Release date: 2002Certificate: 18
Running time: 103 mins
Director: Takashi Ishii
Starring: Harumi Inoue, Naoto Takenaka, Kazuki Kitamura, Shingo Tsurumi
At the start of the millennium exploitation movies were few and far between. Films such as I Spit on Your Grave, The Last House on the Left and The Virgin Spring had left the subgenre with little room to breathe. Unsurprising then, that Takashi Ishii briefly moved away from the exploitation genre that dominated his early works and directed Gonin, making him an international name. His films have always been largely preoccupied with revenge, and Freezer was to be no exception. Whereas Irreversible, released two years later, drew critical acclaim mainly for not glorifying the life that had been destroyed but to mourn it, Freezer was first to shift the focus from gory revenge and concentrate on the victim as she struggled to cope with the memories she thought she had buried deep inside her. Irreversible may be more celebrated but Freezer also demands your attention.
Chirhiro, a beautiful girl, has a new life in Tokyo, having escaped the memories of being raped by three men while they filmed the vicious attack five years earlier. Engaged to one of her work colleagues, Yusuke, she has a lot to look forward to, when, without warning, one of the rapists appears and threatens to turn her life into a living hell unless she does what he says. Armed with a videotape and photographs of the rape to keep her in line, with news that the other two rapists are on their way for a horrifying reunion, the tormentor’s presence is all too much. Pushed to the limits of despair, Chirhiro must resort to extreme acts of revenge if she is to destroy the ghosts from her past forever…
Big Brother, the once inventive, now much maligned reality game-show was first broadcast in 2000; the same year Freezer hit Japanese cinemas. The largely objective camera viewpoint used in it is also favoured by Ishii; Freezer works because the audience is drawn into its oppressive surroundings, their voyeuristic stance enhanced by wide-angle lenses used to unsettling effect. An early sequence sees Chirhiro and her useless boyfriend Yusuke laughing and joking as they enjoy an evening meal out with work colleagues. Partly improvised, its realism creates enough empathy in that one scene alone. The message is clear: this could happen to anyone.
Filmed and paced as an art film but crammed with nudity and violence, this is one of the most distinctive and most tasteful entries in the exploitation genre, simply because of the performance by the striking Harumi Inoue. Her natural beauty, clearly evident here, isn’t enough to elicit sympathy for her plight. It’s true she makes some questionable decisions, at one point reverting to the brainless woman who had allowed her tormentors to blackmail her days earlier. But its hard, and ultimately interesting, to understand and accept the decision-making from a person in such a futile position. If Chirhiro was to simply bludgeon every aggressor to death then she would lack the personality that differentiates her from her foes. Obviously, she wants revenge, and the audience is rooting for that too, but it’s her spiral into madness that takes this film onto another level.
Although the three villains are all slightly in your face and over the top (Kitamura Kazuki’s character Hirokawa gets it just about right with a charming nastiness) it’s Shunsuke Matsuoka who has the painful job of trying to put some personality into Chirhiro’s future husband. Barely in it from the get go, when he is confronted by the mysterious stranger manhandling his girlfriend in his own workplace he simply allows it to happen like a complete nonentity; he eventually has the courage to visit her for answers, but on discovering the news that Chirhiro’s new flat-mate raped her, instead of flying off the handle and letting rip, he looks completely broken hearted and walks away from it all, leaving her alone with the man she fears most. It’s as if his character was only written in the script to allow for a brutal final act.
Takashi Ishii builds the suspense masterfully in the first (her mad pursuit along the corridor to retrieve photographs posted to her neighbours tense and exciting), so when the first antagonist is finally picked off it’s a joy to behold, with knowing winks to Hitchcock’s Psycho, even if her weapon of choice is bound to leave most viewers dumbfounded. The men are dispatched in understated fashion, not one for the gore hounds despite still indulging in the red stuff, whilst Chirhiro’s descent into madness is chillingly powerful (her line “they’re so beautiful when you freeze them” is darkly comic and ultimately disturbing).
Claustrophobic but beautiful, especially in the final third when a power cut threatens to reveal Chirhiro’s new hobby, Ishii has done a wonderful job on the visuals; death and misery have never looked more bewitching. There’s an argument against the constant nudity, mainly involving the gorgeous Harumi Inoue, but it’s less about being gratuitous and, along with the snowfalls, more of a visual metaphor. Chirhiro will never have a virtuous life; will never make a clean break, no matter how many times she tries to cleanse herself. Ishii realises, and eventually we do too, that in the final analysis she will never be as pure as the driven snow (the original crime happened during a snowstorm) so in the pouring rain she has no choice but to make an unalterable break with the past.
Without ever glorifying the horrific acts that fuel Chirhiro’s bloody vengeance, Freezer is for the most part well-paced and surprisingly beautiful, with a compelling and intensely dramatic performance from its lead.