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St. Johnís Wort (Shimoyama Ten) 2002

    Thereís a movie based on Resident Evil coming out next week, and although I havenít seen it yet, I imagine that it doesnít pay homage to its source material nearly as creatively as St. Johnís Wort, a Japanese horror film similarly based on a videogame, does. Harnessing its roots as an opportunity to use digital effects in a manner usually reserved for television commercials and movie trailers, St. Johnís Wort feels like it doesnít realize the boundaries that other films insist exist between media. Usually the dawning of new media is portrayed in films as an oppressive force. I found Kiyoshi Kurosawaís Pulse a total drag because of its insistence that we were all rendered zombies thanks to our advanced gadgetry, and because it had a style to match. St. Johnís Wortís vision of todayís technology is quite the opposite, and its style is ceaselessly inventive. Instead of the botanist teenagers of Pulse, Wortís characters are computer game programmers. Their know-how and cyber-connectedness are save them several times after they enter the haunted mansion that the film takes place in. It empowers them to recreate their world in a digital version that can be manipulated however they want, and the wealth of information available to them at any moment, enabling them to solve the mysteries of the house, is mind-boggling.

    Beyond the most obvious ways that the filmís techno-obsessions filter into the movie, it seems as if the entire filmmaking process has benefited from technological advances. The script seems to revel in the simplicity of its own plot, which has presumably been borrowed from the source videogame. Several expositional scenes are played out not with actors, but instead with text boxes and silhouette portraits of the characters, as we would see in an adventure game. Some of the sets are quite obviously computer generated, too colorful to be taken seriously, adding to the feeling that reality itself might not be as we perceive it. The exploration of the mansion, in homage to The Blair Witch Project, mainly takes place in the first person perspective, adding to the feel that weíre participants in the story. These scenes are interrupted by images taken from fixed surveillance cameras scattered throughout the estate, and when one of those images is rewound and zoomed, the movie is sophisticatedly telling us that they arenít alone in the house. Itís the use of perspective, not necessarily the shocking source material, is what provided the greatest jolts for me. When a characterís eyes are getting gouged out, the audience sees the knife coming at it in a first person perspective, and it feels as if weíre under assault ourselves.

    The editing in St. Johnís Wort seems to have been freed from normal conventions, and the film is sped up, looped, and otherwise minced with regularity. The boring parts of the action are judiciously excised, resulting in a tight, unsettling work. The plot may be simple here, and the acting over the top, but that will strike someone thatís played a few video games as utterly beside the point, especially since the scares deliver, and the mood is consistent. Hollywood is consistently taking flak for its inability (or perhaps willingness) to convert popular videogames to the big screen. St. Johnís Wort seems to suggest an answer in which the workís roots are not denied, but somehow the cinematic energy of the film is not diminished at all. Unlike those who made Tomb Raider or Mortal Kombat, Shimoyama Ten realizes that videogames are allowed to coast by with their diminished plots because they provide a barrage of exciting images, and the feeling that weíre involved with, or impacting the storyís outcome. Letís hope that future film conversions from games follow St. Johnís Wortís lead. 

***1/2

03-09-02

Jeremy Heilman