ArtsMagicDVD // 1999 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // July 29th, 2005
Life is only skin deep...
Coasting in on the curtails of the Japanese horror film invasion, EM Embalming has all the bad acting, corny dialogue, and shifty, murky appearance of a B-grade horror film from the early 1980s; a fact made all the more frightening by the realization that the film was actually made in 1999. Eww.
Miyako (Reiko Takashima, Azumi 2: Death or Love) is an embalmer in Japan, a profession which does not lead her to any particular amount of popularity. When not preparing corpses for the afterlife, she often moonlights as a police informant, bringing her medical expertise to grisly crime scenes. On one particular night, after investigating the suicide of a young teenage boy, she finds a needle embedded in the boy's head when called in to embalm the body. Even weirder, the boy's head goes conspicuously missing, leaving the body behind on the sterile operating table.
Together with a grizzled police detective, Miyako begins searching for the missing head, and soon encounters a seedy underworld of drugs, schizophrenia, religious cults, live organ harvesting, illegal experimentation, and murder. All in a day's work for a Japanese embalmer, I guess.
If there was ever a pointless film made, EM Embalming would sneak up behind it in a dark alley and mug it to eliminate the competition. Esoteric enough to be intriguing at first glance, it never really accomplishes anything other than the slow and languid cleaning, dissecting and embalming of fake-looking corpses, stretching the procedure out into a 90-minute film, both literally and metaphorically. And, boy, does that ever get old.
There is nothing quite like a film devoted entirely to the subject of embalming, by which I mean, no other film has been stupid enough to try it. Since it impacts the film slightly, the social stigmatism associated with embalming in Japanese culture should be addressed here as well. The practice of embalming one's loved ones for display is a less-than-mainstream choice to say the least, since the majority of the Japanese public (94 percent, to be precise) are non-Christian. With the vast majority identifying themselves as Shinto or Buddhist, compared to a mere 0.7 percent practicing Christianity, embalming is often regarded as distasteful and disrespectful to the dead in the court of popular opinion. Of course, this is at best a moot point. Embalming is downright freaky in any culture.
EM Embalming is a film that desperately wants to be smart and creepy, while totally oblivious to how blithely silly and nonsensical it actually is. And this is not for lack of trying. EM Embalming tries every trick in the book to get viewers on the edge of their seats and wrapped around the psychological drama and organ harvesting. It really attempts to hit all the bases, and here is where the film gets hopelessly muddled and off-track. One part police drama, one part medical drama, one part serial killer flick, one part religious cult, and one part Twin Peaks episode; by the time the pieces all coalesce, the final output is an incoherent jumble of tiny fragments from better films.
Perhaps if the acting had been less corny, or the special effects a little more quality, the film would have been okay. If the film had made a lick of sense, that might have helped, too. Irritatingly, EM Embalming desperately wants to be weird and quirky like a David Lynch film, even though it has no idea how to go about it. You find yourself watching a grizzled crime scene in the film when suddenly the film cuts to a sequence of kilt-wearing senior citizens dancing a jig to old time radio tunes. "What?," you say aloud, blinking in confusion, but by the time you re-focus your glazed eyes, the sequence is gone. Indeed, you may have imagined the whole thing. It is the mystery of the dance.
Disclaimer: that doesn't actually happen in EM Embalming. A shame...it would have been the only interesting thing to actually happen in this particular movie.
EM Embalming has the kind of visual presentation that makes you wonder whether the DVD production engineers, having had a few too many Sapporo beers the night before, accidentally transferred the film to VHS, then realizing their mistake, in a blind panic, transferred the VHS copy back onto DVD. The transfer, to say the least, has enjoyed many adventures along the way, including a perpetual murky graininess, lack of sharpness, muted color tones, and black levels so oppressive it is impossible to distinguish any on-screen activity. If this film had come out in the early 1980s, the transfer would actually be half-decent, but for a film a mere six years old, it is slightly embarrassing.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track is all over the place, alternating between blasts of stomach-churning low-end bass to indistinct, and muffled dialogue that suddenly jumps in volume. The rear channels, usually content to add an eerie throb that maintains intensity throughout the entire film, occasionally cut out, disappearing and reappearing quickly for no apparent reason. While the track is very active, loud and aggressive (to its credit), you will have your thumb glued to the volume button on your remote, trying to find a comfortable level between skin-searing sound and indistinct murmurs. Stick with the Dolby 2.0 Stereo track on this one, which is far more serviceable and well-balanced.
Not bad in terms of extras: a full-length commentary track by Japanese film writer Jasper Sharp, who spends his entire time trying to drum up support and enthusiasm for the film. Admittedly, he knows his stuff, but there is a very good reason for this: you can hear him turn the pages in his notes as he reads. Very academic, if you know what I mean. In addition, a 20-minute interview with director Shinji Aoyama is featured on the disc, which if not for the mind-numbingly sluggish pace and laconic delivery of Aoyama, would actually be a decent interview. He offers some history into his own career (he used to be assistant director to weirdball auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa) as well as his motivations for creating EM Embalming.
Die-hard Japanese cinema fans will no doubt appreciate a small acting cameo by cult director Seijun Suzuki (Branded To Kill, Tokyo Drifter), playing a wizened embalmer. And that is the extent that die-hard Japanese cinema fans will appreciate EM Embalming.
Under the surface of EM Embalming may lurk a half-decent movie, but it is unrecognizable in present incarnation. Films with great potential that stink out loud are the most disappointing to review. The foundation of EM is relatively sound; an introspective examination into life, death, concepts of morality, a Cronenbergian fascination with the discontents of the human body, and on and on. This film had endless possibilities, making its overall lousiness all the harder to swallow. Oh, well.
Puerile and pointless, EM Embalming might make fans of Tomie and Organ cackle with delight, but then again, maybe not. Outside of being vaguely medical themed and excessively graphic, these films have little in common. The latter films mentioned are actually decent thrillers, while EM Embalming is not.
ArtsmagicDVD continues their alarming streak of releasing poor quality films onto the market in a seemingly random hit-or-miss DVD release calendar. For every good film they release, three bad ones fall out. As for EM Embalming; with its bad special effects, wooden acting, erratic plot, and poor pacing, chalk up another misfire to the ever-growing list.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track with Japanese Film Writer Jasper Sharp
* Interview with Director Shinji Aoyama