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Exte: Hair Extensions (2007)
Director: Sion Sono

review by Paul Higson

"My nose hair is out of control lately," is the first line in Sion Sono's Exte: Hair Extensions (original title: Ekusute), the new Japanese comedy-horror film. The opening scene continues with the dock supervisor proceeding to investigate a reeking container, one of a cul-de-sac of shipping containers carrying nothing but human hair imported for the making of hair extensions. The sequence superbly establishes the tone of the film to come, that difficult mix of shrieks hilarious and shrieks horrific which Exte accomplishes so remarkably. The history of the comedy-horror film is all hung-shouldered with disappointment and some degree of shame. There are plenty of horrors which make one smile (The Evil Dead, An American Werewolf In London, Christmas Evil, and more recently Satan's Little Helper) but a more applicable label for those flicks is the 'fun horror' or 'comic horror' as opposed to funny or comical or comedic. The intention with many fun horrors may well be to make viewers scream in between the laughs but in their failure to do that they are successful in that easier accidental target of eliciting smiles between jolts. The comedy can cancel out the horror, and the horror can cancel out the comedy making the comedy-horror a gambit too prone to disaster.

When a film does succeed it can be for one of a number of reasons. Appreciants of The Day The Earth Caught Fire would rightly deplore and refute the comedy-horror label, and it isn't one, but it is a film that succeeds in both horrifying and amusing the viewer. It does this by taking a frightening concept and running it through with sparkling, natural, intelligent dialogue delivered by comic realistic characters. It never loses its vitality, which is particularly apt given the apocalyptic threat. Film characters here are liveliest when under threat of extinction. A comedy-horror might be effective because of its speed, the brain quick enough to separate the shocks from the jokes but not quick enough to realise how unfunny it really is, or it might be because the funny and the horrifice has been compartmentalised in broad units. So does Exte fit any of these or is it another model. It might yet fit the format of the horror comedy that is not as funny as it is quick, though I have returned to several scenes and rediscovered forgotten amusements, even outright laughs, and sometimes they merge as the nervous shrieks come as a result of the most preposterous of horrors.

Exte is all the more humorous coming as it does after 50 years of fixation in Japanese cinema with longhaired supernatural horrors, beginning with The Ghosts Of Kasane Swamp in 1957. Clearly the history of the longhaired ghost runs back further in Japanese culture but it has become a particular obsession of late in the J-horror and recently saw that fascination jump into the absurd in Ju-on 2, a dismal sequel to the effective original. In Ju-on 2, a wig comes to life and terrorises one victim. This premise was extended to feature-length for The Wig, and Exte takes the theme further still, with a lacerating wit. The opening sequence is eerie, strange and funny though there arise early whimsical concerns. For example, the young hairdresser Yuko Mizushima (Chiaki Kuriyama) and her flatmate, a dancer, Yuki Morita (Megumi Sato), introduce themselves in a second- and third-person conceit that would make Sight & Sound reviewers weep trying to work out if it was diegetic or non-diegetic. The annoying gimmick is thankfully deserted once the opening titles are run. Yuko is a trainee hairdresser who grew up under a regime of abuse undertaken by her monstrous half-sister, Kiyomi, who will interfere with her life again, depositing her daughter, Mami (Miku Sato), on the flatmates' doorstep. Mami is a tremulous child, not only subject to her mother's abuse but born into it, she is tot and slave, fearful of committing the slightest wrong for fear of kicks and blows, though her obedience is futile as the smallest reason is used for cruelty. The child is adorable and heartbreaking, adding another emotional punch to the brew.

When Kiyomi returns, though she is not the murderous, supernatural horror at the centre of this tale, she takes only seconds to establish herself as an astonishing human counterpart, and a figure of hatred that outstrips the outré monster. It is a performance from Tsugumi so intrinsically cruel, an endless steady trickle of evil little actions and words that I am concerned for the actresses' safety. I got intensely angry and some less cogent minded might follow her into real life with a belief that she is that terrible a person. Even in death the character's last words are a caustic rebuke to her daughter: "No peeking idiot!" Some might read into that a single, protective, repentant note... but it is not.

The body found amongst the hair in the container is stolen (by a mortuary attendant with a hair fetish) and the corpse's supernatural rage manifests itself in extra growth of hair, from an empty eye socket, from the mouth and from stab wounds. The highly peculiar Mr Yamazaki (Ren Osugi) has been earning a little extra on the sly by taking hair from the beautiful young dead cadavers and selling it to local hairdressers and beauticians as hair extensions. The extensions from the stolen corpse have wild and deadly consequences for those who come into contact with them. Those phobic of hair will have plenty to squeal about as hair appears in and around eyeballs, slides under skin, out of scabs and wounds, suddenly coats tongues, is vomited from mouths, strangles, and cuts, but even spills out of fax machines and whips and slashes people and furnishings. Hair is everywhere and its texture en masse can be unsettling. The dry rustling that accompanies the thrashing and rolling tresses does not help. There are other horrors that take you to the edge of your seat, like that pair of scissors tentatively held by the hairdresser no longer in control of her hand, hovering on either side of a lobe.

Though the script displays great imagination and thought the biggest laughs come not from adept comedy writing but out of the absurd design and imagery. There are good lines, like the opening salvo mentioned at the top of the review, but it is the insane visuals that provide those twin responses of horror and laughter. You will thrash with a need to escape some of these horrors as the film builds to a bizarre, ludicrous showdown. Some of the gags are just weird and awful: the hairdressers in which most of the girls (and the fey young man) work is called the Gilles de Rais Salon! Do they do a sideline in supervised self-flagellation with hair? Why so named?

The image quality on this preview disc is pale and washed out particularly noticeable in exterior day shots. The film is busy enough to distract from the inferior image.
Exte

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