Monday, October 24, 2016

Zelos (Thoranna Sigurdardottir, 2016)

A woman sits alone in a room staring at a machine tempting her with perfection. Seduction thy name is marketing. Buy this. Buy that. Be beautiful. Forever. Have it all. It isn't a new idea being presented, but one women have heard for ages, and in the modern context of juggling a job, a family, and a personal life in today's crucified world of student debt, economic futility and shrinking job market it poses even more difficult answers. By placing this rather complicated idea in the eyes of an upper-class white woman Zelos is robbed of some possibilities to ask questions on economics of the average modern woman. Instead, the questions posed here are of high class by structuring the major conflict on whether or not Maria (Erica Piccininni) will be able to defeat a friend of hers in a sponsored race. It's a nothing reason to ask for a clone, but the frivolity is important in outlining why we want technology in the first place. It's always marketed to make life easier, but it's never that simple.

The feminist implications of the idea are ripe for study, but for the most part Zelos deflects any of the more complicated morsels for a compact character study of how one Woman finds herself reconsidering what exactly matters in her life. It's a human characteristic to decide on what to prioritize in ones life and by having some of these tasks taken from us by what is essentially a machine this does devalue the imperfections of living day to day. Thoranna Sigurdardottir's focus on how boring Maria's life is with a stand in highlights a kind of family centrism that when presented here is an obvious choice for her character. It's refreshing that on Maria's terms she misses family and understands that having a clone take her place to make her life easier actually robs her life of fullness and value. It's a worthy idea, and one that isn't frequently presented in filmmaking with feminist intentions. It betrays the second wave ideology of a women's work force, but when you consider a job market that's increasingly difficult to climb towards the top and an American dream that is slipping away from the millennial generation due to student debt doesn't family then become something worth gravitating towards?

There's something artificial about digital that lends itself to the plasticity of Thoranna Sigurdardottir's Zelos; a look at the growing intersection between family, individuality and technology.  Bodies glisten a little too perfectly and environments are closer to a holodeck simulation than reality, but we're closer to a computerized world than one of nature. Digital camerawork is still in its infancy, and artists such as Michael Mann and David Fincher have found an expansion of their voice through this newly popular mode, but frequently digital isn't used as an extension of the image or the world, which remains the biggest problem of creating new statements through digital means. Zelos finds synchronicity in the understanding that our world is becoming "perfect" and through her images created with an Alexa camera Thoranna Sigurdardottir reflects how that idea is flawed and at worst dangerous.

The clinical look of the images in Zelos add an extratextual layer to the film in an examination of artificial bodies. Maria's clone is always perfect, which belies any sort of human characteristics she may present. Her porcelain skin is never disrupted by blemishes and she carries a doting quality around with her that questions whether she has any real agency. She's closer to a child than a fully developed human being. The audience obviously knows she isn't perfect, but through her appearance digital scrubs her of blemishes and makes her into a figure of shining elegance. Maria on the other hand is frequently filmed dressed down, hair tied up and sweating from having ran for miles. The conflicting presentation is simple, but it's a smart choice to recognize the functionality of a woman without tasks versus a woman who has to keep up appearances.

I wish Zelos had more depth, because the idea of women having it all through cloning is begging for deep observation. Zelos doesn't reach the heights that could've been achieved with this idea, but it isn't without merit. Sigurdardottir is confident behind the camera and her choices are sometimes very inspired. The last shot in particular asks audiences to consider the implication of an easier life with our growing love affair with technology with an acidic bite. I just wish I could say that was a consistent feeling rather than one that occasionally flashes from time to time.

Zelos is the opening feature of the fourth season of Film School Shorts. and is available online now.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Confessions of a Female Badass: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable

Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.

 [TW: Discussions of Rape, Rape Revenge Movies, Incest and Rape Culture]

Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable would not be the implied conception of Themyscria at the close of Jailhouse 41. Instead of investing in the images of free women who are a collective force when brought together Best Stable opens with a metaphorical image that Scorpion (Meiko Kaji) would always carry her past and she'd continually be chased by the dogs of patriarchy. Over a brief sequence on a subway Scorpion is seen sitting alone before a group of police officers chase her out of the underground vehicle. One of those men is Detective Kondo (Mikio Narita), the man in charge of finding her. He manages to handcuff himself to the wanted criminal, but not before the subway doors are shut. This would leave Scorpion with just enough space to hack off his arm in a bloody heap. She runs through the station and the city with an arm trailing behind her. This image is in direct opposition to the image that closed Jailhouse 41. Scorpion is still running, but her pursuit towards freedom or safety is singular and she's still dragging with her the men who long to see her punished for her crimes of murder. There is no wish-fulfillment in the land of beasts and the rabid tone of fiery vengeance in the previous two films is replaced almost entirely by an all encompassing, rain soaked melancholy. It's an ironic choice to present the freedom of Scorpion as something ultimately doomed compared to the relative optimism in the predictability of her prison stay, but it's a masterstroke in giving director Shunya Ito's final Scorpion picture a heavy dose of reality and resets the stakes so that Scorpion has something to say beyond her vengeance. What Beast Stable marvelously accomplishes is setting up a secondary truth. We are not Scorpion, and some of us suffer regardless of some hope that we won't.

Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe) is the figure with which that idea of suffering with no reprisal is presented. Yuki is an inherently tragic character beautifully acted by Yayoi Watanabe in what would be one of her only performances on film. Yuki is introduced by way of incestual rape. One of Shunya Ito's greatest strengths as a director in this series has been his ability to clearly define the central figure of any given scene through blocking and camera work. This becomes especially important when you're trying to shoot sequences of rape where it is incredibly difficult to retain point of view and intention. The Female Scorpion films in the hands of Ito have consistently given us a window into the horror of the act while still grounding us with the person this is happening to, and frequently these acts are part of a larger picture and not framed as the whole reasoning for revenge. In the previous film Jailhouse 41 none of the women featured were in jail for instances of revenge against rapists except Scorpion. By giving them a larger backstory they are rounded out in ways that make for interesting characterization. Oba (Kayoko Shirashi) in particular is one of the greatest characters in these movies, because she isn't a saint, but you can see how she becomes who she is through both Scorpion's eyes and her own. In Beast Stable Yuki is a great character, but it is with the assertion that rape has always been a part of her existence and she bares the scars of something that was never her fault. Yuki's rape sequence is handled far differently than the other sequences in the Scorpion films; gone is the outlandish demonic faces of the abusers and the pained expression of a woman at their hands. Instead there is silence, darkness and a loss of expressiveness. There is no music to amplify the horror or frenzied camerawork to show struggle, but there is a calm acceptance of what is happening that is deafening in the blank face of Yuki. Ito shoots the scene with a few simple shots built around a couple of cuts to relay the language of the scene. There is an establishing shot of the landscape which looks like something out of Nagisa Oshima's The Sun's Burial and then an overhead shot of Yuki and her brother naked in a dark room. A close-up of Yuki's face is then employed and it's clear that she's dissociated from the actions going on in her bedroom.  These few shots are crisp, concise and introduce the audience to the central problem of incest for Yuki in a way that is not typical of exploitation's usual tool-chest of sleazy over-statements and gratuitous nudity.

I am struck by the way Yayoi Watanabe approaches the role of Yuki as an insular person and how the camera always understands her own space through distance and estrangement. Yuki is characterized by sunken shoulders, recoiling posture and keeping her head down at all times. All of these actions present a person who doesn't want to be touched, looked at or interacted with, and it is only considerate that the camera comply through medium and long shots. Even in the company of the city Yuki is framed in a way that presents her isolation by finding areas of quiet like an abandoned bridge, an alleyway or a graveyard. Through isolation Yuki can have some semblance of control over her body. She can shield herself from interactions, contact and conversation with other people and simply rest inside herself. She's a loner by circumstance and survival. She comes home to her rapist so to find her own peace she has to find a nothingness in architecture where her safety is attainable. It's reminiscent of what Sheryl Lee would do with body language so masterfully in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. In that movie Laura collapsed inside of her own hell, and Sheryl played the role like someone grasping for a hand on the edge of darkness. When she was touched she reacted like a bundle of exposed nerves jolting into a reactionary refusal of interaction. David Lynch presented much of this through her already severely damaged headspace due to her own dealings with incestual rape. A lot of Laura Palmer's eventual crumble is shown rather than implied differing her from Yuki's situation, but where they share similarities is in the process of untangling themselves from reality to find peace in a solitary space that could be their own. For Laura Palmer that had to be achieved through death, but in Yuki's case it is in the graveyard of her own mind, away, locked inside herself.

Yuki only finds Scorpion while strolling through the city trying to find a spot to hide her client and herself (Yuki's a sex worker, another similarity with Laura Palmer). Scorpion is trying to untangle herself from the arm she chopped off in the opening scene of the movie. At first glance it looks like she's gnawing at the arm until it relinquishes itself from the handcuffs, but she is merely dragging the cuffs across a headstone (a call back to her scraping knife in Jailhouse 41). Yuki is frightened by what she sees, but she and Scorpion have an understanding. They lock eyes and there is a cut to Scorpion free from the handcuffs sleeping at Yuki's house. During this scene Scorpion meets Yuki's rapist, and it turns out to be her brother who has brain damage from a working incident and cannot control his actions. This does not absolve him of his crimes, but Ito asks audiences to have empathy for the man in two images. One of which is achieved by placing the eye of the camera through his perspective when he attempts to rape Scorpion. This is the first time this has happened in these movies. The camera holds on his hands as they shake over Scorpion's sleeping body, and it is a horrifying image, but also one of unsureness and skepticism. It is almost as if part of him knows this is wrong, and due to the knowledge of his damaged brain, it becomes a tragic scene. Scorpion fights back and the scene moves between their point of view until she grabs a knife and cuts Yuki's brother. Before Scorpion can kill him Yuki walks in and she's infuriated that her brother attempted to rape her new friend. She punches him and screams "Don't I give you all the sex you could ask for? How could you?". There's a close-up of Scorpion's face after this line of dialogue and Meiko Kaji's acting here is noteworthy, because she lowers her guard and with her facial expressions she shifts the scene from anger to empathy, and her perspective is usually the one we follow. Yuki keeps her brother locked up in their house for fear that he may rape another woman. She carries a cross for the other women of this city she's protecting by metaphorically taking bullets for them by absorbing the sexual assault of her brother. The greatest test of Scorpion's ability as an avatar of Women everywhere (an idea presented in the second movie) is when she sees a woman like Yuki. Yuki obviously deserves to be free of her brother, but she is also the only person keeping him out of trouble and away from the streets. Yuki is a sacrificial lamb and Scorpion is a slaughterer, but when Scorpion sees the pain in Yuki's face as they lock eyes she understands that Yuki doesn't need revenge, she needs someone to understand, and as an audience we are supposed to as well.

