Tape Number 31Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/19/06 12:06:44
SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: I liked "The Blair Witch Project" quite a bit, even after the inevitable backlash. This film is cut from the same cloth, with a predominately Chinese crew shooting a documentary for the Discovery Channel about "wild men" in rural China, only to find themselves running afoul of the mysterious, never-fully-glimpsed creatures. It's got all the same faults as "Blair Witch" - stop filming yourselves, especially when you should be running! - but also the same sort of downright effective final act.The film opens with a shot of a man turning a camera on, polishing it, and then jumping off a cliff while letting the camera run down. So, how'd he get there? We flash back several weeks, when a 22-year-old filmmaker by the name of Helen is recruiting a crew for a cryptozoology documentary about the so-called "wild men" of rural China. She recruits two cameramen, Dou Yan and Zachary (the sole member of the group who's not ethnically Chinese); two sound operators, Yin Jie and Liu Yuen Yuen, and an archaeologist, Dr. Xia. They leave Shanghai, interview people who claim to have encountered the wild men (and receive conflicting descriptions), and recruit a native guide, Zhou Li Jun. They climb to an isolated plateau, where they find strange symbols carved into trees, and, one morning, into the ground around their tents. Members of the crew want to leave, but Helen's convinced they need to stay to make the trip worthwhile.
It's a familiar template if you've seen The Blair Witch Project, which is both good and bad. There's really not a whole lot cooler than having something nifty and unexpected appear at the edge of the frame so that the alert viewer can seize onto it a second before the characters to, and that's an effect that often seems contrived in a conventional narrative film. The trouble is that in order for that moment to arrive unannounced, the film has to first establish a certain baseline. That process is what's really tricky, since logically the camera would only be turned on when the filmmakers have some sort of expectation of something interesting happening. Too often, the first chunk of this film is either things that are rather dull or just wouldn't seem likely to be taped.
As much as behind-the-scenes footage is more of a consideration these days, you've only got so much tape out there in the back of beyond; how much are you going to use it to film yourselves? As much as the handheld cameras and the unpretentious dialogue give a sense of realism, just the very fact that you're seeing the shots in question is a little artificial. The inclusion of an expert character like Dr. Xia gives the characters reason to turn the camera on and deliver some exposition, and I'll buy that when a strange sound wakes people up in the middle of the night, a documentary cameraperson's first instinct is to break out his equipment and turn it on, but is that instinct still there when there's an argument going on within the crew? That seems a little less likely.
Still, you need something like this to have a bit of familiarity built up for the last act when things inevitably start going all to hell. Because for all the doubts I might have harbored while watching, the film's style still got me into a documentary-watching mode, and when people start disappearing or suffering grisly deaths, it's still jolting; the characters do achieve a certain amount of familiarity and sincerity so that seeing this guy you feel you know a little get wiped out feels kind of shocking. Especially since, for the most part, the film saves the carnage for the last act - it would not do for the audience to get too used to violent death and have time to get back into the fictional mindset.
I'd like to be able to talk about N31° Tape without mentioning Blair Witch, but that's difficult; The Blair Witch Project may not have been the first film of this kind, but it did create the template. In many ways, this film is a good refinement - the equipment is better, as is the scenery, so some of the daytime shots are really quite striking. Having an expert along and symbols which seem to merit study lets the filmmakers (fictional Helen and real-world Agan) fill time with something other than completely aimless wandering. The decision to make the wild men unfilmable is a little contrived, but the budget for a really convincing monster probably wasn't there. This probably ties in with the film's biggest misstep, which is to try to provide explanations and have the crew affected in a quasi-mystical way. The explanations really don't make a whole lot of sense, and the film loses a bit of its mooring.The last act is still suitably hair-raising, even if it is something of a foregone conclusion from the film's opening and premise. Eventually, someone will figure out how to make this sort of film feel genuine from start to finish and leave the outcome in doubt; it just won't be with this attempt.
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