Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[TIFFCOM 2009 Review] King of Thorn (いばらの王)

Around the Corner of the Eye

Based on the science fiction manga series of the same name, this film had recently made its world premiere at the 42nd Sitges International Film Festival, though my personal interests in the film stemmed from the extremely spectacular trailer available at the official movie website, and that this is a Sunrise production, whose Freedom series I had enjoyed tremendously. If you have any reservations about not having read the manga and worry about not being able to follow the proceedings without much confusion, especially since it's science fiction with its fair share of fictional terminology created, fret not, as this interpretation found balance in inducting new converts, as well as having enough in its ammo to wow those already familiar through its brilliant animated visuals.

Directed by Kazuyoshi Katayama (who helmed Appleseed), the film opens in New York where we witness a suicide, except that the female victim's body disintegrated like concrete hitting the groun from great heights. It is 12 December 2012 which is a date that's getting infamy for its end-of-the-world significance (that films are jumping into the bandwagon), and in this story, it marked the emergency of a global pandemic virus known as Medusa (curiously subtitled as Medousa though, despite the former way of spelling in the trailer, and the direct reference to the powers of the Greek mythological creature), which turns people into stone, for which there is no cure, and fatality stands at 100% after a period of gestation within the human body. The world is now in utter chaos and crisis, marking the genesis of humanity's end.

The solution is simple, and that is to utilize cryogenics to save the lives of some 160 selected people by slowing down the development of the virus within, so that when they awaken in the future, hopefully either mankind has found a cure, or that the virus had lived past its shelf life. Of course there's always a catch here, and that's the Venus Gate corporation that is offering this service, comes with some shady ownership under the directions of a cult-like group. I've got to admit the first thing that came to mind was the equivalent of the Umbrella Corp. from the Resident Evil series, and with the trailer showcasing some monsters and all as well.

But the apprehension doesn't just stop there. The facility housing the 160, known as Noah's Ark, is a high tech, maximum security facility which is totally controlled by a computer system called ALICE, which monitors everything from environmental factors, to the individual's DNA. Well, one's alarm bells may be ringing about not wanting another HAL-related story again, what more with mutated monsters and such, but let me assure you that the end-result is nothing like what you would imagine given knowledge of those reference films. Park them aside, and not let them bother you too much when the main action starts.

And that's with a bang, through the multiple, rapid gunfire of soldiers. Everything's clean and pristine before the cryogenic process began, and the subjects awaken to an environment in disarray, where large stalks of thorny vines pepper the landscape, and if that's not enough, hybrid, blood-lusting monsters who just cannot wait to feast, providing a bloody natural selection into a survival fellowship of 7 who had managed to escape the initial bloodbath – a cop, a kid, a nurse, a tattooed hard man, a senator, an engineer, and the school girl Kasumi, whose point of view we adopt for the most parts in trying to figure out how long they've slept, what exactly is going on, and for herself, what had happened to her twin sister Shizuku, who wasn't amongst the 160 chosen for the project.

Everything gets unravelled in due course which allows you to guess their true intent along the way, especially the motivations and purpose of a select few so key to their present situation, who are not always who they seem to be, so judge a book by its cover at your own peril. We also get to learn more about the virulent disease (and man's perverse ambition of weaponizing everything), and the narrative's pretty impressive to pace the jamming of so much information into the story, without the feeling of it being too overwhelming.

Although there are slight changes from the manga story, these actually do not mar the enjoyment of the refreshed plot (purists will always be purists, so fret not), and I especially liked how the analogy to the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale got tied up so closely with this. If there's a slight complaint, then it's the incessant "waking up" moments that Kasumi experiences, which tends to throw you off course if you're not paying close attention to.

And yes, this film dabbles plenty in the perennial question of what dreams, fantasies and reality really are, and how sometimes through mimicry they all seem to resemble one another at different points. This allows some wildly creative visuals and monster designs set to wow, with action sequences that are high imaginative and fantastical, especially in its building up toward its crescendo, which is nothing stopping short of amazing.

King of Thorn will be released some time in 2010, and for those who can't wait, you can probably pick up the manga, though be warned not to, especially if you want to be surprised when the story addresses everything, which includes all twists and turns.

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