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Private hell
A region 0 DVD review of HAZE by Slarek
 

Try to imagine what would happen if Tsukamoto Shinya, the fiercely individualistic director of such works as Tetsuo, Tokyo Fist and Bullet Ballet, took James Wan's Saw and Vincenzo Natali's Cube, threw out the plots of both and ran down his own very specific thematic path with the result. If you think you can then you might, just might, have a flavour of how Haze plays out. But only a flavour.

Director Tsukamoto, who seems to almost enjoy seeing himself abused on screen, plays an unnamed man who wakes to find himself in a tightly confined, concrete-walled space with no idea how he got there. Sudden he is dragged backwards by an unseen force, cutting his head on a sharp spike as he does so. Coming to rest in the dark of his surroundings, he discovers that he has a serious puncture wound in his stomach and tries to comprehend where he is and how he got there. Unwilling to just lay down and die, he begins crawling along the narrow space ahead of him, avoiding potentially fatal injury from sharpened spikes and a hammer that flies out of the wall. Eventually he stumbles upon a mass of dismembered human limbs, but lying amongst them is a girl (Fujii Kaori, who played Tsukamoto's rebellious wife in Tokyo Fist), alive but also with a similar stomach wound and determined to escape their deadly confinement.

A director who has worked exclusively on film and at feature length (the exception being his contribution to the multi-story, multi-director Female/Fîmeru, also made in 2005), Tsukamoto makes two departures from the norm with Haze, which is just 49 minutes long and is shot on digital video. On top of that, the 49-minute version is actually expanded from the 23-minute original, one of three digital shorts made for the Jeonju Film Festival in Korea (the other two were from Korea and Thailand). The 49-minute cut is known as The Long Version, and this is the one that has been released on DVD in the UK by new label Terra.

The short film format lends itself to cinematic and intellectual experimentation, precisely because it is (usually) freed of the pressures of audience expectation and commercial return that handcuff the majority of even independent features. Not that this seems to have bothered Tsukamoto much in the past – his films have almost always had strong narrative structures, but storytelling and experimentation have often gone hand-in-hand to sometimes thrilling effect. The explosive hyperactivity that characterised his early works – from the 1988 Tetsuo through to 1998's Bullet Ballet – was toned down in the gentler pace of more recent works such as Gemini and Vital, and some have taken this as indicative of a director who has reached middle age and is moving away from the experimental and towards a more character-oriented approach to cinematic storytelling. In the respect Haze is a handy reminder that lurking beneath this recent surface calm, one of modern cinema's most exciting and visionary individualists is still chomping furiously at the bit.

Like Saw, Haze opens with its central character regaining consciousness in a dark, decaying location, unsure of his whereabouts or how he arrived there. Unlike Saw, Haze never provides any clear explanations, being less interested in plot twists than in creating a sense of suffocating claustrophobia and lurking evil. Where James Wan focussed on story, Tsukamoto deals almost exclusively in suggestion and metaphor, but in the process creates the very atmosphere of dark dread that Wan's film promised but ultimately lacked.

On first trying to reason out what has happened, Tsukamoto's character speculates on the possible reasons for his abduction and imprisonment in a verbalisation of thoughts that the film does not really need, but which does offer a window into the fears of the character and perhaps Tsukamoto himself. Is he there because an expected but undefined war has finally broken out? Or has he perhaps been grabbed by a religious cult? Most fanciful of all, he wonders if he has been imprisoned for the amusement of 'a rich pervert', an idea he later dismisses following his fruitless exploration of his constrictive, maze-like surroundings. Who, he reasons, would go to such trouble? During his exploration he experiences what could be a vision or a fragmented memory, a disjointed assault of brief images whose brightness contrasts violently with the gloom of his surroundings and whose content is only glimpsed but is increasingly disturbing, as physical pleasure gives way to bodily dismemberment on a horrific scale. Is this a vision of what lies ahead in the maze or a recollection of some appalling deed in which he was involved? This leads to a suggestion that this is no rich pervert's game, but Hell itself, and one tailored to the man's own specific terrors.