This short scene is the most complex and daring in the entire Scorpion series because it asks us to understand the mindset of someone who is being raped by someone that they love. This scene is here to give Yuki more depth and place us even further into her world, a world she can barely control. It is here that the Scorpion series becomes more about Yuki than the iconic, titular character we've come to love. There is plenty of vengeance in the movie, but the emotional core of Beast Stable is in the face of a girl who can barely keep herself grounded on Earth. Yuki is a figure whose heart is pure, but has dealt with the most vile act and still comes out of it hoping for a brighter day. This is not to say that she doesn't have her moments where she wishes her brother was dead, and there is a scene where she begs for that to happen, but she never acts on that desire. It is something I can't possibly grasp, and it complicates Beast Stable because audiences are hardly asked to grapple with these questions. In the Jack Garfein film Something Wild (1961) a similar circumstance happens where after battling with post-traumatic stress disorder in the wake of being raped Mary Ann Robinson (Carroll Baker) ends up with another rapist only to live a life of domesticity. She is not persecuted for her actions in that film and Yuki isn't persecuted here, but instead these films ask tough questions about the mindset of Women who have dealt with sexual assault. It is important to note that these movies contain a dense interior related to the physical self. They are burrowed in and so totally inside the body. They also don't come up with any definitive answers on how to overcome the problem of having been raped, because there is no easy fix for survivors of sexual abuse. These movies instead let these Women decide what to do next and how to move forward if moving forward is even possible. It's important that movies like Something Wild, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable remember the Women at the heart of their stories and never let the act of rape become something trivialized to a plot point or something secondary in these characters lives. When a movie is about rape it must wrangle with what this means and how this effects their characters in ways significant and minor. It cannot merely be background noise. In Female Prisoner Scorpion it is the catalyst for the suffering of Women everywhere. This movie understands it is about sexual power dynamics and the onus is unfairly on the Women to stop this action from happening which reflects the real world where we're told to watch how much we drink at parties, not to walk down the wrong street and make sure our skirt isn't too short.

The following day Yuki picks Scorpion up from her new job where she works as a seamstress, but something is amiss. Yuki greets Scorpion with a jubilant smile, but it almost instantly vanishes a second later, as if breaking her emotional consistency with happiness would undo her own sense of safety. She turns her back to Scorpion and there is a following close-up on the new friend's face that reads as concerned. The tranquility of their near silent friendship is broken up by the feeling that Yuki is about to unleash a torrent of emotions, and that she is at her breaking point. Ito holds his camera on the two as they move through the city always making sure that the blocking is keeping in key with Yuki's reluctance for intimacy and Scorpion's distant compassion. Yuki always follows Scorpion and not the other way around, and when they sit and watch the sunset over a train station with a soda in hand a scene of possible dialogue becomes a moment of reflection. Scorpion is almost begging Yuki to open up through her glances and gestures towards compatibility, but her new friend is uncomfortable. When the two later end up at Scorpion's apartment Yuki sits in the dark with her head down and she finally breaks the silence. "I'm not going home to my brother tonight. Let him starve for all I care", but Scorpion isn't buying her anger and tends to the groceries she just bought. Yuki then accelerates things and asks Scorpion to kill her brother, but bursts into tears seconds later. The final twist in the scene is that Yuki vomits after this reveal. She runs over to the sink to wash her mouth out before admitting that she's pregnant. Her voice is heightened by her emotional upheaval and her strength in her own stoicism is ruptured by a pregnancy she doesn't know how to process. A magical thing happens in the final frames of this scene. Scorpion gently rests her hand on Yuki's back and out of Scorpion's mouth she delicately says one word "Yuki". It's a gesture of pure intimacy that Yuki is not familiar with and we haven't seen in the movie up to this point. Shunya Ito is consistently aware of what he's doing with blocking and where his actors are in frame and in the case of Yuki she hasn't been touched by anyone except for her brother up until this point. In the earlier scene where Yuki saves her brother from Scorpion's blade there is an overhead shot of Yuki crouching beside her brother with a shadow splitting the image in half with Scorpion on the other side of the room. That image speaks multitudes of how her relationship to the world works. Yuki is essentially trapped by this unseeable barrier that makes her life one of near complete isolation. This is coupled in the fact that Yuki and Scorpion were always previously framed with space in mind on their walk back to her apartment. With this one single hand on Yuki's back Scorpion shatters a wall and realizes Yuki's potential to feel the touch of another human being again without it being rigid, painful and horrific.

