Ever since the wave of Asian suspense films started in the late 90s, the horror genre regained its mainstream popularity. The Asian market spawned an overload of long-haired ghosts, the European market followed with some fine gorefests and nail-biters and across the ocean, Saw conquered the theaters and kick-started a whole circus of remakes, rip-offs and sequels. In short, horror is hot again.
In between all this genre work are still a few films that dare to be different, coming from directors that are more interested in the genre itself than the hype surrounding it. From the beginning, Sion Sono was a director who failed to fit the specific horror mould. Even though his first fan favorite, Suicide Circle, was marketed alongside films as Ringu and Ju-On, he never quite fitted in with the typical J-Horror wave. Apart from the social themes found in his films, it's the general weirdness that separates him from the generic horror template. With Ekusute [Exte: Hair Extensions], his latest effort, he's back to take revenge.
Exte: Hair Extensions is a film about hair. Long, dark, mysterious, Asian hair. One of the most commonly used elements in the Asian suspense wave. Needless to say, the storyline is as crazy as it is fun. When a girl is tortured and murdered for her organs, they also cut off her hair. Obviously, the hair doesn't agree and starts to grow back from her dead body. A local morgue attendant with an extreme fixation for hair finds out and takes her home with him. He starts using her hair for a hair extension business he's been running on the side, at which point the hair extensions go on a murdering rampage. Hell yeah!
To make things "worse", Sono contacted Ren Osugi to play the part of the perverted hippie hair fetishist. I still remember the first time I watched Osugi in Hana-bi and Sonatine. Back then I figured he was a normal actor playing an uncharacteristically strange role. We are now several years later, and I know better. Osugi might look like a normal, older guy, in reality he is one of Japan's most insane actors, taking on whatever perverted, quirky and twisted role he can find. He goes completely over the top in Exte: Hair Extensions, giving the film its final nudge into insanity.
Exte: Hair Extensions is for the biggest part a parody on Asian horror flicks, playing around with a bunch of clichés and plot points. The whole hairy background story is crazy, Osugi's performance completely off the charts. Sono manages to be quite creative with the elements at hand, coming up with some interesting death scenes and original plays. But beside all the madness, the film works on another level. Sono integrates a side story about a tormented little kid which gives the film some extra grit and depth. It's the mix of all these elements that makes Exte: Hair Extensions quite dark and unique.
Visually, the film is quite unstable, with rather plain visuals in its dramatic moments. But whenever Sono plays the horror (or freak) card the visuals become top notch. The scenes in Osugi's room are marvellous, making excellent use of lighting and hair effects to create shots that linger on the eyes. In between scenes Sono even tries some Tsukamoto-like magic, with rapid-fire editing of images filled with hair and accompanied by distorted sounds. As a whole, the film is visually pleasing, though it would've been nicer if it had been a little more consistent in its style.
The film remains a strange mix of elements. In the beginning it looks like a simple parody on the J-Horror genre, but after a while other elements creep in which make the film more disturbing than it should have been on first sight. It never plays on scares, but still manages to become a dark and brooding film, topped with some craziness and surreal moments (mostly those with Osugi). It's a bit hard to recommend, as Sono's characteristic blend is rather unique and contains many tricks that might put people off. Still, I enjoy his films as they always succeed in bringing something new to the table.
Exte: Hair Extensions might feel like his most commercial film to date, but that is mostly a disguise. It's a fun, crazy and surprisingly eerie film.