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Rome Review: Overlong & Incoherent, Takashi Miike's 'Lesson Of The Evil' Is Sadly More Bore Than Gore

Festivals
by Jessica Kiang
November 9, 2012 11:58 AM
4 Comments
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Without wishing to use the word "gratuitous" too gratuitously, in and around the twentieth time a version of “Mack the Knife” plays over footage of a Japanese schoolchild being splatted against a wall by a shotgun blast, the adjective becomes pretty hard to avoid. Takeshi Miike, a director famed for violent excess in oft-banned films such as “Ichi the Killer” and “Audition,” showed a more accessible side to his work, if not necessarily one with a lower body count, in 2010’s entertainingly gonzo samurai picture13 Assassins." A highlight of his recent output (we were less enamored of his oddball "Ace Attorney" and dull "Hara Kiri"), it’s hard not to see his latest, which boasts the seemingly google-translated English title “Lesson of the Evil,” as a regressive move. Sacrificing narrative coherence for gore and spectacle is a forgivable crime (one we wonder if the graphic novel source material is also guilty of), but not when you allow that goriness to become humdrum and uninspired in execution. The slasher picture, which is what we suppose this film eventually morphs into, relies on a certain novelty in how our successive victims are offed for us to retain interest -- there should be jumps, scares, the unexpected, the gruesome. But for all its (literal) buckets of blood and fetishistic slo-mo messy deaths, ‘Lesson,’ enjoying its World Premiere at the Rome Film Festival, spends its entire last third in an orgy of murder that feels, of all things, rote.

Mr. Hasumi (Hideaki Ito, here displaying minimal acting capabilities and an oddly scrubbed-looking face) is a serial killer who is a recent addition to the teaching staff at a large high school. Initially popular with the students, gradually his nature reveals itself, and as a small group of them become suspicious, along with another teacher, he starts to kill again. And again. And again. Initially, though bogged down with a labored backstory and some really ludicrous hokum about Norse mythology, the set up is promising enough, and some of the early deaths are good ‘n’ nasty. The misfit fellow teacher is an interesting character, who confides that one of the reasons he suspects Hasumi is that he does not feel jealous of him, as he should, because on the surface, he is a loser while Hasumi has it all. It’s an interesting take on psychopath psychology, and for a moment the film seems to be setting up a kind of intellectual cat-and-mouse between these two teachers. But then Hasumi kills him on a subway train, and that’s that. 

In fact, it’s at about the two-thirds through point that the film peaks. Though the deaths are probably already in double figures by then, each is sufficiently different and differently motivated, to keep things ticking along, even over the hammy acting and grotesque plot holes. And, adhering to mandatory genre rule #635 regarding films set in high schools, namely that the climax of the action must take place at some sort of social event like prom or graduation, here the students create a Halloween-style haunted house theme to provide the appropriate after-hours backdrop for Hasumi to lock the place down and go truly berserk. If Miike had chosen to wrap things up quickly here, we’d have had a perfectly serviceable, if silly, 90-minute horror/thriller, ripe for an even-worse Platinum Dunes remake.

But there’s another 40 minutes to go. The schoolkids seem to multiply, the better to scatter and flee and be picked off, one by one, by Hasumi. Every one of them gibbers in fear as he reloads, no one thinks to rush him or throw a goddamn chair at him or anything, they mostly go like lambs to the slaughter, and where’s the fun in that? Nobody enjoys watching teenagers get butchered more than we do, really, but we need to kind of know who they are, if only in bare-minimum “Final Destination” style, in order for their deaths to have any shock value. Instead, here we get whole sequences of black haired girls in identical uniforms screaming in corridors before their midriffs explode, to strains of the by-now-truly-irritating, omnipresent “Mack the Knife” (it’s about a killer, see?). Occasionally we break the monotony of Hasumi's murderous rampage to go into an ill-judged schlocky flashback or hallucination referencing the fellow serial killer he partnered with back in Harvard (no really, the guy came up to him and said “Let’s be partners!”). Occasionally the movie pays direct homage to Sam Raimi or “American Psycho” or, most egregiously, David Cronenberg, which is momentarily fun if you like that sort of thing and don’t mind the fact that it serves no narrative purpose. But mostly we spend a lot of time watching identical kids die identically, after all interest is gone, hence: gratuitous. And it's not as though that is the point of the exercise either; this is not some Haneke-esque deconstruction of the nature of our desensitized reaction to screen violence. It's just too silly to lay a claim to any philosophy, even nihilism. 

