"He needs a doctor."
"No, he needs a tattoo!"
And with that comes the chuckles when the latter line is uttered by Singaporean actor Gerald Chew. The Tattooist is the second New Zealand horror movie to hit our screens here this year (the other being The Ferryman), and this one marks the first Singapore-New Zealand joint venture, with others like Kelvin Tong's Maid sequel being rumoured to be some collaborative effort of this nature as well.
Starring Jason Behr, who resembled Lorenzo Lamas in his previous big screen movie outing with the Skinwalkers, he ditches the long hair and beard for a closer crop, and takes on the titular role as a tattooist who is in Singapore for a Tattoo Exposition, held at the Capitol area. Locals will know that no such area exists (Capitol is just waiting to be refurbished/demolished), and the first 20 minutes of this movie actually had a very sexy vibe to how night time Singapore is portrayed, with its beautiful skyline, and many shots that would have made the Singapore Tourism Board give it its stamp of approval.
Some believe that tattoos give its wearer some mystical properties, as explained in movies like Spider Lilies, and perhaps that's why more than often the creatures drawn on people include fierce ones like tigers and mythical ones like phoenixes and dragons. Rarely, or never at all, do you see a pussy cat, or a rat (if you do, let me know!). Behr's Jake Sawyer earns a living giving tattoos that he hawks as tattoos that can "heal", although being a disbeliever of such prowess, and at the Expo, gets his interest piqued by the Samoan tradition of the art.
OK, so actually he's more interested in Sina (Mia Blake), whom he saw at the Expo, and prior to his journey to New Zealand to learn more of Tatau, he had "borrowed" an old tattoo tool, which to the audience, spells trouble - such stuff can only contain curses, spirits and what-have-yous. And when blessed accidentally with fresh blood from Sawyer's palm, it seems that Sawyer's customers thereafter become victims of strange deaths, spewing tattoo ink and experiencing death by tattoo art. Nonetheless it's up to Sawyer to find out the root cause in a race against time, especially when his lady love is also put at risk.
To add some depth and contribute to the reasons necessary for things that go bump, the theme of shame is examined in the rituals of the Samoan people, which is similar to the value of "face" to the Chinese. Things that bring dishonor to the family is widely frowned upon, and this discrimination brings about unhealthy relationships, especially amongst blood relations. Ultimately, it boils down to interpretation, and the selfishness of man to preserve what is deemed socially acceptable, and the measures taken to preserve mindsets and individual honor.
Director Peter Burger doesn't deliver an outright horror movie, but it seemed more along the lines of a mystery thriller. You don't get the usual tricks like shadowy figures, creaky doors, sudden slamming of furniture, bellowing winds or musical crescendos. In fact, you don't get much of that at all, only the occasional figure seen in a reflective surface, and even then done so low key, it surprisingly doesn't even raise a goosebump. The way the narrative played out was in the vein of horror movies like Shutter, but without the unexpectedly frightening bits. It was as if the movie was in self-censorship mode, reeling back from full gory details, choosing to let the mind imagine what horrible fates have befallen the unfortunate victims.
And speaking of censorship, I booed at the badly butchered sex scene. Instead of bowing to box office pressure of an NC16 release, I thought the distributors could have submitted it for a higher rating, thus keeping the movie intact for its inaugural Sin-NZ production, but sorry. The movie boasted excellent production values, so it was a pity to have the experience marred by a bad cut. There were some off-moments in the movie, like the kid-medium and his homies, but taken as a whole, The Tattooist is a surprisingly entertaining mystery thriller that will probably pave the way for more quality (hopefully) collaborations to come.