Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October Horror-thon #14: "Tomie" (1999)

Tsukiko (Mami Nakamura) is a young woman with some issues to work out. Following a traffic accident, our girl finds herself fighting to recover memories that her subconscious has given the heave-ho. But during her hypnotherapy sessions, Tsukiko comes to chant the name "Tomie," that of an old high school classmate. Little does she know that her former pal has returned to start a new life -- literally. A sullen young man discovers Tomie's detached noggin and raises her from scratch, watching her bloom into a beauty (played by Miho Kanno) all over again. But Tomie has unfinished business to square away, and with her ability to whip the men she meets into a violent frenzy, she's bent on righting the dark wrong that Tsukiko's blocked out.

Remember when the arrival of a new Asian horror title was a good thing? When films of atmospheric and thematic merit were released, rather than assembly-line thrillers that got as derivative as the American flicks they were supposed to better? Those were the days, when something like Tomie could come out and still be considered a little original. This hit theaters the same year as Memento Mori, the second and most daring chapter of Korea's Ghost School series. Both are unrelated and were put into production for different reasons, but each has a go at conveying adolescent angst with a supernatural touch. From the flashing lights and eerie synth-pop ballad that accompany the opening credits, you know something's amiss but are never sure of what. Even when some dude starts feeding yogurt to a head in a bag, you're at a loss -- until a cop (Tomorowo Taguchi) saunters in to spill Tomie's beans and obliterates the suspense in a heartbeat.

There's still some mystery surrounding Tomie's grand scheme, but it's not enough to make a full recovery. Tomie is a film plagued by whiny melodrama and sizable chunks of downtime. Too often does the pacing grind to an agonizingly slow crawl, and you can only wait until the movie stops playing "Guiding Light" long enough to let the plot do its thing. Still, where Tomie fails to hook you as a thriller, its commentary offers a little something for the mind to ingest. It's fun watching parallels form between heartless harlot Tomie and sweet little Tsukiko, who has some manipulative tendencies of her own. Both performances are solid, especially Kanno's; her face obscured most of the time, she does an amazing job of creeping you out without ever actually doing anything.

It's odd seeing Tomie defy its cheap exterior at certain moments, only to succumb to it during others. The film really could've used a second draft, one more shot at really doing justice to a rather clever premise. Maybe one of its many sequels remedies these issues, but it is nice knowing that Tomie thought enough to at least set out in the right direction.

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