Yuki is unfamiliar with that level of affection and sprints out of the apartment to get away from something she isn't yet ready to embrace. On her way out a box of matches falls out of her purse that are slung into Scorpion's chest by a man who crosses her off as she tries to catch up with Yuki. He's not a man of subtlety and he removes his ridiculous sunglasses and licks his lips at the mere sight of Scorpion. What is revealed later is that this man works as security for the prostitution ring that later harms Yuki when she starts to work in their territory without permission. He slings the matches into Scorpion's chest and walks away, but his body language and his intentions are clear in that he is using his power as a man to take possession and ownership of Scorpion's body with a sexual advance and the severity with which he threw the matches back at Scorpion. The matches become a consistent theme throughout this movie as a symbol of the relationship between Yuki and Scorpion. The first of these images comes moments later in Scorpion's apartment when she's flicking the matches one by one and this is edited together with a scene of Yuki putting on lipstick for her job. This split POV enhances their relationship and makes the film feel symbiotic between the two women. The most striking moment occurs when Scorpion flicks a match and through that brief lighting of the flame a tear is visibly running down her cheek. Her face is otherwise emotionless, but this one moment of emotional significance from Kaji speaks volumes for her ability to convey with gestures both minimal and maximal. In the Arrow Video set Shunya Ito consistently compared her to Clint Eastwood's The Man with No Name character from Sergio Leone's Dollars trilogy, but she is much more complex than Eastwood's iconic gruffness and infinite cool. She is instead a towering figure of empathy, motherhood, and warmth funneled through a psychedelica that owes debts to Seijun Suzuki, Nagisa Oshima and an emotional wellspring that is closer to Maria Falconetti in her ability to convey a total facial performance

The previous two films in the Female Scorpion franchise had to deal with genre expectations that bridged the gap between genres such as horror, rape-revenge, women in prison and women on the run. These movies had a duty to cross off certain elements on a checklist in order to be made, and for the most part these movies succeed at taking these genre limitations and turning them into strengths. For Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable those expectations are gone in favour of a freedom that gave Shunya Ito and company the permission to run wild with what they wanted to portray to an extent. However, with the diminishing need for genre fulfillment there was a new one for sequel expectations that handcuffs Scorpion slightly. Ironically the thing that gets in the way of what Beast Stable wants to accomplish is the actual act of vengeance, which was the core of the previous two movies. The vengeance in Beast Stable is closer to a digression, but like the previous two films this obligation becomes a strength, because they didn't sleepwalk through this part of the filmmaking process or anything else.

The vengeance that must be fulfilled in Beast Stable is tied together through a few coincidences that link the characters of Yuki, Scorpion and a third woman who isn't named. This final woman is introduced shortly after Scorpion's run in with the man in her apartment complex and like Yuki she is a sex worker and she is pregnant. She's hiding the pregnancy from her bosses, but eventually begins to show. Katsu (Reisen Lee) runs the show in this side of town controlling the sex work game and her many security officers find out about this woman's pregnancy and bring her to Katsu. Katsu is a figure of exaggeration with garish make-up closer to the styles of 70s drag queens and she lives with a flock of crows who hold no significance other than to paint her as an elaborate creature of strange taste. Around the same time the man who threatened Scorpion in the hotel dies, but not from her hand instead it's from another woman, but Scorpion is assumed to have killed the security officer. The men who work for Katsu capture Scorpion at the same time they are punishing this third woman. They see her pregnancy as a loss of finance and force her to have an abortion. Yuki plays into these narrative threads through her own interaction with Katsu which ended in torture for having worked in her area without permission, and with her own pregnancy.

These rather cumbersome plot coincidences are handled with some level of grace through expert filmmaking and two scenes which are elegant, extreme and emotionally thunderous. The first of which is the forced abortion which is cut parallel with Yuki's which was of her own free will. The forced abortion is one of total horror. It is a scene of annihilation. The room is sheathed in white with curtains, tables and walls all projecting this perceived cleanliness, but what is happening to this woman is anything but and her blood ruptures the paleness of the room. Her voice is like an alarm, heaving and moaning with guttural intonations that reckon with the complete sorrow of a motherhood lost. The sort of camerawork that was used in 701 and Jailhouse to convey rape is used as well, and it makes sense that these techniques that worked so well in those previous two movies would work well here, because both scenes are used to show someone taking something from another person. There's a close-up of her face that elicits such total pain it would be easy to miss that she grips a scalpel, but this too is in frame and leads into the single most powerful image in the whole of the Scorpion series.

