When it comes to genre films, the independent world is kind of like the Special Olympics: At the end of the day, everyone gets an ‘A+ for effort.’ Whether you’re dealing with a backyard Alabama zombie movie or last year’s nationwide hit Saw, indie filmmakers give the same tired excuses for their amateurish products: “We didn’t have enough money/time/resources.” More times than not, this actually works.
Luckily, every now and then we get a genuinely talented breakout filmmaker who rises above the clichés, not with money but with skill and imagination. This can easily be said of Hiroki Yamaguchi, writer/director of the The Bottled Fools, a film I was lucky enough to catch at Fantasia last year, where it became the surprise hit of the festival. The 26-year-old filmmaker was in attendance and talked in depth about the making – without breathing a single stock excuse. Likewise, you won’t find mention of the film’s low budget “handicaps” anywhere on the DVD, which Media Blasters has issued under the mind-numbingly idiotic title Hellevator.
[Note: In order to spite Media Blasters’ own “bottled fools” (i.e., the marketing department), I will now only refer to this film by its original title. Thank you.]
In an underground dystopian megalopolis, schoolgirl Luchino boards an elevator on her way to class. But this is no mere people-mover. The shaft descends through hundreds of levels and is the only transit system in this futuristic oddball culture. Among the elevator’s eccentric occupants are a group of identical salarymen, a little girl with a twisted pet, and two lunatics on a routine prisoner transfer. To make matters stranger, Luchino appears to possess psychic abilities and receives horrifying glimpses into the demented minds of her fellow passengers. Things take a turn for the worse when a sudden accident halts the elevator and frees the convicts from their shackles. What follows is one long catastrophe of paranoia, fury, and bloodshed.
Shot on a micro-budget with film school resources, The Bottled Fools is a stylish and inventive mix of delirium that surpasses most multi-million dollar efforts. Even though the story is set almost entirely in one location, there isn’t a dull moment to be found. Clocking in at a leisurely 97-minutes, the film is well paced and provides ample doses of horror and dark humor. Picture Hitchcock’s Lifeboat through the eyes of Terry Gilliam with the visceral mean streak of Takashi Miike.
Through confident direction, clever writing and imaginative production design, The Bottled Fools creates an entire world through a single claustrophobic setting. This is perhaps the best lesson to indie filmmakers: Yamaguchi sets boundaries, yet works within them to craft a film without limits.
These are dark days for independent cinema. When not being co-opted by Hollywood, these kinds of films are usually the product of a clueless, pretentious, and self-congratulatory counterculture. Thankfully, The Bottled Fools emerges as an original and unconventional movie that reminds us what a talented visionary can accomplish outside the system.
Don’t let the cheesy direct-to-video box title fool you. This film is special.
Hellevator: The Bottled Fools (2004)
(Gold View Company Ltd.)
Directed by Hiroki Yamaguchi
Starring Luchino Fujisaki, Yoshiichi Kawada, Ryôsuke Koshiba, Kae Minami, Yuuka Nakabô
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