REVIEW: Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Laughter; One Cut of the Dead

REVIEW: Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Laughter; One Cut of the Dead
Credit: GaragePlay
Why you need to know

The Japanese arthouse zombie movie is a masterclass in comedy timing.

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It’s impossible to spoil this film, mainly because it’s so audacious, even braggadocious, but it adds immensely to the experience if you walk into One Cut of the Dead (Kamera o tomeru na! / カメラを止めるな!) knowing nothing. It may be slow going at first, but trust me, you’ll want to stay to the very end of the credits. Consider yourself forewarned.

The film opens on the set of a no-budget zombie film on location in an abandoned industrial setting. During a break in production, actual zombies arrive on the scene, and for the next half hour, things go crazy and people are reduced to gory messes – all within a single continuous take.

But why is the camera abandoned on the ground for 15 or so seconds in the middle? Why are the credits rolling after only 40 minutes? And did the director on set (Takayuki Hamatsu) just break the fourth wall?

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Credit: GaragePlay
Takayuki Hamatsu (C) delivers a virtuoso central performance as an under pressure hack director.

As it turns out, we just saw the result of an audacious TV pilot: a half-hour-long single-take live-broadcast zombie narrative. The more conventional and somewhat slower second act explains how this came to be, and the third act takes us behind the scenes of the shoot. Then the credits roll, and we get to see a documentary of how they did the first act for real.

As a whole, "One Cut of the Dead" is both a celebration and satire of low-budget genre filmmaking, and the satire wouldn’t have worked without the celebration; even making the satire required a profound love for that particular gonzo style of filmmaking.

It’s also a dazzling illustration of the illusions of cinema, as almost all the gags in the third act revolve around incorporating disruptions and interruptions into the one-shot story. Most of the time such incorporation results in noticeable pacing issues and aimless chase sequences, and so the film is also an experiment in just how much suspension of disbelief can be squeezed out of the audience.

A number of things make "One Cut" an utterly gobsmacking achievement. It’s the debut feature of director Shinichiro Ueda, was shot in eight days on a US$27,000 budget with unknown actors, and gained a decent release solely on the basis of word of mouth.

Ueda wears his director’s hat with supreme confidence and aplomb, not only successfully nailing the long take on location instead of in the studio, but also factoring in the documentary skeleton crew that captures the mayhem in real time. He also excels in the third act, somehow preserving the manic energy of the first act even though cuts and edits are now allowed (Ueda also edited).

The script, also by Ueda, is a tightrope walk: Some of the explanations for tonally weird sequences in the first act were baked into the script, and they’re motivated by character backstories in the second act; but other weird first-act sequences were real mistakes, which the script had to account for in the third act.

Needless to say, cinematographer Takeshi Sone deserves his full due here. One of the running gags is about the fictional cinematographer’s (Tomokazu Yamaguchi) back giving out, and it makes perfect sense given the required stamina. Once it does give out, the young, female assistant cinematographer (Sakina Iwaji) finally gets her chance to shine, and she literally runs off with the camera – she has to, as she’s filming a chase sequence.

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Credit: GaragePlay
Actor Yuzuki Akiyama (R) is perfect in her role as the female lead in the one-shot first act.

Most of the actors deliver outstanding performances, and nobody drops the ball. Especially notable are Yuzuki Akiyama as the sweet and beautiful celebrity actress who plays the lead in the one-shot, where she’s note-perfect as a 20-something girl next door-type; Manabu Hosoi as the cinematographer of the no-budget shoot, a zombie in the one-shot, and a drunk actor in the third act, all of which are convincing performances, if for drastically different reasons; and Takayuki Hamatsu, who plays the director of the no-budget shoot while being the actual director of the one-shot.

But a few compromises place "One Cut" firmly on this side of the genre-arthouse divide. Given the live-broadcast nature of the one-shot and how much improvisation is going on, the music cues (by Kyle Nagai) are frankly impossible. The second act’s character-building is almost entirely for the purpose of making the third act run smoothly, rather than aiming to round out the characters themselves.

And the first act is deconstructed only to give us a traditionally coherent narrative in the third act. But all told, "One Cut" is a mind-boggling achievement that gives us a glimpse of how the sausage is made – a figurative glimpse in the third act, a literal glimpse in the credits documentary. Ueda had to have supreme confidence in the film to drop the audience straight into such an uneven first act. His confidence is utterly justified.

Read Next: INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Valerie Soe on Life Aboard the Taiwan Love Boat

Editor David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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