Here we have what ought to have been a very good movie trapped inside a rather mediocre one. The good movie is intelligent and more than a little disturbing; the mediocre movie is made out of shoestring production values and some poor directorial and editing decisions. If you are patient and attentive you’ll probably see more of the good movie here, but most folks will probably not see Ki-re-i? as anything other than an overlong Twilight Zone / Night Gallery-style excursion done J-horror style.
Ki-re-i? deals with a plastic surgeon, a woman of striking natural beauty who charges exorbitant amounts of money for the work she does, which is conveniently not covered by insurance. Yoko has no real moral qualms about any this: people are paying, she’s doing good work, and after all, she has a mortgage to pay off. One night a potential client, Yoshie, shows up after hours without an appointment — an ugly young woman with a crippling stammer and the stunned expression of an animal caught in a car’s headlights. She begs the doctor to work on her, but only after hours — when no one else can find out — and is willing to pay piles of money for the privilege of having this done to her. “I want to be just like you,” she gushes, before disappearing back out into the night.
One day the homely Yoshie shows up at Yoko's plastic surgery, demanding to be "made beautiful."
The most unbeautiful part of her, though, can't be fixed with surgery.
Yoko isn’t sure what to make of all this, but money’s money, and sure enough the woman shows up at the appointed time for her surgery. What’s puzzling is how someone so young has so much money, and it’s clear from the way she dresses that Yoshie is not rich. In fact, she lost her job, and she darkly hints that she probably won’t be able to find another one — no, not unless she’s made lovely, and that will involve repairing more than just her face. What Yoshie needs is a psychotherapist, of course, and not a plastic surgeon. Yoko knows this, but continues anyway, and soon the two of them are engaged in a relationship of the damned that anyone reading this can tell has no happy ending.
The number of things that do work in Ki-re-i? will make it sound like I’m being ungrateful for not writing a more generous review. The acting is appropriately dialed-down and believable, save for Yoshie’s histrionics, of course — and even those work in context. There’s relatively little gore in the film, but there are a few jolts that are so vicious they almost justify the whole exercise: when Yoshie is getting liposuction and the procedure ends, she seizes the doctor’s arm and cries out “More! Take more!” Other elements are more subtly effective, like the fact that even after Yoshie’s surgery she still wears her hair in the same lank, unflattering style — the better to hide her face, which to her remains perpetually unsightly.
Ki-re-i? brings up more than a few interesting ideas, but they're weighted down by the movie's
murky look, low-budget production values and adherence to horror-movie conventions.
The movie works best when it is exploring its chosen subject intelligently — i.e., the whole cult of beauty, especially in Japan, where a woman who is pushing thirty and not married is considered an over-the-hill biddy. That said, there are just as many things that are ham-handed and obvious, and they undermine what does work by putting us squarely back in horror-movie territory. It also doesn’t help that the whole movie was filmed on video: it looks hazy and dim, as if we’re seeing everything through the bottom of an inverted shotglass. I know that every movie is ultimately going to be limited by the circumstances of its production, but I’ve seen many other projects shot on video that weren’t this tough to make out, and the perpetual blur and fog of every shot in the film does become wearying.
Ki-re-i? came to my attention because of its director, Katsuya Matsumura. He was a former director of industrial films but became most notorious for an infamous little trilogy of movies named All Night Long, about the extreme consequences of bullying and social rejection in Japanese society. They were ostensibly intended to be halfway serious about their subject, but they quickly slid into exploitation movie territory. His intentions and his end results were also at war with each other when he made Schoolgirl in Cement, a nasty direct-to-video exploitation movie treatment of a subject done far more intelligently in the movie Concrete. With Ki-re-i?, Matsumura at least seems to be moving towards executing more potentially interesting work, but I still can’t say much for the final product.