THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
I don't like to make broad generalizations, but for the most part, American horror films are wimpy. There are, of course, exceptions. Even so, it's hard to deny that few of them have any real impact, especially in the current climate, which seems to be all about “rebooting” fright flicks from the past. The problem with the reboot is that we've already seen the same thing before, done better. Why see it again, done worse? Horror movies from other countries often seem to be more interested in showing us things we haven't seen before. I'm sure the worst of the worst never make it to our shores, but the best of them serve as reminders of how much more gutsy (no pun intended) foreign filmmakers are in tackling horror. As proof, I offer a Japanese film called Cold Fish. The movie has a rhythm of its own. It feels like a foreign-language arthouse picture punctuated by bursts of extreme violence and deviant sex. Love it, hate it, or simply admire it, Cold Fish rattles you, and isn't easily shaken off.
This is the story of a man named Mr. Shamoto, who owns a small tropical fish shop. His life is not especially happy; his rebellious teenage daughter doesn't get along with his wife, creating hardcore conflict in the home, in addition to a romantic/sexual distance within the marriage. Shamoto has a chance encounter with the owner of a larger, fancier fish shop across town, Mr. Murata. The wealthy, boisterous man offers to take in Shamoto's daughter and give her a job at his own business, in order to teach her responsibility. Not entirely comfortable with the idea but also desperate for a solution – and time alone with his wife - he agrees. Almost immediately, Shamoto and his family are inextricably drawn into Murata's world, and it becomes clear that he is not as benevolent as he initially seems. In fact, he has some kinky, violent sexual proclivities, as well as a method of making his business enemies “vanish.”
That plot description may not sound out-of-the-ordinary horrific, so trust me when I say that Cold Fish goes to some deeply uncomfortable places. The interesting thing is the tone it takes. For the first 45 minutes, you get no inkling of horror whatsoever. As I said, it plays like an art film about rival fish store owners. Once Murata's darker nature is hinted at, though, the movie makes a quick descent into the psyche of someone who is morally depraved. Murata is the worst kind of evil – the kind that presents a facade of respectability. Shamoto is appalled by what he sees, yet unable to avoid being corrupted by it. Murata's evil is so seductive that eventually Shamoto fools himself into thinking that embracing such madness will be the cure to his problems. He lashes out at the mundane life that has left him feeling soulless. And that comes with a cost.
The violence in Cold Fish is, at times, nauseating. I want to avoid spelling out too much, so I'll just note that Murata's method of getting rid of enemies is shown in very graphic detail. As gross as it is, the physical blood and gore are not what disturbed me most; instead, it was the beyond-Darwinian message the character's acts send. Because he is successful, happy, and rich, his immoral behaviors look to the miserable Shamoto like a viable life plan. I think you can read Cold Fish a number of different ways, but to me, it's ultimately about a man so unhappy and powerless that he ends up looking for salvation in depravity. Now there's a theme you won't see a Hollywood horror movie dare to tackle!
The sexuality in the film is just as disturbing. It should be noted by sensitive viewers that there are several rapes here, and some bizarre sexual acts are depicted. Again, the hedonistic narcissism of Murata rubs off on the repressed Shamoto.
At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Cold Fish is way too long. It could easily have lost 30-45 minutes. On the plus side, the length does allow us to settle in with these characters, thereby maximizing the impact of their individual fates. Perhaps I've made it sound as though the film is little more than a freak show, filled with guts and sex and crudity. I hope I haven't. Director Shion Sono (Suicide Club) is clearly trying to paint a portrait of genuine evil, as well as to explore the hypnotic effect such evil holds over those who witness it firsthand. In business, you sometimes have to be cutthroat to get an edge over your competitors. Shamoto understands that. His orbit around Murata makes him think that those same cutthroat practices may be what one needs to get an edge in life too. His journey makes him see that this is a misconception. By then it's too late.
Cold Fish is artful and unnerving and, at times, repulsive. Its merit lies in an unrepentant willingness to be all of those things. I'm not sure I'd ever be up for a second viewing, but I'd be lying if I said the story's themes and images didn't stay with me. You like horror? Prepare to be horrified.
( out of four)
Cold Fish will have a select theatrical release throughout August, then be released on DVD August 23.
Cold Fish is unrated but certainly the equivalent of an NC-17. It contains adult language, graphic violence and gore, nudity/sexuality, and rape The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.