In an interview with Arrow Video Shunya Ito stated that Luis Bunuel was one of his favourite directors and the recurring blade across the eyes image is an homage to Un Chien Andalou. In Jailhouse 41 Scorpion witnesses the death of an old woman who in her final moments gives Scorpion a knife. After she is given that weapon the old woman dies and is buried underneath the autumn leaves after a deep gust of wind and then vanishes. Upon seeing this Scorpion takes that blade and runs it across her eyes and in that moment she became mystical and endowed with an assumed power to complete her tasks of vengeance at all costs due to the spirits of Women scorned. Beast Stable uses this image too, but Scorpion's possession is given so much more weight due to what we've seen happen to the woman who gives her the scalpel. After her abortion the unnamed woman is brought back to Katsu's lair to die, but inches away from her is Scorpion being held captive for her assumed murder of one of their security guards. Scorpion notices the woman edging closer and closer so she dangles her arm out of the cage and they touch. Scorpion's gesture gives this dying woman a last moment of assurance that what she has experienced will not go unpunished. With that outstretched arm Scorpion unfurls finger by finger the scalpel she grasped when they took what would be her child. Scorpion's hands shake and she pulls the scalpel out of her hand. In an extreme close-up reminiscent of what Jonathan Demme would popularize years later in The Silence of the Lambs she takes that scalpel and drags it across her eyes. Meiko Kaji's eyes are the window to the soul of these movies and an audience surrogate. Her eyes are bleary, bloodshot and about to burst with tears for what she has seen. She slowly pulls the blade across and the tears start to roll out, and it is in the intensity of her stare and the sorrow of the previous scene that makes this moment of action have context the previous usage of this image did not. Here, Scorpion becomes a reaper in a way that doesn't ring as abstract or showy, but simply through the tools of cinema that have been apparent since the silent age, an image, a face and a reaction.

Yuki's own abortion runs in syncopation with the unknown woman's and gives an added dose of fuel to the revenge that Scorpion proceeds to unleash after she becomes possessed with the spirit of the dead mother. The idea of the inserted vengeance narrative inside of Beast Stable comes out of an analysis of how motherhood is perceived in the world in which they live. The narrative logs that form the bridge here are that rape can lead to unwanted pregnancy and how does abortion tie into this story? We never learn the unnamed Woman's backstory, but it is assumed she is happy with her pregnancy, unlike Yuki, and they represent the opposite spectrum of how pregnancy is presented. On one hand Yuki's fetus is the product of incest and she struggles with the notion of keeping or terminating the pregnancy, and she eventually decides to abort. The other woman is faced with the horror of not deciding what to do with her body, and her decision is made for her. This implies that Beast Stable is a pro-choice movie, and this perception is achieved through the simple parallel editing of how their abortions are performed.The Scorpion films ask these questions of what constitutes having a female body at its worst, and the growth in these movies is that this feeling has shifted slowly from an external idea of what femininity looks like to something internal and true due to the faces, body language and sheer presence of Meiko Kaji, Yayoi Watanabe and Kayoko Shiraishi.

Upon killing the men who forced the woman to have an abortion Scorpion says she's possessed with the spirit of the dead girl, and what was assumed to be implied regarding Scorpion's powers is confirmed, but her powers only give her so much, and she soon finds herself retreating from Detective Kondo and his men who want to see her die. Scorpion crawls into a sewer to hide, and what started in a damp hell would end there. In Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion she was sent to live in a dungeon of the prison where the floor was wet, cold and there was no light to creep through the darkness. In Beast Stable Yuki provides the light by dropping matches down the sewer and calling her name.


To call Scorpion's name is to bring her to life, and the magic of watching the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies is in the belief that she'd appear. The idea of Scorpion is one of both justice and freedom that a woman isn't alone and her heart can sing even when hell surrounds her. Meiko Kaji brought Scorpion to life through her steely gaze and her empathetic trust in the fruitfulness of women through her cinematic actions, both violent and affectionate. She created a figure of light and darkness that could take up a sword for the damaged or offer a healing hand when necessary. Kaji sings the theme song that plays throughout these movies and the lyrics say "A Woman's life is her song" and my song is one of survival. Upon finishing Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable I came clean with a secret that I had harbored inside of me for a very long time. I sobbed on my husband's shoulder and told him that my father raped me on a semi-regular basis while I was growing up. The experience of actually vocalizing my history with sexual abuse was a moment of healing, because I could finally begin to understand that I did nothing wrong, and I didn't bring this on myself. Watching the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies has been a cathartic experience for my soul and having been open about my past I feel like I am able to move forward with my future. I saw something of myself in Yuki and I felt attached to her as she dropped matches down into the sewer calling her saviours name, and I knew that I had something of a saviour in Scorpion. The very idea of her was with me and even in knowing I'll always drag my past around, she has given me the strength to pick up the pieces of my own life in some small way.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

All the World's a Stage and Sexuality is All You Really Need: House of Little Deaths (Scout TaFoya, 2016)

When looking at the history of Brothel's on film there's a clear picture of perceived danger both within the house and for the men who enter. That history works like a shroud for most of these movies in creating an instinct within the tone through cinematic history and through cinematic language. The title, House of Little Death's, even suggests danger, but like Lizzie Borden's Working Girls that tonal history is mostly brushed off through the banality of sex work. Instead what is presented is sex work as a job of preparation both in presentation and mental fortitude.

