After Ringu was brought to the West it wasn't easy finding Japanese horror that wasn't somehow related to a face-covering black-haired ghost, floating around the house. The Asian suspense wave took a firm grip on Japanese horror territory and even though other variants were still being made they had a very hard time finding their way over here. Apparently Shimoyama's St John's Wort found a little loop hole.
Most of the film is set in a deserted mansion. Shimoyama sends his characters there for inspiration as they are working on a new video game idea. In addition, the mansion is the place where one of the main characters grew up, giving her a chance to uncover some of her lost past. It's a pretty convenient setup for a horror flick but it works just as well. The proceedings are a little tried and tested even though some bizarre twists are featured near the end, but the location itself is atmospheric enough to carry most of the weight.
While the first 60 minutes start of rather subdued and slow, the film shifts gears after that. The first half is somewhat reminiscent of The Blair Wwitch Project as most of the exploring is seen through a hand-held camera. The film isn't really aiming for a Blair Witch effect as many shots come from static security cams and normal cameras footage, but it does help in establishing the ominous atmosphere. The technique is mostly dropped in the latter part of the film as it is much more open and direct, relying less on suggestion.
Most striking aspect of this film is Shimoyama's visual style. It might come of as pretty distracting and chances are that many will find it ugly as hell, but it is quite interesting alright. Especially during the first quarter Shimoyama goes completely wild with the color scheme. And I mean completely wild. A trip through the forest has a shifting color palette going from pink to purple to yellow. Not really your typical forest colors.
Later on the effect is downscaled a little, but Shimoyama continues to play with contrast and colors to create more interesting images. I liked the effect a lot as it gave the film a pretty unique flavor. Not always exactly pretty to look at, but compelling nonetheless. Shimoyama also applies a few other tricks, like using rpg style conversation in some scenes to hide the identity of some characters, creating an extra bridge to the game universe.
The ending is a little over the top and doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though it wasn't something I was bothered with. The visuals keep the film attractive, the setting keeps the atmosphere hanging and the story is fun enough to follow. St. John's Wort isn't a long film either, playing like a roller-coaster ride on acid.
It is far from a perfect film, maybe not a film that will stay with you for a very long time, but it sure sticks out from the rest. It's nice to see something different for a while, even though some aspects of the film are still very cliché. If you're looking for an Asian horror film that stays clear from simple ghost stories this is a pretty good bet, unless you are bothered with Shimoyama's visual style.
Interested? Be sure to check out the trailer.