EXTE: Hair Extensions – Sion Sono

21 Dec

EXTE

Nationality: Japan

Totally whacked out horror comedy about hair and hairdressing – as lunatic a film as they come and filled with both laugh out loud and cringe-worthy moments.

Soooooo . . . what do you get when Sion Sono, the bleak and severe genius director of Suicide Circle, turns his attention to making a comedy?  A . . . well . . . sod it, yes.  A comedy.

Answer: One of the most freakish and squirm-inducing blends of sheer terror and giggling I have partaken in!  I don’t often find myself laughing out loud when by myself – less still at a ‘horror’ movie – but this superbly whacked out horrorshow about hair and hairdressing just had me staring at the screen with my jaw hanging down and going “heheheheeee” – it really was that good.

And yet – this is Sono.  This is the man behind the mighty and mightily depressing Suicide Circle, so it is no surprise to find that under the crazy goings on is that same sense of the bleakness of the world and some savage portrayals of the human condition – sometimes verging on the heartbreaking.

Somewhere in the world, a young girl suffers a truly horrendous death . . . dragged off the street, head shaved and her organs cut out for the black market organ trade.  Her body was then dumped in a shipping container and abandoned.  However – this is J-horror and instead of just dying miserably and pathetically and unable to get any kind of revenge like most of us, the justifiable rage against such a fate lives on in a murky kind of living death.  One gets the feeling that this poor girl was more outraged by loosing her hair than her organs – at least, that is where the focus lies.  And that is also why this film isn’t called EXTE: Body Extensions.  Her hair, you see, is angry.  Very angry.  And what is more, it appears to be growing.  Fast.

Cut to the morgue, where the social misfit worker whose job it is to process the dead bodies quickly makes this amazing discovery – a dead body whose hair just seems to keep growing and growing.  It’s grotesque, true.  Hair seems to be erupting all over her body – from every wound and cut and orifice – but to him it also has potential.  Commercial potential.  He has a clandestine sideline, you see – selling the finer hair that passes through his hands for use in hair extensions.  And this hair that keeps on growing could just be an inexhaustible and valuable resource . . . at least it could be if he can get the body home and ‘harvest’ it.

The only thing is – it really isn’t a very good idea to make hair extensions out of hair that is so damn angry.  Just – not a good idea at all . . .

You know – even though one of my best friends is a hairdresser, I never really thought about hair much before.  We take it for granted.  It sits there on our heads – and elsewhere – never really does anything more unexpected than blowing in our eyes or waking us up with a bad hair day.  And yet it is such a fundamental part of us.  It is the great flag of our identities.  It is like the lion’s main or the peacock’s tail – and the result of that is that we feel fragile about it.  If anything goes WRONG with hair, boy do we feel it.  Removal of hair has even been used as a punishment in various places.  And, maybe connected to that fragility, there is a distinct sense of the freakish about it as well.  Something a little strange, yes?  Of all the things to have in your mouth, a stray hair is just about the most unendurable.  That slinking hairy sensation of a long thread winding itself round your tongue and trailing down your throat – the gag reflex that follows.  Or the ingrowing hair – hair growing inside us instead of outside, forcing its way through your flesh in a perverted coil.  Even just that one freakish hair in the WRONG PLACE that you CANNOT stop fiddling with and cant wait to pluck out . . .

There’s just something about it, isn’t there.  Ok – now imagine the following:

You look in the mirror and there is a hair in your eye.  Hanging out.  You stare in puzzlement and some shock.  Why the hell is there a hair in your eye?  So you give it a gentle pull – and it comes.  And comes.  And comes.  Out from behind your eyeball – hand over hand, this huge hair . . . until suddenly poink! It’s out.  Only there’s far more than just one hair, you see.  And this hair is behaving very strangely indeed.

Now that, my friends, is horror.

And yeah – hair and horror are old playmates.  Tales of the hair that develops a life of its own – hair that runs wild – hair that is possessed – hair that becomes snakes – hair that strangles you . . . these are quite familiar, right?  A small but pervasive thread in horror – of which Sono’s film must surely be one of the best examples.

One of the defining things about Suicide Circle was its total positioning within Japanese culture, to the extent that it was a hard film to get a handle on if you weren’t highly familiar with Japanese art . . . and even then it’s a challenge.  This film is much more approachable, but you can still see the same dynamics in action.  Japanese aesthetics are on full parade here – from the early scenes where the main character more or less introduces herself to the camera in a long happily babbling monologue as she cycles to work to the cheerful way that the film takes you on a kind of crash course in hairdressing culture (focussing on this theme and milking it for all it is worth) and the constant hammering on about Japanese work ethics and working towards your dreams.  Even the slightly curious title fits. It is a VERY Japanese movie in every way – maybe even subtly ironically so (considering Sono’s inherent bleakness).  This very slightly stylised approach reminds me strongly of anime in its storytelling style – and, in my mind, invites comparisons with the loopy Uzumaki perhaps more than any other film.  In Sono’s case though, this pop culture becomes a very distinct but subtle pantomime – something consciously theatrical that he can use to stage his curious constructions.  This familiar milieu becomes a chance to explore social commentary and the human condition in ways that are much deeper than the surface gloss suggests – not afraid to make characters complex and flawed and, well, interesting.  The stylised nature of the film becomes its strongest point, meshing with what Sono wants to tell us to create a very strong aesthetic whole.

Having watched this film – with such parallels to, yet so different from Suicide Circle – it has only reinforced my feeling that Sono is one of the most interesting directors Japan has produced.  This may be a crazy horror-comedy but it is told with virtuosity and with many elements of deep interest and power.  As well as wince-inducing and hilarious, it is sometimes haunting, sad, enraging, touching, sweet, bitter, thoughtful and unexpectedly empathetic.  For what is essentially a comedy built on a farcical plot, it is uniquely powerful and intense.

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