Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island Review
Adapted from the successful Manga, Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island is a project which is ambitious in scale and laden with promise, thanks in no small part to backing from the Japanese arm of Warner Bros. And to some extent, this promise is fulfilled, with a plethora of vividly colourful live, dead, and undead characters engaging in an epic battle on a beautiful, tiny, unmapped island. Yet ultimately, the legion of vampires outstay their welcome during the overlong 118 minute running time, and though the characterisations are distinct enough to provide some engaging viewing during the careful unfolding of the plot, the actions, motivations, and behaviour of the characters waver incongruously at times to undermine the overall impact of this fantasy horror.
With some deft, ruthless editing to remove some of the extraneous bloat, and a drive towards a less convoluted path to the conclusion of this vampire yarn, Higanjima… could have been a much more rewarding product, and the opening scene is the first slice of tangible proof that the talent for stylish fantasy horror filmmaking is flowing in the veins of established South Korean director Tae-gyun Kim. The introduction captures the exhilarating chase of a businessman through a dank, murky forest, and Kim’s direction here is assured, demonstrating impressive attention to detail, and a distinctive visual flair. Most notable here is the use of colour; whilst the menacing, damp forest is shadowed in earthy browns and greens, there are occasional flashes of crimson, via the individually coloured flowers, and the blood splashed across the running man’s face. As the introduction reaches its gruesome climax, the sweeping camera demonstrates the welcome momentum the movie has gathered during its opening sequence.
The scene segues into a contrasting chase sequence in a world we are much more familiar with, and the core plot begins to emerge. Akira is a teenage schoolboy who is still coming to terms with the disappearance of his elder brother, Atsushi, and the effect his disappearance has had on the family. Akira narrowly escapes a street fight thanks to the swift action of the uber-cool, aloof, and attractive Rei. She soon reveals her knowledge of Atsushi’s location on the unidentified island, and after a gritty escapade with a vampire in a warehouse, Akira and his friends reluctantly agree to sail to the island to retrieve Akira’s long lost brother. Cue the afore-mentioned epic battle in the remote land, featuring a policy of ever-increasing scale for each subsequent fight scene.
For all of the romance attached to vampires, the vampire community at Vampire Island could not be any less graceful nor alluring, yet this lends the picture some much needed grit. The blood-sucking residents are truly foul and odious creatures, with filthy skin, crooked teeth, and loathsome screeching voices. Subsequently, their snarling attacks are suitably skin-crawling, and as the friends descend into the ‘hell’ of their lair, we find their physicality increasingly repugnant.
The exception to this rule is the leader of the vampires, Miyabi. Whilst he is clearly meant to embody the allure and sexuality of the vampire persona, his smooth, smug arrogance and limp physicality actually present something of an androgynous impotence, and we have difficulty believing the menace he is meant to carry beneath his carefully made-up exterior.
Much effort has gone into the characterisations, and whilst they are on the whole distinct and colourful, they are sometimes bent to the whims of the plot, and the result is that we lose our investment of belief in the individuals concerned. The disintegration of friendships under extreme adversity is not unlikely nor unbelievable by any means, yet the speed with which strong bonds break down proves unsatisfying and our engagement with the characters is eroded.
Higanjima… outstays its welcome over a near two hour running time, but does gather some enjoyable pace during the climax. The CGI, whilst competent enough, is transparent, though since this fantasy horror is a motion picture imagining of the Manga, CGI-generated beings are viewed with a much more lenient eye. This encapsulates Kim’s often impressive spectacle; viewed with a sympathetic eye, there is much to enjoy in this stylish shocker. Yet with the flaws in characterisation across the length of the movie, Higanjima… doesn’t quite rise up to its highly targeted ambitions.
Manga release Higanjima: Escape From Vampire Island on region 2 DVD in a slick-looking package. Presented in the native aspect ratio of 2.35:1, this representation of the film very much supports its big budget origins with a clean and noise-free delivery. The use of colour in the movie is important, and the deep greens and blacks of the forest scenes are reproduced well, presenting a very effective canvas for the accurate depiction of the vivid reds of the flowers – and the blood.
The urban scenes are displayed well too, with a much fresher, cleaner vibrancy. The only issue of note is that some of the darker scenes are so dark as to obscure some of the finer details, though this is a small issue, and one inherent in the movie itself, rather than due to any issue with the transfer.
The English subtitles are clear, accurate, and respectfully placed to ensure they don’t interfere with the frequent action.
The original Japanese audio is available in either 2.0 stereo, or 5.1 surround, and as you might expect for the budget, the delivery of the sound doesn’t let down the other elements of the delivery. The bass resonance is satisfying, reproducing the requisite depth and punch demanded for the action scenes, which involve numerous explosions and stomping of monstrous feet! The orchestral music during the combat scenes is also worthy of mention, and once again this is delivered with a suitable level of quality.
Manga have supplied a healthy quotient of extras with this release, which is reason to be grateful, although to an English audience, they do become a little tedious after a while.
First up is a Countdown Promotion (7.41), which features footage of the team doing promotional work as the film is about to launch. A Vampire Promotion segment (2.10) features some marketing company vampires out in various locations pushing publicity for the movie. They appear to be largely ignored as they wander around on designated ‘missions’. Bizarre.
The Kojinska Screening piece (8.36) features Masaya Handa performing an impromptu comedy stage act with vampires before tackling some ‘survival’ missions at the island, such as fishing, and putting up a tent. I felt slightly confused at this point, and wasn’t quite connected with the ‘comedy’.
A Pusan International Film Festival (4.18) segment shows footage from the South Korean film festival, and some of the crew are reunited here amongst some picturesque scenery. The Premiere piece (4.56) presents footage of the 5th January 2010 premiere, and the actors and director make speeches to an assembled audience.
By the time you watch the Stage Greeting piece (7.00), you’ll have a heavy sensation of déjà vu, because guess what? The cast are on stage again giving speeches.
Finally, we are treated to an Original Japanese Trailer, which is actually pretty decent without revealing too much by way of plot spoilers.
Manga’s release of Tae-gyun Kim’s rich, epic, fantasy horror looks and sounds great, and arrives with a host of welcome though slightly repetitive extras. It’s a shame that the movie itself allows its flaws in characterisation to dilute its impact across a lengthy running time, and Kim could have packed a much tighter and meaner punch had a firm hand been applied to the editing. Still, there’s enough quality in action here to make the two hour viewing slot a worthwhile investment if Japanese vampire fantasy horror is your cup of tea.