a life less ordinary. It’s at this point the landlord comes up with a brilliant idea: to totally mess with his subjects!

Things start small, like feeding everyone (all the residents eat dinner together, which is rather old fashioned yet how it’s still done in Taiwan, which is where the film originates) parts of the murdered dude. Yes, that’s starting small in this movie. Soon the landlord starts to play individualized tricks, and at least one of them is kinda funny? Maybe? The loser wants to believe that he can develop super powers, mostly to bend spoons with his mind, but also cause wind to blow women’s skirts upwards. Whereas the landlord manages to convince the huge dork that he has the ability to teleport, by constantly drugging the guy, and once he’s out, stripping and leaving him somewhere foreign. Apparently when teleporting, one’s clothes do not come along for the trip. Though all the other tricks the landlord plays are not nearly as cute; he leaves foreign pubic hair lying around the gay couple’s place, to arouse suspension that there’s another man. For the single dad, the landlord hides stuff that makes him super horny… with his young, looking around 5 year old daughter around. As for the gym teacher, he comes across keys to everyone’s apartment that the landlord had “lost” and which are (as intended) used to break into the sexy office worker’s apartment, first to enjoy an up close view of the action as she screws some other dude while hidden, and later to basically sexually assault her, which she’s totally into. Hey, I did say the film was problematic.

All that before the landlord becomes even more bored and starts intermingling everyone even further. The ending is just absolutely bonkers, and as noted, you will at times have a difficult time comprehending if what you’re witnessing is indeed what you are witnessing. The Tenants Downstairs is billed as a film that recalls “the golden age of Category III”, and it’s truth. I cannot recommend the movie enough, though I cannot stress enough that one must proceed with caution as well. For those who are brave and bold, it runs the final night of the festival, which is Saturday, July 9 at the SVA Theatre.

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