Vital Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto - Japanese - 2004
This is my first film from Tsukamoto, known well to fans of Japanese "body horror" flicks like Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Ichi the Killer and A Snake of June. I am as yet undecided if I will check out these and other films from him his oeuvre, though, as by all accounts Vital is something of a departure from his norm -- and despite my outbursts on Twitter yesterday, I loved Vital, even as it broke my heart and made me want to scream and, never want to see another movie again.
I was drawn to the film, of course, by its star, the amazing Tadanobu Asano. I've yet to dislike a performance of his, whether he appears as one of the three strange "Unpopular With Women" brothers in Katsuhito Ishii's Funky Forest: the First Contact, as a young Genghis Khan in Mongol, or as an obsessive-compulsive librarian on the run from the yakuza in Last Life in the Universe, he's always watchable as hell, subdued and sure and completely fascinating. And he's a busy, busy actor, is Mr. Tadanobu; there's a lot he's made that I've not seen yet; Vital was just the next on my list.
For this one, he more subdued than ever as Hiroshi Takagi, a man stricken with a kind of amnesia after a brutal car crash which he barely survived; his girlfriend in the car with him was not so lucky. Trying to reconstruct his forgotten life and move on, he finds some medical textbooks and delights his parents (both of them physicians) by deciding to re-enroll in medical school, where he emerges as a top student, largely because he has absolutely nothing else going on in his life. A fellow student wants to change that, but she finds she cannot penetrate his affectless surface -- at least not until they start a four-month course in human dissection and the cadaver they are assigned begins to trigger memories -- or hallucinations -- in Hiroshi. The cadaver, a young woman, has a tattoo on its arm he seems to recall having seen before.
I'm not spoiling anything in sharing that the cadaver does turn out to be his dead girlfriend, Ryoko; this film is not about surprises or gotchas, but about gradual discoveries of a strange and haunting kind. As Hiroshi seizes control of the dissection -- driving his fellow students well away, except for the young lady trying to catch his eye -- and makes his meticulous notes and beautiful sketches of the many layers and parts that made up the woman he once loved, he starts to experience what may be memories but may just be daydreams, in which the body disassembled and cold on his table is alive and warm and moving and balletically dancing on a beach somewhere, with him. Neither of them is more than a physical presence in these scenes -- he remembers neither her nor himself and so has no material to work with in these constructions, or reconstructions -- but the actors are so good and the cinematography so beautiful that there is tremendous emotional resonance to them even so.
Nor are these the only scenes that earn this film its tear-jerker status; Hiroshi, wondering if his "memories" are real, pays a series of visits to Ryoko's parents, who are fond of him and want to help even as they themselves are still grieving -- and bewildered at Ryoko's dying wish to leave her body to science. Is it a coincidence or not that she wound up assigned as Hiroshi's cadaver? No one asks this outright; it's treated as unknowable and unimportant, an enigma much more powerful than "who is the girl?" would have been.
Lots of scenes, too, are shot with strong red and blue filters. I still haven't figured out the aesthetic scheme guiding Tsukemoto's choices as to what to use where, but am told it's a hallmark of his work. If so, I look forward to exploring more of it (Ichi the Killer is already in my queue, as Tadanobu appears in it as well); I like Tsukemoto's eye and have no objection to creeping horrors in film.
But man, oh man, I wish I'd had some prep for the emotional devastation this film had in store for me. By the time Ryoko was "reassembled" and placed in the crematorium (its smokestacks, going full-bore, are the first thing the viewer sees in this film), I was a complete wreck.