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The Tattooist
cast: Jason Behr, Mia Blake, Nathaniel Lees, Robbie Magasiva, and David Fane

director: Peter Burger

87 minutes (18) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail
[released 26 January]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Barbara Davies
If the sick believe a tattoo will heal them, who is American tattoo artist Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr) to tell them otherwise? Jake is plying his trade at a tattoo expo in Singapore when he spots the beautiful Sina (Mia Blake) and follows her. Sina's cousin, Alipati (Robbie Magasiva), is a Samoan tattooist from Auckland, with values and methods very different from the cynical Jake. Samoan tattoos are a rite of passage, the designs part of their tradition. On impulse, Jake steals one of Alipati's implements and accidentally cuts his palm with it.

Unaware that his action has unleashed a vengeful spirit, and that all the tattoos he gives from now on will prove fatal, Jake pursues Sina to Auckland, starts a relationship with her, and accedes to her request for a tattoo. So begins a race to save Sina from the bloody end rapidly overtaking all of Jake's other unfortunate clients. Can Jake discover the root of the curse and lift it? Why is Sina's god-fearing uncle (David Fane), once a great tattooist himself, being so obstructive? And what part does angry, shame-ridden recluse, Mr Perenese (Nathaniel Lees), play in these events?

If you weren't already averse to tattoos, The Tattooist could put you off having one for life. Blood and ink flow like water in this grungy, hygiene-compromised world, and there are some wonderfully gory moments, such as when the team of baffled medics are desperately trying to cope with invisible forces. I don't normally like horror films, but this one isn't really all that scary, though the spooky tap-tap-tapping of Samoan tattooing implements and glimpses of something horrid caught only in mirrors ratchet up the tension. The plot of this supernatural thriller is patchy - Jake's reasons for following Sina and stealing the implement must lie on the cutting room floor - but underpinning it is a thoughtful exploration of relationships between fathers and sons, the righting of old wrongs, and the role of tradition and shame in society. And if the idea of Jake's tattooing of Sina segueing into tender lovemaking is difficult to swallow, director Peter Burger's use of the haunting I Will Not Let You Down (a song used to different effect in another recent Kiwi film, Out Of The Blue) successfully sells it.

Presumably box office considerations dictated Behr's involvement, but relying on an American outsider, however handsome, to solve a Kiwi-based Samoan community's problems runs the risk of being patronising. Luckily, Behr (The Grudge remake) manages to engage our sympathy for Jake, despite his character's dubious morals. But Mia Blake is wasted as his love interest, and rather overshadowed by Caroline Cheong's predatory Victoria, who seizes every opportunity to chew the scenery. Nathaniel Lees gives a subtle performance as the tormented Mr Perenese, and Kiwi stalwart Michael Hurst is enjoyably OTT as Jake's bald cockney mentor Crash, but the award for bluster and sheer physical presence must go to David Fane as Sina's bellicose uncle. As for the real star of The Tattooist, it's the tattoos themselves - kudos to the designers, makeup, and special effects' teams for some very creepy visuals!

DVD extras: Evil In Ink, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and some deleted scenes.

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