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Exte: Hair Extensions
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by Jay Seaver

"Be careful what you put in your hair."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: An acquaintance of mine occasionally uses the term "hair horror" to refer to the likes of "The Ring", "A Tale of Two Sisters", and "Ju-on: The Grudge", which lean pretty hard on the visual of pale ghost girls with long black hair. I don't know how widespread the term is, but Sion Sono has a deliciously literal take on it: "Exte" works equally well as straight horror and dark parody, oftentimes so well that I sort of pity the next people who try to use that image.

The film opens with port security opening a shipping container filled with hair to be used for extensions, only to find the mutilated body of a young woman. Things get stranger when morgue attendant Gunji Yamazaki (Ren Osugi) steals the body and finds that her hair continues to grow, not just from her head, but from her wounds, her eye sockets, her mouth... Elsewhere in the city, Yuko Mizushima (Chiaki Kuriyama), an apprentice hairdresser at the Gilles de Rais hair salon, winds up looking after her niece Mami (Miku Sato) after sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi) drops the child off without warning. It's inconvenient, as Yuko has a big demonstration coming up, but more worrisome is that Gunji is going to local salons with free samples of his hair extensions, cut from the unidentified body and disturbingly active.

Sono and co-writer Masaki Adachi (who has worked on a number of films that Exte arguably satirizes) bring a lot of sly humor to the tale. Take the hilariously expository dialog from Yuko, her roommate Yuki (Megumi Sato), and another hairdresser during the first act; it's pointedly artificial, but not badly acted. We later find out these girls are mocking the silly dialog of a television drama they saw a couple weeks earlier, but that's after Sono has used it to bring us up to speed on the characters' background and gotten a few good laughs, setting up a breezy atmosphere that he'll later undermine. The hair salon is named after a notorious serial killer, but folks come because the French name sounds classy. And, of course, there's the evil hair.

Evil hair extensions kill in the nasty ways you might expect - strangulation, jumping inside the head via the ear, grabbing onto various surfaces and pulling (yuck!). We're also treated to hair that bleeds, hair that grows from spots where it really ought not - hair that spews forth from the mouth is right up there with hair growing out of the eyeball in terms of being nasty. Hair is unnerving when it's growing too fast or retracting, and enough to fill a room or a shipping container registers as "too much" to the brain, especially when it doesn't look particularly clean. A character speculates that "all her anger... went into her hair".

That sort of thing could be played entirely for laughs, and there are some slapstick elements, but Sono isn't content to leave things goofy. The hair means business, and even when Sono opts not to show much blood or mayhem, the victims' fates are pretty nasty. The music frequent collaborator Tomoki Hasegawa provides during the kill scenes is genuinely nerve-wracking, twisting "Silent Night" into an omen of death, and there's nothing funny about the distorted flashbacks we see from the dead body, including torture and organ harvesting. There is, in fact, a lot of anger to go into her hair. Even an audience desensitized enough to fantasy violence to just laugh at what's going on will probably be a little put off by Kiyomi's child abuse, and the nasty way she keeps Yuko from trying to claim the moral high ground. For all that many scenes in this film can be seen as horror-movie parody, it's got its share of genuine horror, too.

For instance, Tsugumi's Kiyomi really is a monster, a drunken and unfit mother who practiced being a bitch on her little sister before she had a daughter of her own. Young Miku Sato has Mami constantly cowering around her; it's a strong yet sad performance as Sato shows Mami having a hard time learning to trust any adults. There's a genuine feeling of dysfunction in the Mizushima family, although Yuko is clearly trying her best.

Those who have only seen Chiaki Kuriyama in Kill Bill might be taken aback by the pleasant, bubbly young woman she plays here; Yuko is quirkily dedicated to the art of cutting hair and funny besides. She's got a believably awkward initial relationship with Mami, but we do buy how close they become, which is why we totally buy it when Yuko realizes that, oh my god, the haircut I gave my niece could kill her! On the other end of the scale, Ren Osugi is almost indescribable as Gunji; the hair-obsessed man is clearly nuts, and Osugi throws himself into the role with relish. There's not a single scene with him that's not utterly bizarre, but he handles it with a light touch so that the craziness almost seems reasonable.

By the time they're through, it's about time to lay the ghosts with the long black hair to rest for a while - "Exte" has not only done a fine job of sending it up, but is just as effective as going for jumps as it is at going for laughs.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16276&reviewer=371
originally posted: 07/24/07 09:41:12
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2007 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2007 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Sion Sono

Written by
  Sion Sono
  Masaki Adachi

Cast
  Chiaki Kuriyama
  Ren Osugi
  Megumi Sato
  Tsugumi
  Eri Machimoto



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