Despite the semi-abstract elements, there is a real narrative structure here and the story does have a conclusion, though if you are expecting clear and straightforward answers then you're likely to be left banging your head against the wall. Tsukamoto paints a picture on glass then shatters and reassembles it, but leaves key pieces on the floor and invites us to complete the image ourselves and it's likely that there will be some variation of opinion as to the true meaning or shape of that original image. Although this will re-open the old argument about whether something is open to interpretation or wilfully unclear, the journey is, as ever with Tsukamoto, one that thrills the eyes and ears and electrifies the imagination. It stands as an object lesson in just what you can do on DV with two actors, a limited set and 49 minutes of screen time.

sound and vision

It seems almost typical of Tsukamoto, who often preferred to shoot on 16mm rather than the standard 35mm, that for his first digital venture he would select not high definition but the considerably cheaper domestic mini-DV format. That said, Haze was shot on a Panasonic AG-DVX100A, a camera capable of producing top class images with an almost film-like look. Digital video imposes its own restrictions on the contrast ratio and Tsukamoto has pushed things a bit further by shooting the majority of the film in low light, highlighting only small portions of his subject and in places lowering the exposure to almost Lost Highway levels. For this to work on DVD, and for the detail in the darker areas to be clearly seen, the transfer needs to be close to pristine. It isn't. Not by a bloody mile. Although an NTSC to PAL conversion is inevitable given the film's NTSC DV origins, the image has really suffered in the process, with the blurring of fast movement (of which there is quite a bit) and a virtual decimation of shadow detail. The effect on the film is close to disastrous, losing crucial information in the gloom and making some sequences genuinely hard to follow – the spikes shown so clearly threatening Tsukamoto's head on the DVD cover are barely visible at all in the film itself, effectively nullifying the considerable tension this scene is designed to generate. The picture is framed 16:9 and anamorphically enhanced.

The Dolby 2.0 stereo track is clear enough, but Tsukamoto's unsettling use of sound and Chi Ishikawa's music cry out for 5.1.

The subtitles are clear, but not always completely accurate, the odd 'fuck' added where there is none in the dialogue, for instance.

extra features

Better news here. First up we have The Making of Haze (23:55), an informative behind-the-scenes DV featurette that covers pretty much all stages of the production. The low budget nature of the enterprise is clear, as is Tsukamoto's notoriously hand-on approach to every aspect – can you imagine Steven Spielberg helping to build and paint the sets for his films? This is a Japanese featurette subtitled in English. Most, though not all of the dialogue is translated, and the subtitles occasionally sit a little messily over the original featurette titles.

The Interview with Director Shinya Tsukamoto (19:36) was conducted at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland and is intercut with touristy footage of Tsukamoto and Fujii wandering around the resort. The sound is a bit tinny and the film extracts are even darker than on the feature, but the content is always interesting, from Tsukamoto's delight with the digital format (he was able to work faster and edit on Final Cut Pro on his PowerBook) to his revelation that the main inspiration for the film was the scene in The Great Escape where a claustrophobic Charles Bronson get trapped under earth while digging an escape tunnel. Once again, not everything is translated, one short subtitle sitting over about three sentences of talk. This framing is 16:9 non-anamorphic, but don't zoom in as the subtitles run into the black border area.

Kaori Fujii at the Locarno Film Festival (17:01) is a continuation of the above, complete with tinny sound and a lack of subtitles on some dialogue, including some interesting banter between Tsukamoto and Fujii when they visit a mountaintop church.

Trailer 1 (1:15) is the original trailer for the long version and is anamorphic, though dark and lacking detail.

Trailer 2 (2:25) is a longer version of the above and just as dark.

The Shinya Tsukamoto filmography and the Kaori Fujii filmography are just what they claim to be.

Finally there is a promo for one of Terra's other releases, the nicely titled Suicide Manual: Intermediate Level.

summary

OK, as a diehard Shinya Tsukamoto fan I've been looking forward to Haze since I first heard about it and it did not disappoint, which is more than can be said for the DVD. Great film, a good set of features, but that transfer really buggers the film up, robbing it of detail and making it hard to actually work out what is going on in some scenes. It makes me want to weep. The extras are pretty bloody good but have also been converted from NTSC so look pretty grubby in places, though the content still shines through. The package as a whole looks very much like it's been converted over from a Japanese DVD that I have so far been unable to track down – one with a spot-on transfer and both cuts of the film would be worth foregoing the subtitles for. So the film comes highly recommended, but despite the extra features I simply can't say the same for the DVD.



The Japanese convention of surname first has been used for all Japanese names.
Haze

Japan 2005
49 mins
director
Tsukamoto Sinya
starring .
Tsukamoto Shinya
Fujii Kaori

DVD details
region 0
video
16:9 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
The Making of Haze featurette
Interview with director
Fujii Kaori featurette
Trailers
Filmographies
distributor
Terra
release date
Out now
review posted
4 June 2006