Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Higanjima (2009)

Blood Brothers

It's no secret that I love the Japanese, especially when it comes to film. Because of this, I have knack for letting them get away with things that I would probably discredit other films for doing. Higanjima (also known as Higanjima: Escape from Vampire Island) is no exception. In world plagued by god-awful, teen-friendly vampire films (I'm looking at you, Twilight), South Korean director Tae-gyun Kim brings us a tale of teenagers vs. bloodsuckers that easily surpasses the mainstream dreck we've become accustomed to in the US. Is the film perfect? No; but with enough violence and genre-blending to keep you entertained throughout the lengthy two-hour story, Higanjima should be a welcomed addition to any fangbanger's collection.

High school student Akira hasn't seen his brother Atsushi in over two years. After mysteriously vanishing without a trace, Akira's home life has become a series of downers, with his drunken father gambling away his college savings and his mother standing by helplessly, wishing for Atsushi's return to fix everything. Thankfully, Akira has a loyal group of friends as we see them comically assist his escape from an angry bully in the beginning of the film. While looking for a place to hide from his attackers, Akira is grabbed by the mysterious Rei, a woman who informs Akira that his brother is alive and well, living on her home island of Higanjima. Proving this by giving Atsushi's license to Akira, Rei requests that he come to the island with her to see his brother. The next day, Akira and his friends see Rei talking to a mysterious stranger who they decide to follow, only to find him feasting on a teenage girl. Barely escaping the same fate, the group is informed by Rei that the island of Higanjima is infested with vampires, and that Atsushi now lives as an assassin hoping to fully cleanse the island of all bloodsuckers. Despite their hesitation, Akira's friends decide to join him on his quest to find his brother and head to the island. The only problem is that their arrival has been anticipated, finding themselves ambushed by hordes of the undead and held captive by the powerful vampire Miyabi, who intends to keep them as food. Soon, Atsushi comes into the picture and the teenagers must figure out a way to save the island as well as one of their friends from Miyabi's clutch, sending Akira to learn his true powers as a warrior and vampire slayer. The rest of the film is the resulting bloodbath between human and monster that Twilight only wishes it had the balls to show.

So what exactly am I letting Higanjima get away with that I would generally frown upon? Well, a few things. Genre blending isn't something that works well in every film. Movies like Severance or Tormented are clearly meant to be horror comedies and succeed because they stick to that format and rarely stray, with the exception of a few emotional moments. Higanjima begins in a very comedic format, then switches to horror, melodrama, and finally, action. The reason it works here is because Eastern films are notorious for blending multiple emotions into one film. If you watch movies like Oldboy and Survive Style 5+, you'll find that you're so subtly barraged with different genres and emotions that you can hardly describe that type of film to someone with no previous knowledge of Asian cinema. Similar to the classic Battle Royale, this movie allows different types of stories to play out as they happen during the film, going from an action packed duel to a character emotionally sobbing after the death of a friend within a few minutes. Does the melodrama get old? Sort of. But if you already have a taste for Eastern film, then you'll probably expect a bit of teenage angst with your horror.

I also usually complain over subpar CGI effects in films, and Higanjima only suffers from a few. The only reason I'm not complaining over it is because the scenes that utilize it (namely a battle with a large monster in the film's third act) are actually still fun to watch. While the monster isn't the best work of computer technology in film, the battle around it saves the viewer from solely focusing on whether or not it looks one-hundred-percent realistic. Again, it's better than anything you'll see in a mainstream film like Twilight.

I've also read a few reviewers complaining about the heavy metal soundtrack that plays throughout the fights in the film. While this does come off cheesy in any Asian movie, it's almost a staple in the genre. Plus, it reminds me of the band Sex Machineguns, and you'll never hear me uttering a bad word about that group (well, pre-CV Panther's departure). The people who complain about this must also not be huge fans of American horror, because the metal used in most of those films is so ridiculous, it makes Disturbed look like...uh...a slightly better Disturbed (it's really hard to find a way to make Disturbed sound good in any fashion).

The most fun to be had in Higanjima is in the violence. The battles consist of heads getting smashed, foreheads stabbed, limbs hacked off, and bodies mangled; sure to please any fan of the red stuff. There are also some great sword fights on display, especially from Atsushi who has to consistently battle the same vampire that he had previously de-limbed (a nod to Blade perhaps?). One battle even features one of those sweet ninja running moments between the two, a surefire way to enhance the excitement of any sword fight.

With a good cast, fun villains, and enough arterial spray to keep your tongues wet, Higanjima is a fun ride for any vampire fan looking for something that extends beyond the mediocre Team I Don't Give A Shit that plagues the silver screen today. If you can easily get past the melodrama, guitar licks, and imperfect CGI of this Eastern flick, then we should already be friends. Or even better...blood brothers. (Oh snap. Just came up with the title for this review. Sorry for the repetition, guys!)

3/5 Stars

Additional screens for your enjoyment!

Editor's Note: While this film isn't yet available in the US, the two Amazon links provided above are for the UK release and a Region Free release, though I can't verify the subtitle quality for the latter.

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