In the opening scene a near static camera shows a woman named Victoria (Alexandra Maiorino) prepping herself for a night of work. She pulls at the lingerie and runs her skin through her fingers trying to make herself as presentable as possible for her (mostly) male customers. When interrupted by another woman the camera follows her and the rest of the women are seen doing the same. TaFoya focuses on these smaller internal moments of preparation to the film's benefit. It's a trick in the Chantal Akerman handbook to showcase time spent. These scenes don't have the length or the intention to truly reckon with Chantal, but they do give the audience a brief feeling of moments that are often too short or concise in other movies of this type. When TaFoya holds his camera on Victoria to show her using foundation, blush and mascara we ride with her through those tasks and it creates a sense of interiority that is beneficial to creating the closeness needed to ponder what actually goes into the job that makes it central to these women.

There is an acknowledgement that sex work is inherently theatrical in the cinematic language that is used throughout the movie as well. TaFoya even places an ode to Jacques Rivette's Out 1 later in the film. Rivette was a key figure in bringing the theater to the screen so this instance of letting the audience know Rivette influenced the work clearly defines House of Little Deaths as performative. This in turn ties back into the scenes where characters are putting on make-up and donning their sexiest clothing. It's all an act that comes with the job. The women are performing a role for the customer in an attempt to make herself and her experience desirable. The metatextual performances of the actors in the movie are observed and noted through the form, and that gives the movie another layer to process and admire.

A newcomer to the job (Cassie played by Michelle Siracusa) frequently asks the other women for help in her appearance and act. During one scene she asks one of her co-workers for outfit tips and their conversation immediately begins to break down into girl talk. "What do you like?" "What do you like to wear?" and so on. It's a nice moment where the wall of the job comes down and they can just be, but it becomes more complex when thinking about the task of picking those clothes they're discussing, because they aren't necessarily dressing for themselves but others. Their need to both find themselves in their dress while also compromising for their job is their moment of artistic control over their work. There is a perceived uniform, but you can make it your own. They wear the clothes and the make-up, but it's done by their hand. That too ties into the process of theater and cinema and the question of ownership in art.

House of Little Deaths is less interesting when it becomes a movie that needs plot to reach a resolution. In the final third the leader of the Brothel, Nancy (Reina Guarini) reveals to the women of the house that she's pregnant and won't have an abortion. This piece of news is a shock to the other women who see Nancy's decision to bring the baby to term as a betrayal of sorts, because it puts their jobs at risk. This curveball of plot isn't in direct opposition to reality, but it does seem to rupture the film's sense of pacing, space and priority, because suddenly there's a goal in mind for the characters other than simply existing, doing a job and understanding how their roles work at the house. There was always some level of conflict among the women, as there is in all workplaces, due to clients and other potential job opportunities, but the fissuring of their relationship makes the final third feel heavier in a way and simplifies their relationship due to a final image that feels too easy and somewhat unearned. Virginia Woolf pondered the idea of romanticism through sisterhood and the relationships of women in her novel Mrs. Dalloway. She wrote that relationships between women are inherently romantic, and the final image of a group of women becoming entangled as one conveys that very same idea. It's an image that movies come back to rather frequently with the most recent example being from Mustang, but where House of Little Deaths fumbles is in the simplification of the image through reconciliation. It's an image that can only have one meaning, and that is acceptance of her pregnancy. It's a crowd pleasing note to cap off on in a movie that usually requires more of the audience, but even with missteps in the final act House of Little Deaths features a lot of engaged filmmaking and TaFoya is someone to keep an eye on.

You can support House of Little Deaths here by becoming a fan of the film.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Confessions of a Female Badass: Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41

Confessions of a Female Badass is an ongoing column at Curtsies and Hand Grenades where I discuss women in genre cinema.

 [TW: Discussions of Rape, Rape Revenge Movies and Rape Culture]

Exploitation cinema addresses difficult subject material with a directness not usually gifted to mainstream filmmaking. At its best these kinds of movies ask questions of viewers and unsettle their cultural ideas of sex, race, gender and class. Rape is not a stranger to cinema, but it is uncommon that this topic is handled with immediacy, concern and grace. Rape-revenge movies must have an understanding of the psyche of the abused, and facilitate this through camerawork and character depth. The person's (almost always a woman) fight for justice needs to be paramount, and their agency within the narrative has to be a concern. The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies don't always understand how to go about balancing their exploitation duties to pinku cinema, and rape-revenge to their righteous women's anger, but frequently they find a balance of expressiveness and strength at the centre with the help of Meiko Kaji (Scorpion). Kaji (Scorpion) is a performer whose eyes emote more than dialogue ever could and her stoicism, determination and weathered life experiences gift the Scorpion films a character who viewers can identify with and follow, even when scenes are hard to bear. It is in her eyes that the Scorpion films find their power as vengeance pictures, and in Jailhouse 41 Scorpion evolves into a figure whose acts of reprisal become mystical. What is only hinted at in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion becomes gospel as Scorpion becomes the blade for all women.

