Sion Sono is following what is now a well-traveled career path for Japanese directors: First the indie debut that plays the international festival circuit (“Bicycle Sighs” in 1990), then the cult sensation taken up by the fan boys (“Suicide Club” in 2002), and finally the horror pic that hopefully makes your fortune: “Exte.”

But for Sono, as the release dates for the above films indicate, the journey upward has hardly been quick or smooth. Born in 1961, he is no wunderkind, negotiating his first Hollywood remake deal while the ink on his film-school diploma is still wet.

Instead, he is still struggling to get his films properly made and shown. “Hazard,” his Candide-in-New-York drama, sat in a can for nearly four years before its release late in 2006. “Kikyu Club, Sonogo (Balloon Club, Aftewards),” his bitter-sweet drama about former members of a college balloon club saying goodbye to their youth, played at a late show at one Tokyo theater, ending on Feb. 2. It’s a sensitively directed, if occasionally stagy film, with a stand-out turn by Hiromi Nagasaku as the frustrated lover of the self-absorbed club founder — but Sono’s large cast contains not one real star.

Director Sion Sono
Run Time 108 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Feb. 17, 2007

That is not the case with “Exte,” which features Chiaki Kuriyama, the girl assassin Gogo Yubari of “Kill Bill” fame. Also, “Exte” is opening wide, with Toei, one of the three Japanese majors, as its distributor.

Sono may see “Exte” as a cash cow for his more artistic efforts, but it is still very much a Sono film — that is, brilliant in its shotmaking, quirky in its characterizations and unconventional in its story-telling. Where a studio hack would tick off plot points, Sono experiments with tone and structure.

It’s like the difference between a “revival” band mechanically working its way through a set and an experimental music ensemble that segues from perky show tunes to sinister electronic noise. Those who like their horror straight may find this approach distracting, but I found it engaging, skin-crawling and even thought-provoking. Is Sono sending up the current obsession with hair — or just running creepy/scary riffs on something alternatively celebrated (the glorious manes of Kuriyama and the other female cast members) and loathed (the hair in the soup — or the nose of a corpse)? I vote for both — though Sono himself doesn’t insist on any one interpretation. All he really wants are your screams.

Kuriyama plays Yuko, an apprentice stylist at a high-end hair salon called Gilles De Rais (at least one sign that Sono is not taking this too seriously). She is a bit of a ditz, commenting on her own thoughts and actions in the third-person, but she is also serious about her career. One distraction is her slutty, domineering sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi), who has abused her daughter Mami until the girl is a trembling wreck. Yuko knows that something is wrong, but not how wrong until she take Mami in — and notices the horrific bruises on her body.

Meanwhile, customs agents come across a container stuffed with human hair, to be used for extensions (exte in Japanese-English) — and the body of a young woman with a shaven head. An autopsy reveals that all her internal organs have been removed — possibly harvested for transplant. Then, the morgue’s night watchman, Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), discovers that her hair is still growing, but from the most unlikely orifices. A hair fetishist, he is thrilled to the marrow as he caresses, combs — and harvests — the corpse’s locks.

Soon he is engaged in a new side business — making and selling hair extensions. Made with loving care, his products are a hit — but then their wearers start showing up dead, strangled by their own, unruly hair. As police detectives also learn, to their shock and disgust, this hair has a mind of its own, growing everywhere, like mad.

Then Yamazaki shows up at Yuko’s salon with Mami in tow. Bored at Yuko’s apartment, she went looking for her aunt and got lost. Naturally, Yamazaki was attracted by her hair. Later he comes to the salon again — this time with hair extensions for sale.

Typecast in “tough chick” roles since her success in “Kill Bill,” Kuriyama shows a softer, more human side in “Exte,” while confronting the film’s various horrors — both hairy and sisterly — with commendable resolve. It helps that her own hair is as lustrous as anything in a shampoo ad. Tsugumi’s evil sister may be over the top, but she is also the villain the story needs: vain, long haired and richly deserving of what fate has in store.

Meanwhile, Ren Osugi, the hardest working character actor in Japanese show business, camps it up as the hair-obsessed, drag-wearing Yamazaki. But he is also convincingly creepy as a fetishist — call him the Hannibal Lector of hair.

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