Miike is famously prolific, churning out anywhere from two to seven features a year, and working across film and television. With that kind of output, you’re probably going to get more misses than hits, especially since, commendably, he does appear to try to flirt with different stories and genres from film to film. But as shocking, perverse and downright nasty as some of his previous films have been, this one commits the biggest crime against taste of them all: it bores. And after over two hours, it has the nerve to tack on a terrible “it’s only just beginning” quasi-mystical ending, followed by the dreaded words To Be Continued. We can only repeat what we blurted out, loudly and uncontrollably, when that title appeared on screen: “Oh, please don’t.” [C-]

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4 Comments

  • Marco | July 27, 2014 6:17 PMReply

    It always rubs me the wrong way when westerners think they are able to judge acting in a different culture. It involves all kinds of cultural behaviour that needs to be believable. It might not be believable to us, but then that's mostly down to Westerners not understanding Japanese culture (which is probably true for most of us).

    Ito's acting is very convincing. He plays the role of a nice and "cool" teacher with utmost detail. I've seen several Japanese films regarding schools and it is really one of the better performances. I can't say either what performance is perfect, but I've seen a lot in which I thought "oh come on, he 's definitely not a teacher...".

    As for the rest of the film, it's a matter of taste and understanding to some extent. The thing with the Norse mythology, for example. It meant nothing.
    It was introduced early so that people could relate to Hasumi's sudden idea of "acting insane" at the end. In general, it's a very Japanese movie. There are not too many cheap jump scares and you calling for it frightens me, a bit.
    Too many horror films are ruined by jump scares and cheap scares, besides, horror is not just one kind of horror and this sort of horror is more the gory sense of horror, not a psychological one like, say, Carpenter's Halloween.
    Perhaps you had the wrong expectations? Perhaps you wanted to see just another mainstream Hollywood horror flick?

    Aku no Kyōten is far from perfect, but it's really not that bad. A solid 7.

  • MS | March 16, 2014 2:09 AMReply

    One of the very best movies of the last couple of years.

    The film is a true original.

    The reviewer's accusations of hammy acting are completely off base here. The performances are uniformly exceptional.

    Surreal, disturbing, suspenseful, nihilistic, erotic, deliciously dark, and unbearably brutal, LESSON OF THE EVIL is a masterpiece.

    Claiming you love to watch teenagers being killed doesn't make you cool or hip, Jessica Kiang. Nobody who appreciates this film is loving on its killing of teenagers. This is a cinematic depiction of psychosis featuring an incredible lead performance.

    Hideaki Ito displays "minimum acting capabilities"? With this comment, reviewer Jessica Kiang displays minimal perception and zero intelligence. By any measure, Ito performance is amazing.

    I hope nobody pays attention to Ms. Kiang's amateurish slam of Miike's latest masterpiece, his best since 13 ASSASSINS, and a tour de force on every level.

  • ren | June 18, 2013 8:01 PMReply

    same, I enjoyed this very much, classic Miike. I think Hideaki Ito did very well in this movie. Art direction was great too.

  • Asashii | June 5, 2013 3:02 PMReply

    Nope, sorry it was a good and fun film, first half being more like a serial solve it and intellectual serial killer movie and then BAM straight up slasher mass murder fest, took me by suprise that the last half of the film went into a total genre direction i was even more on the edge of my sit because it was hopeless for those kids and who is going to stop him, also become more tongue in cheek with a slight humurous over-tone, but hey if you cant enjoy ans smile at poor stupid kids getting slaughtered like fish in a barrel, then maybe one should stick to Disney movies!!!

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