Director Shunya Ito understands that this is Scorpion's movie and nearly always has her point of view in mind. In the first moments of Jailhouse 41 Scorpion is hog tied once again in the pits of the prison in what I described as "dank hell" in my first piece on these movies. Scorpion is seen dragging a spoon across the rock floors and refashioning it into a primitive knife. She does this knowing it might be her one way to escape or to strike back at the warden who captured her and sent her back to prison at the close of the first movie. In these scenes the camera is looking up, just as Scorpion would be and the image is of the Warden Goda (Fumio Watanabe) and his men standing above Scorpion. When it is announced that Scorpion would be taken outside along with the other women to meet a dignitary from the state who is coming to check up on the prison she is "cleaned" with a fire hose. Her face breaks in these moments and she shows vulnerability. The cracks in Scorpion's armor are important to make her a relatable figure instead of a superhero and amplify the anger audiences are supposed to feel with the cruelty of the warden and his men. Ito smartly frames the hose sequence no different than Scorpion's introduction and the lens is filled with splashes from the water. The camera takes the place of her body.

The effect of Scorpion's previous escape from prison has made her a legend in the eyes of the women alongside her. Tales of the revolt that came at the hands of her unwillingness to break in the face of the steepest of punishment have spread and they speak of her in hushed tones like a god waiting to be unleashed from her shackles and roam free again. She represents the possibility of being free and unburdened with the abuse they've suffered at the hands of the men who oversee them in jail. She is a perceived god of possibility and an arbiter of their future. Scorpion is a slippery figure who seems to find her way wriggling to freedom when given an inch of room to run, and the women inmates know this fact about their fellow incarcerated sister. When they see her emerge their faces are of shock, jubilation and excitement. Already Scorpion is becoming a leader among women, but there is one woman named Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi) who remains unimpressed with Scorpion. She carries a scowl on her face and contorts herself into broad theatrical expressions throughout the movie. A natural rival to both Kaiji and Scorpion.

After a failed murder attempt on the warden with the knife she carved during the opening credits Scorpion and the other women are sent to a biblical punishment of dragging rocks tied to their backs and in Scorpion's case carrying crosses. The blocking in the punishment sequences is always fascinating, because it carries the sense of space and the hierarchy of the inmates versus the guards. Notice in the first screencap the men are all standing high above the women with guns held high in standard police uniform. They're perfectly coiffed and untarnished by the dirt, dust and clay of the rock field. The women, in contrast are hunched off, caked in filth and below the men. The scorpion films use blocking to investigate hierarchy and these are most striking in large spaces. In the first film Scorpion is asked to dig a hole until she drops and like this scene with the rocks she is literally underneath the feet of her oppressors.

Scorpion's cross-carrying is no small coincidence either. Her presence as a saviour to the masses is well known and this alignment with Christ gives her iconography that is known worldwide. Scorpion, however, is not a martyr or a saint. She's a murderess with a justified hand. But even the punishment of Christ is not enough in the eyes of Chief Warden Goda. Goda insists that Scorpion must be broken, and a punishment not befitting of her will only turn Scorpion into an idol. Goda orders his men to publicly gang rape Scorpion in front of the other women.

Scorpion's gang rape is the most difficult scene to witness in the movie, but it gives fire to her later actions. It is made more cruel and vile, by Goda's decision to force the other women to watch Scorpion be publicly raped. One woman, who is unnamed, falls at the sight of this, because it's too much to bear. Ito treats the sequence for the horror that it is by never shying away from the vileness of the act. The woman who breaks is key to understanding how much of a struggle it is to watch scenes like this as a female viewer. It's a meta-decision that informs the women who view this film that Ito understands this is despicable to view, and it also works as a plot mechanism because it undoes Scorpion's hero status in the eyes of the women, because she is brought down to their level through the gang rape. Formally, the rape is shot similarly to rapes in the first film with a focus on Scorpion's face and the continued usage of the camera as a point of view tool. The rapists are never given control over the image and whenever they do appear in frame their faces are demonic, crushed under pantyhose and sniveling. They show no human characteristics. There is also never a clear frame of penetration in this scene, but in the sunglasses of the warden four figures are seen moving around Scorpion. The mind makes the scene far worse, because of the implied nature of the act. By suggesting the violence of the rape Ito sidesteps sexualizing it leaving it up to viewers to think about what's happening and question our ideas of what rape looks like and what rape is, which is a far more complex shot than bluntly showing the act of sexual violence. It is also a smart usage of the camera to artfully sidestep what is expected of the genre expectations of the film. At the close of the scene in slow zooms and cuts Scorpion locks eyes with the warden and as is her carrying card she marks him for utter vengeance. The act of extreme close-up gives Scorpion some level of agency in a scene where all agency is taken. Her eyes signal a foreshadowing that this scene will not go unpunished.

To fully break the girls spirit warden Goda tells two of his men to kill Scorpion while they're headed back to the prison, but she thwarts their attempts and Scorpion's rival Oba kills the second guard. Preceding their escape there is a difficult scene of the other women attacking Scorpion. With their faith in Scorpion's ability to lead them to safety they kick her repeatedly. The camera spins around their attacks quickly, blurring the image, and their screams and frustrations are heard. This isn't a direct attack on Scorpion, but an attack on their patriarchal situation. This is an assault of failed hope and dashed dreams, and Scorpion's relationship with these women is flawed from this assault. The Female Prisoner Scorpion films address infighting between women, but do so by framing it as a product of men stoking the flames of their relationships. Men have access to the power in these movies, and represent an abusive, evil, patriarchy and the women in these movies fight for what little amount of privilege is granted. The women are prone to hierarchy and judgment and when confined within a closed space such as a prison fighting is natural.

