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CampBlood Reviews: Senseless Rants from a Picky Sissy

 

Marronnier Hideyuki Kobayashi 2003

And You Thought Furbies Were Evil

Even as I write this I realize that there is a damn good chance that this film will never see even a limited release, so my thoughts may fall on deaf ears (even more so than usual, that is). But if you happen to live in a city that has a film festival that might have even the slightest chance of programming a gory Japanese karaoke video horror comedy about dolls and dental hygeine, do please check the program, and see if this bizarre little film appears on it.

Despite being frightfully low-budget, at times incomprehensible, and sometimes atrociously acted and shot, Marronnier managed to win me over completely for the following reason: this film is a pure and unsullied product of a "touched" mind. I can't think of another film that has been so naturally strange and effortlessly quirky, and I can only imagine that as writer, director, puppeteer, cinematographer, and editor, Hideyuki Kubayashi is wholly responsible for the enjoyable train-wreck that was on screen. Is the film good? Not by conventional standards, no. Is it entertaining? Hell yes -- even though it seems to last about 30 minutes longer than it actually does, it has some very creepy moments and, more than that, some of the funniest physical comedy I've seen all year. But beyond that, you really get the sense when walking out of the theatre that you have been given a brief glimpse into the mind of another human being, and that sensation can be very thrilling. Now, the question of whether or not having a direct window into this particular mind is a good thing or not is another discussion. I'll say that the inner sanctum of Kobayashi's mind is a dark and crowded place, but also one of joy and color -- much like his strange little film. And considering how generic and processed most more "narrative" horror films are these days, I'll say that leaving your own sense of logic and taste behind to see the world through this odd man's eyes is worth the price of admission.

The rough story goes like this: Marino is a teenage girl (apparently) who has a deep affection for her dolls, in particular her Marronnier doll, a beautiful porcelain girl who costs thousands of dollars. Her brother is a puppeteer, and she and her best friend do normal teen-girl stuff like hang out at the mall and go to karaoke with strange guys. That is, until her stalker Numai (whom she had thought dead or missing) reappears, apparently having perfected a method of transforming humans into wax marionettes using pond water, which he proceeds to do with all of Marino's pals. In a sequence of events that is best described as "karaoke video meets Audition", a teen girl gets abducted and beheaded in the back of a van with a razor wire, a would-be rapist gets strung up like a puppet in an alleyway, and a kind wedding dress maker gets transformed into a chomping marionette monster, all set to insanely sugary Japanese pop music and cut with a food processor equipped with video transitions and fog filters. And this is before the movie even kicks into gear. More people get abducted by the evil Numai, who has kidnapped Marronnier's creator and forces him to make these evil dolls against his will, and eventually the action moves to the madman's countryside mansion, which boasts an underground maze and more white tulle than a Stevie Nicks video. Evil puppets start to come to life, and all hell breaks loose. And as someone who has followed the Japanese horror movement pretty closely in the past few years, I can tell you -- the only thing weirder than a scary little Japanese girl in a white dress is a scary little Japanese girl in a white dress who is made of wax.

The film is quite creepy at times (mostly due to the puppets and the bizarre editing), but it is also very, very funny -- mostly because it acknowledges the trend of "scary little Japanese girls in white dresses" and plays with it, substituting real girls with puppets. I won't even get into how this comments on the way traditional Japanese culture views its women... but any film that ends with the killer chasing his intended around in a room filled waist-high with white wedding dresses (which get pretty bloody by the end) obviously has a sense of humor about itself -- and this combined with some hysterically funny killer puppet sequences (the chase scene in the maze had me almost gasping) makes the last half of the film worth the wait. There's also the aforementioned dental hygeine content (there's a scene that's basically an instructional video on how to brush your teeth properly, which is echoed later on when someone brushes his mouth bloody), some children's puppet theatre, and a samurai fight to keep things interesting (any fight that culminates in the leading lady getting knocked down an enormous hill in a wedding dress is crackerjack cinema in my book).

I should also mention that the film also boasts a surprising and well-handled lesbian love story: Marino's best friend, Mitsuba (the elfin and very funny Misao Inagaki, who is in real life a comics artist) is quietly in love with her, a secret that she unfortunately never has the chance to share but that makes the relationship between the girls much more interesting than it would otherwise have been. Mitsuba's love leads her to protect her "final girl" to the end, which isn't something we usually see; usually if anyone comes to help the final girl out, it's her boyfriend, not her plucky best pal. The dynamic between the two is truly very touching at times, and makes it all the harder when things don't end up the way they should for the gals. The lesbian character is treated with respect and the crush is not used to shock or titillate -- it's just what's there.

I'll also mention that at the screening I attended of Marronnier (at the ever-excellent New York Asian Film Festival, hosted by Subway Cinema), director Kobayashi was there for Q&A, which he conducted with the help of an interpreter and a Godzilla puppet, which was dressed as a New York Yankee (complete with a miniature baseball bat slung over his shoulder). Friendly, boyish, and very excited with the (unexpected) warm reaction that the film received, Kobayashi's words drove home what the film had already led me to believe: this strange world of puppets, dolls, monsters, and music is one that Kobayashi understands and thrives in. And it's one that I'm glad I had a chance to experience first-hand.

Rating (out of 5):