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Salem Horror Fest ’20 Review: In “VISE,” Is Style Substance?

Friday, October 2, 2020 | Review

By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Natalie Emmons, Nobuaki Kaneko, Misuzu Kanno
Directed by Yasuhiko Shimizu
Written by Nagano

Opening with a flurry of surreal imagery and concluding in death and gushes of blood, Yusuhiko Shimizu’s debut feature VISE (a.k.a. MANRIKI) is an unpredictable journey of bodily debasement and pitch-black humor that initially appears to offer little beyond its noisy, stylized exterior.  

Julian Koike stars as The Girl, a young woman who has spent her previous two years in Tokyo being roundly rejected for modeling jobs. Though of average proportions, the young woman blames her “big face” for her lack of success, and believes that everyone on the street is aware of and whispering about her perceived imperfection. Grown desperate, she turns to the Manriki beauty clinic, where a handsome and empathetic Surgeon (Takumi Saitoh) assures her that, though the surgery won’t increase her value as an individual, it may allow her to see her inherent worth for the first time. Unfortunately for The Girl, she realizes too late that the clinic is actually a house of horrors, and before she can protest, the seemingly kindly Surgeon is crushing her skull between the metal jaws of a table vise. And then things really get weird… 

There’s more than a little bit of cyberpunk innovator Shinya Tsukamoto in Shimizu’s overall cinematic verbiage. With dramatic lighting changes, speed distortions, and clouds of purple haze that envelop the screen, VISE looks very much like it could have sprung from the post-2000 eye of the man who directed A Snake of June (2002), Vital (2004), and Kotoko (2011), and sounds it too, with its glitched-out industrial soundtrack courtesy of Nobuaki Kaneko. Thematically, however, Shimizu lacks the depth of Tsukamoto, and though they share a similar taste for body horror and formal experimentation, Shimizu’s style only does so much to obscure a brutal lack of substance. This may, perhaps, be the pointAs Saitoh’s charismatic maniac’s pretty platitudes about physical beauty belie an erotic fixation for cruelty and disfigurement, so too does Shimizu’s garish style barely mask a gaping hollow that rings with anti-social, anti-society sentiment.  

Koike does delicately heartbreaking workeven when tasked with acting through prosthetics that are, unfortunately, more American Mary than Tokyo Fistbut the film belongs to Saitoh as the handsomedisconnected, vise-wielding psychopath. It’s a performance that keeps the audience at arm’s-length, and, even during the facile narration that closes the film, refuses to let the viewer in even a hair. There are some memorable supporting turns, including screenwriter Nagano as a smirking, androgynous receptionist and Misuzu Kanno as an aging con woman who features prominently in the film’s climaxThese and the rest of the supporting characters often feel staunchly comic in a way the film is not, which may be a disconnect for some viewers, but are really just another facet of Shimizu’s discordant approach and exaggerated style. 

Almost too appropriately considering the film’s central theme, the perceived beauty or ugliness of VISE will lie entirely in the eye of the beholder. Yasuhiko Shimizu’s bizarre tapestry of overwhelming stylebodily ruin, and off-putting comedy may ring hollow to many viewers, but for those who can tune into its wavelength, VISE may prove something more than skin-deep.  

VISE is available to stream during Salem Horror Fest’s second weekend, October 9th-11th. For ticketing information, please visit salemhorror.com

Rocco Thompson
Rue Morgue's Online Managing Editor, Rocco is a Rondo-nominated writer and avid devotee of all things weird and outrageous.