EXTE: Hair Extensions Review
The FilmWhen a trio of security guards discover the young body of a shaven-headed girl in a shipping container filled to the brim with hair they immediately contact the police and have her sent off to the local morgue. There they discover that the young woman is missing several vital organs and presume that she had fallen victim to an organ trading ring. She’s left in the care of morgue attendant Yamazaki (Osugi Ren), who, unbeknownst of course to the police, is a total loon with a strong penchant for hair, who steals bodies and sells off their trimmings to be used as hair extensions. And with the discovery of this particular lass suddenly sprouting hair from where her organs used to be, he can only imagine the endless possibilities of what such a prize can offer.
Meanwhile hair-stylist trainee Yuko Mizushima (Kuriyama Chiaki) works hard at achieving her dream at the salon “Gilles de Rais”. The care-free wannabe shares an apartment with her friend Yuki (Sato Megumi) who dreams one day of becoming a pro-dancer, but their life is about to be turned upside down with the appearance of Yuko’s half-sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) and her young daughter Mami (Sato Miku). It’s not long before the negligent and disrespectful Kiyomi leaves her child on Yuko’s doorstep in favour of spending a night out on the town, but when she does so Yuko makes a startling discovery. Learning that Mami has been abused at home and turned into a practical slave, she refuses to hand her back over to her mother and so welcomes the child into her home. But soon Yuko struggles to divide her work with family responsibilities. Nevertheless she must continue to study hard if she’s to succeed in reaching her goal. One day, however, Yamazaki spies young Mami in the street and takes her to Yuko’s workplace. There he meets Yuko, whose hair he instantly falls in love with. Gaining the trust of the stylists he promises to deliver them a healthy supply of hair extensions. What they don’t know is that said extensions harbour a vicious grudge toward anyone who wears them, and soon two detectives leading a murder investigation (Ken Mitsuishi and Hiroshi Yamamoto) are led right to Yuko’s door.
Exte is a bit of a departure for poet/filmmaker Sion Sono; a touted all-out horror designed for mainstream appeal. Yet it’s a film which nonetheless ingrains some personal ideology, the likes of which have been recycled from previous films of the director, such as Suicide Circle and Strange Circus. But social criticism is a part of Sono and it’s not something that’s ever likely to leave his films, no matter how far out there he might actually take them. A work of this film’s nature can only really be marketed one way, and it’s natural that EXTE should be noted for its bizarre premise featuring vengeful locks over anything else. You’re not really going to advertise it as social study which looks at torn families, child abuse, abortion and organ trading amongst others, as well as being part tongue-in-cheek detective thriller - knowingly riffing on clichéd television and the popular grudge fuelled horror sub-genre. Indeed it’s big and often brash, containing huge mainstream appeal in terms of its generally linear narrative approach and horror aspects, but the latter is a term I’d use loosely here. EXTE isn’t so much a horror, not even a strictly psychological one, as it is an effective, sometimes emotional drama, and under its somewhat glossy veneer, then, lies a film that traverses several genres. It seems that Sono’s recent effort is almost one of defiance as we sit here wondering just what exactly the film purports to be.
Despite this huge experimental undertaking though Sono exceeds in balancing his various tonal shifts to bring us an unconventional piece of work that retains character and at no point ever feels preachy with each sub-plot it uncovers along the way; though it is contestible that little effort is made to expand on any one theme. If we’re to go by Sono’s previous films we can easily assume that there’s something to his alluding hair motif and questions relating to the overall mechanics of the plot. It could well be that its purpose is to spell out some form of induced vanity. We have this benevolent force that doesn’t care whose life it takes - is it just those who are mean spirited or desire artificial beauty, such as the self-absorbed Kondo and various other pretty girls who happily stare into mirrors with their new cut-offs? Or is there less to it than that? It doesn’t exactly make itself clear at any point as the pissed-off deceased girl re-lives horrible memories and lashes out with each passing recurrence, but that might just be a key to its strength. It’s certainly silly whichever way you look at it, but as utterly ridiculous as it sounds, and as equally morally ambiguous as it is, Sono simply makes it work. And there’s only one real reason as to why he succeeds; he’s a director of utmost confidence, picking his target and aiming straight for the bulls eye. He helms the more horror-like aspects much in the same way he does with his fleeting character studies. He’s in control of his framing, which is often tight but nicely composed, but whatever ghastly things we might become privy to, such as child abuse and murder he keeps himself at almost full restraint. Despite showing very little the director does a wonderful job in creating a solid amount of tension as he pulls us into to an overall uncomfortable zone. Sometimes an implied slap or kick is more powerful than had he shown a young girl being hit full-on camera; likewise blood doesn’t pour from every orifice. Instead the heavily expanded idea of hair as a living, structural entity proves to be a fine substitute here, certainly with a few unsettling and well designed FX sequences that may have just as well come straight out of a Junji Ito novel - with just a dash of Clive Barker.
Much of EXTE owes itself to a great cast as well. Kuriyama Chiaki - whom I’ve spoken fondly of in the past - keeps going from strength to strength, and it’s here that she’s actually afforded a leading role which allows her to demonstrate exactly what she’s capable of. Her character is vulnerable here; harbouring deep wounds, yet she’s also one of a positive disposition. This gives the ridiculously likeable Kuriyama a wonderful opportunity to explore a wide range of emotions, going from incessantly chirpy to serious and responsible as events unfold. She’s worked her way up for a few years now, and with one or two exceptions usually appears as sullen support characters or fierce, albeit one-dimensional, baddies, but I think with EXTE she’s managed to step up a gear and prove that she can be of much better value as a central protagonist. She’s supported by a host of familiar faces in a feature predominantly made up of female players, but it’s notable character-actor Osugi Ren who delightfully turns up one for the books as a totally deranged transvestite (well, to some degree) figure. You never get any less of an impression from him that this is a film hardly to be taken seriously. Go along with that vibe and you’re bound to have a blast.
Revolver Entertainment’s presentation is functional at best. The film is presented anamorphically at around 1.78:1, which is about accurate for these digitally shot features. EXTE is a bit of a tricky one to handle. Certainly its director has resorted to some post digital trickery with regards to saturating the colour scheme, but the end results, at least here, are questionable. The transfer is overly bright especially during outdoor shots, while contrasts are a tad high. Detail is also lacking a bit, with an overall softness to the image. This could prove to be inherent to how the film was processed as it’s not uncommon for Japanese films have soft edges, but something tells me it isn’t quite up to quota. Furthermore there are minor compression artefacts which look like macro blocking, along with player generated, but forced subtitles and the final nail of it being an NTSC-PAL job.
The Japanese DD2.0 track fairs better. It manages to squeeze out some nice effects for the film’s darker moments in which the hair itself is given all kinds of quirky sounds, and some of this extends spatially with the rears picking up some slack, making me suspect that this is a down mix from 5.1. Dialogue is naturally centred and clear. As mentioned above English subtitles are available but these are not optional. For the most part they’re translated fine, with just a couple of minor errors.
OverallSometimes we’re proven that some things can be all too deceptive, and in the case of Sion Sono’s expressive little oddity being deceived has its rewards. I was all too prepared to write this off from the start, but in lieu of some of the more recent and mostly underwhelming J-Horror features EXTE is actually one that is well worth pursuing.
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