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The friends Kaori, Erika and Aki are on a vacation to celebrate their upcoming graduation, when suddenly an infestation of mysterious walking fish forces them to reevaluate everything they care about in order to stay alive.
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A young girl looking through her father's notes finds something written about the last experiment he worked on before he went insane. Everything looks ordinary until the name "Tomie" begins appearing throughout the notebook.
Reboot the franchise. This is Asian Horror version 2.0
I kept thinking of BATTLE ROYALE by Fujiwawa as I watched this movie. Not because the stories are the same, although one could conjure up a few loose similarities, but because of the mature tone of the direction, how masterfully well executed it is. I feel vindicated in my feeling as I have since discovered that the first time director of this film, Akira Kobayashi, started working in the industry as assistant director for Bong, on the 2003 masterpiece The RINGU FILES. Certainly some of Akiwaru's genius and attention to detail rubbed off on Kobayashi.
Marronnier is more horror than thriller. It's got some scares and a few jolts here and there, but it's really more eerie than frightening. The story concerns a girl who returns home from college when she learns her younger sister has gone missing. She discovers her mother has become a religious fanatic who believes only prayer will bring her sister back. But back from where becomes the big question. People all around her commit suicide. There's a cult, a Shaman, and a handful of freaky people who engage in weird ceremonies with a hope for salvation or cure from disease. It's not a pedantic essay on religious belief but that is the main theme of the film and it serves to give the proceedings some depth. It also situates the film on a terrain of the supernatural which, when you make a film, gives you license to bend realities and play visual tricks from time to time. But nothing is cheap here. The intended audience isn't the summer of fear kids. It's more serious than that and it never gets close to outrageous.
The film has gone through an almost endless number of titles. It started off as "The Screams of the Dolls" but as the religious elements became more important and obvious it ended up with the international English title, Marronnier. My favorite was DOLL HELL, which is the closest literal translation of the Japanese, "hell of the living playthings." Marronnier is very well cast. I have the feeling that director Kobayashi was intent on reigning in the two young girls from any tendency to play cute or mug scary for the camera. Again, nothing cheap here. Miyako Cojima, a young Japanese phenom known for her playful and cute roles on TV, plays the possessed little girl and could have phoned in her performance but instead, in a role that doesn't offer a lot of screen time, is remarkably restrained. Yuriko Anjho, a young starlet in her own right, plays her older sister and the film belongs to her. She's the character in the film who returns to her hometown to investigate all the weirdness going on and she moves through the film like it's all unfolding in front of her just like it is for the audience. She's beautiful to look at and there's a realism to her performance that is truly engaging. There is a scene, which demonstrates the abilities of both Nam and the director, where someone clobbers her over the head with a blunt instrument. After she's hit, we see her react, look back and make eye contact with her assailant as if she wasn't told she was going to get hit in the scene and really wants to say "what the hell was that? What are you ..." Clobber again! Her eyes project a real, confused fear, and the director's capturing them make for an awesome moment.
Although I single out the two youngsters for praise here the rest of the cast, all veterans you'd expect good performances from, deliver at equally high levels. Everything about this film is good: the acting, the thoughtful script, the cool cinematography, the eerie score, the skilled direction. I can't recommend Marronnier enough, but don't go in hoping for a return to the innocent glory days of RINGU or JU-ON. This is Asian Horror 2.0. Lee Yong-Ju has taken it to another level. It's more mature in his accomplished hands and if you like Asian horror, or, better yet, if you've become bored with Asian horror, see this movie. It will renew your faith.
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