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St John's Wort
cast: Megumi Okina, Yoichiro Saito, Koji Ogura, Reiko Matsuo, and Minoru

director: Shimoyama Ten

85 minutes (15) 2001 widescreen ratio 16:9
Eastern Cult Cinema DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Peter Schilling
As with Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, this genre chiller from Japan arrives on DVD with an appealing cult reputation and derives considerable arty impact by means of its intriguing visual and narrative style. 'St John's wort' aka: hypericum, is a yellow flowered plant named after Saint John the Baptist. Its medicinal extract is used to treat depression, it's supposed to ward of evil spirits and, as we're told in this film, in traditional poetry it means 'revenge'. (Make a note of that, it'll come in handy later.)
   Art student Nami (Megumi Okina) and ex-boyfriend Kohei (Yoichiro Saito) are designers of computer games. When 'orphan' Nami inherits her reclusive father's mansion (a dusty, spooky place, it looks perfect for a picture dictionary definition of 'haunted house'), techie Kohei accompanies her for a 'going home' journey to the supposedly empty property, where ghastly horror paintings adorn every wall and a palpable sense of doom quickly descends upon Nami's tour of the premises. The eerie tune of a music box, a collection of 'antique' dolls, a hidden trapdoor, a photo suggesting that Nami had a twin sister, and her father's artist's studio with its unfinished masterpiece, are among the discoveries generating apprehension - but this turns to horror when the mummified bodies of children are found, and a newly hanged man in the kitchen sparks the couple's imaginations. When escape proves impossible, Nami becomes determined to uncover the secrets of her past...
   St John's Wort (aka: Otogiriso) is shot on digital with lurid false colour evoking the unreality of video arcade imagery. The film's narrative mimics the interactive format of mystery games with vital dialogues being typed into animated boxes or menus. Freeze frames indicate items of significance, black and white CCTV views of the house interiors create suspense when a silhouetted figure appears in front of split-screen security monitors, childhood dream flashbacks reiterate plot clues like strobe-lit action replays and, back at the game designers' workshop, 3D maps of the house are formatted using footage downloaded from Kohei's handy camera. This last bit is a good example of the clever sleuthing methods perfectly suited to the film's cyber geek era, and keys to locked rooms recall the acquisition of items required to play PC 'detective' puzzlers. There's even a choice of endings for the film, with one of poetic tragedy and another inviting a sequel.
   Mcguffin apart, gimmicks aside, St John's Wort is still a challenging, scary and brilliantly terrifying genre movie. The heroine is subjected to a vividly frantic variation of Psycho's famed shower scene. Nightmares about Nami's father Soichi are rendered on screen like illustrations from an aged book of dark fantasy fairy tales. Who is Naomi, and what's she got planned for Nami? Will Kohei figure out the truth in time to save her, or himself? Forget the clumsy British failure of My Little Eye, and the unrelenting tedium of Blair Witch Project, this is the foremost exploiter of new media we have yet seen.
   Despite its dependence on genre conventions, the director's latest film, a sci-fi kung fu movie called Muscle Heat (2002), still sounds promising. Let's hope that Eastern Cult Cinema will pick up this one for UK distribution, too!
   DVD extras are limited to text-only filmographies and biographies.

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