(15/11/07) – There’s nothing a talented director likes more than a challenge and nothing an audience (and indeed a producer) likes more than a bargain. Which is where The Duel Project looks like a winner. Unlike the tragic ‘hack and extend’ fate that befell Grindhouse (2007), The Duel Project was designed to be two separate short features distributed as one good value double bill. Producer Kawai Shinya came up with a basic remit:
No more than three characters; at least one death; only one location; a maximum of eight days to shoot.
The task of making the films went to hotshot directors Kitamura Ryuhei and Tsutsumi Yukihiko, who had worked (tangentially) together on the first of the experimental shorts collections Jam Films the year before.
Tsutsumi Yukihiko’s 2LDK (the title refers to the way that apartments are advertised in Japan – in this case 2 bedrooms, a living room, dining room and kitchen) centres on two actresses: fashion victim Lana and frumpy-grumpy Nozomi. The pair find themselves sharing an expensive apartment in Tokyo. Lana revels in the ostentation and capitalist extremities of the city, gleefully pointing out the price tag of each item of clothing and accessory she possesses to justify its quality and worth. For Nozomi this is nothing short of vulgarity, and Lana’s punk music preferences clearly lesser to her classical piano playing.
The problem is that they are the last to be short-listed for an important film role and, if cultural gulfs were not enough, their professional rivalry forces them into an increasing escalation of small arguments (contents of the fridge, use of the shampoo), paranoia and eventually violence. Although the culture-clash premise is contrived, the film quickly makes these unlikeliest of flatmates believable by the very mundane way that their conflict arises, through pettiness and misunderstanding – "You drank my collagen drink!" – to deeper psychological problems.
2LDK plays like a two person answer to Polanski’s Repulsion as the women plunge into a world of hallucinations and flashbacks – dead bodies from the past, sexual taunts, school plays, violence. Eventually they crack and matters evolve into increasingly deadly games involving chainsaws, cistern lids and some handy samurai swords. Yes, it becomes hysterical (with more than a nod to The Shining) but the underlying humour and tight framing keep this engaging, exciting and claustrophobic. Never outliving its running time 2LDK is taut and skilfully utilises its meagre budget to good effect.
Aragami is Kitamura Ryuhei’s contribution to the project and, despite having a similar remit and thematic backdrop of conflict, is an entirely different beast. Having directed the ultra-low budget yakuza-sci-fi-zombie-splatter film Versus and the (relatively) high budget films Azumi and Godzilla: Final Wars, hopes for Aragami were probably higher than 2LDK.
Unfortunately the resulting film is a bit of a let-down, bringing to mind some of the longeurs in his Shinto mythology based TV movie Sky High. The idea is promising enough – a wounded samurai stumbles in from the rain into a "very unusual temple". It turns out the temple’s residents are the god Aragami and his servant girl. Aragami cures the samurai but, in doing so, makes a proposition: have a glass or two of wine with me and, while you are at it, kill me. Aragami is, you see, the god of war and partial to the taste of human flesh. And so the two end up fighting – both psychologically and physically.
Aragami is eager to pepper its background stories with tales of Japanese demons and gods, of Tengu, the long round-nosed goblin, and mighty wars. Kitamura proves as restless as ever in the camera department with extreme angles and swooping crane shots trying to create dynamism in what is essentially a single space. The problem is that after another round of close-up juxtaposed head-shots, another jump-cut of Aragami in an unexpected place or position, or further exposition the film begins to feel tiresome, despite the arch lighting and the fluidity of the camerawork. The final fight, mixed with MTV pretentious visions, lasts an age and the final "twist in the tale" is painfully signposted. Although blessed with exemplary visual flair Aragami is overlong at under eighty minutes and relies far too much on trite heavy metal to replace excitement.
A mixed bag The Duel Project is an interesting experiment. The DVD package from Tartan offers good value with its "two for the price of one" deal (Weinsteins take note…) and a moderate selection of extras to sweeten the pill.
2LDK is out on DVD now. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.