I used to collect wigs. Back in my wilder days, I liked to change my hair, color and style, often--more often than was practical were I to change it at a salon. Wigs were a nice way to cater to my changeable moods. I still have a lot of them. They're sitting on styrofoam heads on top of my comic book collection these days. I've been neglecting both collections in recent years. The relics of a misspent youth, I guess. My partner doesn't like the wigs. They freak her out. It's bad enough that the wig heads have a kind of creepy evil mannequin look to them; the fact that many of my wigs are expensive pieces made from human hair sends her over the edge. I can understand her loathing. Seen in a certain light, the line-up of wig heads looks like the trophy gallery of a serial killer, the hair itself a fetish object.
My assignment for the White Elephant Blogathon was Hair Extensions (Exte), ( 2007, directed by Sion Sono), a film that has a certain amount of resonance in my household. I didn't watch it with my partner, but I imagine that it would cause a freakout if I did. It's a little bit icky if this kind of fetish--the pathological kind rather than the fun sexual kind--hits a pressure point. I imagine that many audiences will find it ridiculous, but that's par for the course with horror movies. I like the notion that Asian filmmakers can make a horror movie about anything, which this film totally confirms.
The movie itself concerns a woman who has been killed by organ traffickers. Her body has been left inside a container full of hair for hair extensions. Her body, having been plundered for its organs, is filled with hair. The coroner on the case has a side business. He likes to harvest the hair of the people who cross his table to sell to hair salons for making hair extensions. There's a bit of the necrophiliac fetishist in the coroner, and the victim found in the container represents his holy grail. Her hair continues to grow. Mysteriously. Magically. His avarice overrides his common sense and he harvests the hair and sells it. Unfortunately, the hair is cursed. Concurrent with this is the story of Yûko, a cosmetology student whose no-account sister has dumped her daughter on Yûko. The little girl has been abused. One day, after tumbling her aunt's wig heads out of her closet and fearing punishment, she wanders away from home, where she's picked up by the coroner. The coroner strokes her hair, but takes her to her sister's salon. He films their encounter and replays it, as the dead woman's hair continues to grow with supernatural speed. He shows up the next day with hair samples from the dead woman, which Yûko's co-workers use on their clients. Their clients, unfortunately, become the victims of their new hair.
You wouldn't think hair could evoke a visceral response, but you would be wrong. Anyone who has ever had long hair has had it in their mouth or in their eyes and has been generally annoyed by it. Hell, you don't even need to have long hair to be annoyed by a strand of hair that gets into your mouth or, worse, into your throat. This movie's supernatural set-pieces play on these experiences, amplifying them to ghastly extremes. This is all pretty silly, but it does manage an admirable base level of gross out that's very effective.
Of course, there's a parody element at work here, too. Sono is lampooning the long haired ghost girl of so many J-horror movies. It's mostly deadpan, but he tips his hand from time to time. This is especially true of a musical interlude late in the movie, when Mizushima rolls in the dead woman's hair while he sings. Some of the more outrageous set pieces cross the line into high camp. Certainly, Tsugumi's performance as Mizushima the coroner is pretty far over the line into the theatrical. But it would be a mistake to think that parody was the only thing the movie is about.
More disturbing, by far, than the J-horror tropes Sono is using is the portrait of abuse. The scenes between Mami, the little girl, and her mother are pretty upsetting. They remind me a bit of an interview with David Cronenberg--himself no stranger to depicting the gross-out possibilities of the human body--in which he was asked what scares him. He replied: "When I show up to pick up my kids from school and they aren't there." This is a film that understands the horrific possibilities of dysfunctional families and the perils the wide world holds for children. The most frightening scene in the movie, a fleeting shot, really, is the scene when Mizushima strokes Mami's hair. In this moment, he's an incarnation of the shadowy pedophile boogeyman every parent fears. There's an EC comics feeling to the relationships, too, when Mami's horrible mother and her boyfriend get their comeuppance. When the movie abandons these threads, as it inevitably must in order to tell its story, it follows its parodic impulses down the rabbit hole.