Before the women flee they make a scene of one of the guards who tried to kill Scorpion. They maul his body, disrobe him and with legs splayed they plant a giant plank of wood directly into his genitals. It's a graphic image, and perhaps the bloodiest in the series. It's an image of specific meaning due to the camera's lingering presence. It's lit in a way that makes it clear blood is gushing up from his wound and we see the full extent of his mangled body. In the Female Prisoner Scorpion films when women are raped the camera rejects the sexualization of the subject by never showing the full extent of the act of rape, but instead uses reaction shots and close-ups. Those scenes are made disturbing by the power of the actors faces, and that is a clear rejection of typical filmmaking techniques for rape that focus on the female body. This image of a defiled man is made powerful by contrast in the the destruction of his body in a physical, visible way. It's angry, violent, impure, but radical in context of the rape-revenge movie and in how Scorpion functions as a series of movies in this genre.

Unlike in the previous Scorpion film the surrounding characters of Scorpion are given a backstory. In Jailhouse 41 this is accomplished through a psychedelic fantasy sequence that utilizes traditional Japanese theatrical techniques and beautiful high-contrast colours. The seven escaped prisoners come upon an old woman in their journey and when they fall asleep later that night she narrates their story. Each woman has been sent to prison due to a crime associated with men. Some of the justification for these crimes hasn't aged as well, especially the one regarding jealousy, but all of these stories fall in line with the universe of Scorpion where men do women wrong. Oba gets the the densest of these revelations as she murdered her children when she caught her husband cheating and couldn't bear to know she brought something of his into the world. Oba's narrative is the most complicated, and her later actions make her evil in a way that requires a true test of empathy from Scorpion. She too has been wronged, but she has done some wrongdoing herself. For Scorpion to be an avenger of all women she has to be an avenger of a woman like Oba as well.

When the old woman eventually dies the next day she gives Scorpion a blade that endows her with mystical ability. Scorpion takes the blade and rakes it across her eyes in a fluid motion (Ito's homage to his own favourite director Luis Buñuel), and this image would be her rallying cry for movies to come. Scorpion's hair rises and she's lit in a flame scorched orange silhouette, but unlike the scene from the Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion this scene signals her mystical powers as a vengeful reaper of all women, and not merely a tool for her own vengeance. The balance of Scorpion's heroism and vulnerability tips over in this sequence. From this point forward Scorpion would be less of a Woman and more of a symbol. It's a bold choice for the complicated people she must fight for, and the reliance on her earlier vulnerability makes her a hero who deserves power. She is an underdog who has risen into a force.

The Female Prisoner Scorpion movies have a deft eye for critical evaluation of their audience. Being in the pinku genre Ito knows the audience who would go to this movie and casually inserts an image of an offended woman overhearing men discussing sex with women who had just escaped form prison. Her look of disgust is the moral heart of these movies. At their centre the Scorpion films pay notice to the women characters and how they interact with men. Not to let the men see her reaction she quickly reaches for a smile to diffuse any possible negative outcome, which is something women are trained to do in the company of unbecoming men when we grow up.

Oba is perhaps a character who exists as criticism of the women in the audience who view Scorpion as a hero. Oba is the likely scenario of how offended men would view Scorpion in the first place so her more brazenly evil tactics are a focus. Oba works as a counter-point to Scorpion's righteousness. She is more coarse and complicated in her hatred of not only men, but human beings. Oba strips women, steps on men and uses hostages as target practice in their lengthy escape. She's an individual who is beyond damaged and throws Scorpion to the police to save her own ass later in the movie. It is perfect that Oba and Scorpion would stand together in the end as Scorpion learns to have compassion for someone who hated her guts.

Scorpion's compassion for Oba is beautifully rendered in their final moments. Before Oba dies she relives the moment that sent her to prison. Her face is less severe and she carries a deep grief in her expression as she plunges a knife into her womb aborting her unborn fetus. In a striking image of abortion stigma a net is thrown over her and people prod her with sticks as she bleeds out. When Oba comes to Scorpion catches her and for a second Oba drops her defenses and rests in Scorpion's arms. Finally, she lets down her armor and breathes, because she knows her torment is nigh over. Scorpion stares at her and their eyes meet. Scorpion didn't have to catch Oba, but she did, and despite all of the vicious things Oba had done in the past she helped a woman in need. In her great empathy Scorpion carries Oba until she expires. She closes her eyes and lets her move onto the next world and Scorpion weeps. The message of unity among women crystallizes in this moment, because everyone has a backstory and moments that cause their own problems. It's our duty to try to understand why.

The blade from the old woman was always ours to share, and the blood of our peace washes us clean. Scorpion sprints in the final moments of Jailhouse 41 with an army of women behind her. Her evolution into feminist totem carries weight in this moment, because she isn't seen as a solitary figure reckoning with her own personal needs, but the needs of many. When the blade passes hands it's a symbol of not only our collective spirit towards a common goal, but that we cannot do this alone. It would take all of us. It's an empowering fruitful image to end a movie on and an undeniably feminist one in the context of the world this movie exists within.