A tiny, perfect gem that took Japanese audiences by storm based entirely on word of mouth.
Picture ©THIRD WINDOW FILMS
One Cut of the Dead (2017)
Director: Shinichiro Ueda
Screenplay: Shinichiro Ueda
Starring: Takayuki Hamatsu, Harumi Shuhama, Yuzuki Akiyama, Mao
Running time: 95 minutes
A film crew enters an abandoned military test facility to make a zombie film, only to come under attack from actual zombies. The director decides to keep shooting and we are soon treated to an unlikely and hilarious celebration of filmmaking and the bonds of family.
“Laugh-out-loud hilarious and a gleefully heartfelt reminder of why we love movies.”
In 1982, Michael Frayn’s smash hit comedy Noises Off opened in London’s West End. The first of its three acts was a typical British sex farce. The remainder of the play revisits that first act, but from backstage, and we are treated to a riot of clashing egos, petty squabbling, technical disasters and general chaos. The play was a huge hit and is considered by many to be one of the funniest theatre pieces of the 20th century. To that conceit, graft a grade-Z Japanese zombie movie and a heartfelt celebration of resourcefulness and the bonds of family, and you have a rare and joyous thing called One Cut of the Dead.
In Japan the film was a phenomenon. Made by an unknown director (Shinichiro Ueda) with an unknown cast—many non-professionals—One Cut opened in two tiny theatres. Entirely through word of mouth the film took off. Tickets were impossible to get and eventually this “little film that could” found itself at the top of the Japanese box office.
The first 35 minutes present us with the final product: a marginally entertaining zombie flick, amazingly shot entirely in one long, single take. A film crew enters an abandoned military test facility to make a zombie film, only to come under attack from actual zombies. The director decides to keep shooting the requisite blood-soaked mayhem ensues. It is an amateurish slice of undead pandemonium punctuated by all manner of technical flubs, stilted dialogue and general randomness culminating in a triumphant crane shot of the heroine standing in a bloody pentagram, raising her gory axe. The final credits roll and then the film begins in earnest.
We find ourselves one month earlier as sad-sack karaoke director Higurashi (his motto: “I’m fast, cheap, but average”) is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance: the near-impossible task of making a live-to-air zombie movie in a single cut. Returning home, we meet his distracted ex-actress wife and rebellious film school daughter. We also meet his crew, which includes a pop singer-turned-actress and a pompous lead actor convinced he is too good for the material. Family and professional relations are strained and deteriorate as the broadcast date approaches but Higurashi soldiers on, driven by mild ambition and a kind of panicked inertia.
The film’s final section presents the actual filming of the movie we saw in Act 1 and it is an ingeniously constructed symphony of clockwork hilarity and chaos: actors and chew arrive blackout drunk or suffering from explosive diarrhea, last-second cast changes must be made and a vital piece of equipment is catastrophically damaged mid-shoot. Ueda defines his characters nicely and economically in the second act and the repetition on the first injects the final mayhem with a clear spatial coherence. It is an exhilarating and sophisticated piece of cinema brilliantly dressed up as shoddy DIY.
One Cut of the Dead is laugh-out-loud hilarious and a gleefully heartfelt reminder of why we love movies and the resourceful spirit of low-budget filmmaking. At the most recent Toronto Japanese Film Festival, two visiting A-list directors asked us if we had seen the film and recommended it highly. We echo that recommendation. Be prepared to leave the theatre with a big goofy grin on your face.
One Cut of the Dead screens at the JCCC as a co-presentation of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival and the Toronto Japanese Film Festival on November 15.