Films about fatal encounters with inhabitants of forest depths or mountain fastnesses have long been horror staples in Japan. One early example is Morihei Magatani’s 1959 shocker “The Bloody Sword of the 99th Virgin,” in which “primitive” mountain villagers sacrifice virgins in a completely fictitious ritual.
For his latest feature, “Yellow Dragon’s Village,” 25-year-old director Yugo Sakamoto came up with a fresh twist on this classic horror scenario that garnered invitations from film festivals in Austin, Texas, and San Sebastian, Spain. Based on his own original script, it begins as a localized variant of all those 1980s slasher movies in which obnoxious young adults get their bloody comeuppance.
A group of eight college-age kids drives into the countryside for a day of fun and a night of what promises to be erotic frolics, at least for the two girls and two guys whooping it up as their minivan drives deeper into the mountains. Two muscular guys sitting in the back — Kento (Masayuki Inou) and Keisaku (Jingi Umemoto) — are quieter, as are the weak-seeming Mutsuo (Kenta Osaka) and his sister Makoto (Shioka Ishizuka).
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||66 mins.|
Their van gets a flat tire and, when they search online for help, they realize their phones can’t pick up a signal. Crossing a rickety bridge over a deep ravine (always a bad move in this sort of film) they see a sign for the village of Tatsukiri — and a creepy scarecrow with a knife in its head. (“Maybe it was left here by a TV crew,” someone opines.) Soon after, they encounter a leathery old man (Ginjiro Okano) on a horse, who introduces himself as Shinjiro and invites them to his house.
There they find a lavish meal already prepared and futons laid out. When Shinjiro, who seems to be a local grandee, invites the group to stay the night, they accept, though something about the setup disturbs them, even the hard-partying quartet. What happened to the previous guests whose jackets are still hanging on the coat rack? Why did Shinjiro and his staff — three strangely robotic women — seem to have anticipated their arrival?
The next morning, they find the answers to these questions: The locals, they learn, worship a god named Obintawara, who must be appeased in a gruesome ritual that incorporates cannibalism. The group’s attendance is mandatory. Can they escape? They must try or else die.
These opening scenes have a dark comedic vibe, but the film does not treat the plight of this octet as a joke. Some seem to have serious reasons for being there. In the film’s fast-paced, high-body-count second half, we find out just how deadly serious they are.
The characters’ martial arts moves may be familiar from countless chop-socky epics, but the actors — all young unknowns — execute them with style, humor and honed fighting skills. And instead of hyping the action with flashy computer graphics and strobe-like short cuts, the film showcases it in lengthy fighting sequences featuring slickly choreographed kicks and punches, delivered with sweaty impact.
If “Yellow Dragon’s Village” were straight-up horror, the story, with its hokey scares derived from a faked folklore, would have quickly become tiresome. But its midway plot shift makes it a far more interesting movie, if still definitely a scrappy indie, not a polished studio production. Whether or not Sakamoto goes on to make the latter, his debut is an ingenious and entertaining start.
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