Judge Dennis Prince was fully expecting a shark fin or two from this title. Sharks: 0; Child Killers: 1 nasty one.
Not for the faint of heart!
Coming out of Thailand, here's a rather gripping tale of a serial killer. Appropriately released under the Tokyo Shock imprint, Zee-Oui: The Man-Eater is an unflinching journey, based upon true events, into the mind of a Chinese immigrant who only sought to succeed and ended up, instead, as the perpetrator of the most heinous sort of crimes imaginable. Motivation and blame, however, are central to this study of a maniac in the making.
Facts of the Case
Li Hui Huang (Long Duan) has just disembarked a ship from his native China to a port in Thailand. A stowaway without any appropriate documentation, Li Oui is interrogated and provoked by the port officials, ultimately insulted when he is deloused and detained, then bestowed with a Thai name, Zee-Oui. He awaits the arrival of his uncle who has promised to find the unwitting immigrant work and residence. At his own mother's insistence, he journeyed to Thailand to gain employment, yet the woefully slender and sickly "Zee-Oui" is barely able to manage his assigned tasks, those being the slaughtering and stripping of chickens and the loading of heavy bails of grain at the shipyard. Ridiculed by all about him as a worthless "chink," Zee-Oui withdraws from others as he struggles with his progressing tuberculosis and his haunted nightmares of the wartime atrocities he unwillfully engaged in. After the accidental death of the foreman's small daughter, Zee-Oui flees, yet his tuberculosis forces him to seek out a homeopathic treatment for his ailment—the consumption of a broth made from stewed human hearts. Naturally, unable to confront and conquer full-grown individuals, Zee-Oui descends upon children for the unnatural cure he so desperately seeks.
This particular tale is based upon newspaper reports of the same-named Thai killer who stalked and partially devoured children in the 1940s. Despite my best attempts at researching the originally reported facts, I've been unable to uncover any of the actual accounts. Therefore looking at Zee-Oui: The Man-Eater becomes a bit difficult, simply because I can't determine if the approach the filmmakers have taken is factual or derivative. This is important because, by the film's delivery, Zee-Oui is unmistakably presented as a victim in his own right, an emotionally taunted and tortured soul who has been given no other options in his pursuit of a cure to his debilitating disease. There's a danger, then, that the murder and mutilation of children (these are kids aged about six years) could be nullified by this poor soul's abuse and desperation. Perhaps it happened in this way and maybe this right-thinking individual was truly driven to madness and murder, but we can't be sure. This is perhaps the most unsettling subtext of this film.
If we accept the narrative as presented, there's no doubt that Zee-Oui is a product of his cruel environment. Cursed at and spit upon by the Thai natives, Zee-Oui is nonetheless hopeful that he can find an ally or two to help him in his simple quest to fit in and earn an honest wage. Even when he manages to secure a much-needed herbal treatment for his sickness, it is ultimately destroyed by the locals who level their unwarranted hatred toward him. While this all sounds so melodramatic and woefully trite, actor Long Duan turns out a remarkable performance as the destitute and eventually deranged killer. His acting is startlingly believable, especially given the deplorable living conditions he must endure. We're given flashbacks into his similarly tortured past and we develop an understanding of how this man was pushed beyond civilized limits. Again, it's something of a slippery slope here since we're practically being cajoled into tolerance of the child murders that soon follow. The murders aren't necessarily in-your-face graphic, yet the filmmakers have no compunction about showing gutted corpses after the fact. In one case, though, we do witness the penetration of a knife into a young waif's torso. To that regard, this is not your typical horror-gore film and would hardly be considered for mainstream distribution stateside.
Again, if you accept the narrative as delivered, Zee-Oui: The Man-Eater is a very compelling character study, well executed by capable directors Buranee Rachjaibun and Nida Suthat Na Ayutthaya. The tale they tell is dreadful and depressing. Despite its direness, it accomplishes its goal. The cinematography is often alluring and very engaging yet it maintains a very pallid tone that further delivers the atmosphere of dreariness. There are a couple of rather underdeveloped sub-plots that slow down the pace needlessly and work to arrive at a convenient resolution at the end; these elements are easily dismissed, though, again thanks to the outstanding performance by Duan.
Naturally, the only way to deliver such a controversial film on DVD is to have it heralded by a studio like Media Blasters. Their work here is commendable in regards to the well-managed 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The image is remarkable crisp and free of source damage. It gets a bit heavy-handed on edge enhancement on a couple of occasions, but nothing too troublesome. The audio is a bit of a disappointment as the on-board Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mix is rather poorly balanced. The film's score is severely amplified to the point of actual distortion while the dialogue is difficult to hear. Even though the film is presented with its original Thai dialogue, with English subtitles, it's nevertheless appropriate that we be able to discern the actors' lines. The only extras here are an original non-anamorphic trailer and a photo gallery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Again, this film depicts gruesome child murders and, whether you might find pity in Zee-Oui's situation, that doesn't lessen the impact of the atrocities at hand. Beware.
There's a skill on display here in regards to the style and impact of Zee-Oui: The Man-Eater but the ultimate result is surely not for all tastes. I found the film to be stark yet effective; even though I'm not comfortable with the events depicted, I have to acknowledge the talent on display here. Give it a look, if you dare, but prepared to become similarly torn over the viability of the victimization of the lead character.
Not guilty? That depends if you believe Zee-Oui honestly is a victim of society. This court recommends a mistrial until the prosecution can provide further details.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Theatrical Trailer
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