Posted: 04/09/2005

 

EM/Embalming

(1999)

by Ben Beard



This DVD is available for purchase at ArtsMagicDVD.com.


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Scalpels, death cults, necrophilia, and incest. Here’s a cosmic love story masked as a chop sockey tragedy. Or a vicious, mean-spirited thriller disguised as a drama. Or maybe simply an exploitative example of how to waste ninety minutes of your time. Masterful satire or grungy potboiler? In Embalming’s case, it’s hard to say.

Miyoka, a female embalmer driven by unseen demons, likes to see the scene of the crime when she gets a new body to beautify. Her newest case involves Yoshiki Shindo, a young high school student, who kills himself by jumping off a building, his head cracked open like a melon. His mother wants his body embalmed and preserved for eternity. His father, the leader of a strange, powerful cult, thinks it’s an abomination and vows to stop it.

Complicating the suicide case, a needle pops out of the Yoshiki’s eye during the first phase of body purification. Miyoka, confiding in the detective Hiraoka, who is heading up the case, begins to suspect foul play.

Things go haywire when the boy’s head is stolen. Miyoka, suffering from visions of her mother’s dead body, begins to track down the head, as her work comes under attack from Yoshiki’s outraged parents. Hiraoka, suffering from demons of his own, leads an investigation into the underbelly of black market organ trading.

What follows is a bizarre offering, half Twin Peaks, half B-movie thriller, delving into perverse familial relationships, underworld organ commerce, and the slicked decaying insides of the human body.

Two mysteries emerge: Who killed the boy? And, who stole his head?

The odd twist to the film is a legendary embalmer in Japan named Doctor Fuji, who operates on bodies illegally, using parts from other corpses. With her job in the balance and her preternatural curiosity egging her on, Miyoka tracks the mysterious Doctor Fuji, finding a haunted, laconic monster working in a makeshift lab in the back of an eighteen-wheeler. Surrounded by antiseptics and medical paraphernalia, Doctor Fuji chops and grafts and rips to his heart’s content.

And he just might be Miyoka’s father.

As a father figure, Doctor Fuji delivers a terrifying patriarch: amoral, detached, and seemingly all-powerful. A symbol for God? The United States? The devil?

Embalming offers up an anti-horror film, a grand guignol of incest and fratricide, all delivered in a deadpan, sardonic style. There’s blood but no titillation. There’s horror but no fear. There’s killings aplenty but no context to place them in. There’s violence but barely any living victims. The sterile, almost neutral camera work and the strange stylized pieces result in a meta-narrative, as if director Aoyama Shinji wants to comment on horror movies more than make one. For the blood and spatter school, ”s viscera galore. Cut-out hearts, chopped kidneys and liver, gouged eyeballs and decapitations, this is vile, sick stuff, visceral stuff, almost more than the average viewer can take.

But ultimately, what is the point? Shinji might be delivering an autopsy on the horror genre itself, cutting away the detritus and dead skin, filling the cadaver with new ideas. Or perhaps he’s studying how much nonsensical gore modern audiences are willing to swallow, wallowing in audience manipulation as post-modern art project. Or maybe, like Wes Craven, he’s just collecting a paycheck. But as the film comes to a climax and the bodies begin to pile up in a stinking heap, the fine line between high concept art and low-brow trash disappears.

Thriller? Drama? Ghost story? Sci fi? Comedy? Spoof? Either a cynical display of irony or a silly exploration of the limits of the horror genre, or perhaps both, Embalming suffers from the same quadrophrenia that motivates its principle villain. Still, for its perverse fixation on the body and its parts, it’s a strange meditation on something, I just don’t know what. And neither does Shinji, probably. But that’s okay. Lesser directors get away with more. Shinji, at least, inidividuates and tries to make the genre his own, creating a hybrid that will enrage some and bore others.

Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.



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