Dead bodies constitute major iconography in extreme, horror and fantastic cinema. They can be peripheral to the action, or can take centre stage; they can be subjects or mere objects. Some, like zombies, walk around and eat people; others remain dead and exist to soothe the psychoses of extreme individuals. Renowned art-house director Shinji Aoyama pursues the latter, more intriguing, and frankly more disturbing avenue in this twisty and twisted thriller about – you guessed right – the art and obsession of preserving a corpse.
An embalmer at a Japanese hospital, attractive Miyaki Murakami (Reiko Takashima) is called onto the death scene of teenage boy Yoshiki Shindo, having fallen from a rooftop to his demise. Miyaki painstakingly reconstructs the body, but after finding a needle in his neck suspects he may have been murdered instead of the accepted suicide. Soon after Miyaki is escorted to the quarters of religious nut Jion Bonze, a comical figure who tells her to cease embalming Yoshiki’s corpse. His reasoning is that embalming violates the transient laws of nature – that everything in life passes, and should not be preserved.
Not long afterward, the mortuary is broken into. Miyaki’s elderly boss (film director Seijun Suzuki) is gassed into unconsciousness, but, worst of all, Yoshiki’s head is stolen! Detective Hiroka (Yutaka Matsushige) is pressured by Yoshiki’s politician father (who happens to be in Bonze’s pocket) to solve the case, and Miyaki joins the chase for her own, far darker reasons. Delving deeper into the case, black market organ seller Dr. Fuji may know where to find the cranium. Meanwhile, the prime suspect for both the killing and the theft is Yoshiki’s unstable ex girlfriend, who suffers multiple personalities…
With its clinical camerawork, subdued colours and cold backdrops, EMBALMING immediately conjures up the classics of David Cronenberg. Visually quoting his films, and using similarly modern architecture and bleakly desolate locales – indeed, Japan at times is made to look like the sparsely populated streets of Canada – Aoyama’s film can be seen as DEAD RINGERS inside-out. If that masterpiece concerned revolutionary treatment on the living, EMBALMING is about painstaking work done on the dead. If the former revolved around cutting edge instruments to help operate on sterile women, the latter, with its notion of making the dead appear presentable, is an intriguing little reference without being too obvious about it.
The best Cronenberg films – excepting a select few – wouldn’t be the same without a shady institution headed by a shady figure. Like THE BROOD’s Hal Raglan, and even VIDEODROME’s Barry Convex, EMBALMING has the amoral Dr. Fuji as its sinister figurehead. Working out of the back of a lorry, we see him stripping a live man of his organs, among hellishly lit interiors that refer more to Kai Fujiwara’s nightmarishly grimy ORGAN. In an intriguing opposition, Dr. Fuji has no personal feelings about his messy work – he’s merely impassive, stealing hearts and hacking off limbs. On the other hand, Miyaki – inspired by the perfect embalming job on her mother many years ago – attends her dead bodies with the passion, obsession and craftsmanship of an artist.
The icy mood is something of a double-edged sword in EM EMBALMING. On the one hand, it creates a thrilling tension against the disturbing subject matter: including the poetic image of a victim’s pipe discarded blood as it spatters down a metal grid – watched on by the ever-impassive camera. In contrast, the lack of close-ups and the mostly affectless performances yank us out of the fiction to the point that the many twists, turns, revelations and surprises that keep on piling up risk being lost on the viewer. Reiko Takashima does a fine job as Miyaki, revealing her infatuation with the dead with suitable subtlety rather than forcing it onto us, but it is easy to feel kinship with the character that feels “totally brain fucked”. Brain fucked, amid some intriguing ideas and some fine atmosphere, nonetheless.
Directed by Shinji Aoyama
Japanese language with English subtitles / Colour / 95 minutes/ 1999
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An Artsmagic DVD Release
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