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Marronnier   B

Elite Entertainment / Koganemushi Scarabee

Year Released: 2004 (USA: 2005)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Hideyuki Kobayashi
Writer: Hideyuki Kobayashi
Cast: Mayu, Misao Inagaki, Hiroto Nakayama, Haruna Hoshino, Miyako Koga, Hime, Tetsuya Shibata, Ochyazukenori.

Review by Jim Harper

Marronnier is a horror film about dolls. Although influenced by films such as Child's Play, it's also a lot more. If you throw in the Evil Dead movies, House of Wax, and the body-horror fantasies of acclaimed manga artist Junji Ito, you might be getting close to the truth. Most importantly, Marronnier is one of the best low-budget horror movies released in recent years.

Marino, the heroine of the piece, is an ordinary teenage girl who loves her Marronnier doll and the beautiful dresses it wears. Unknown to her, the creator of the dolls is quite insane, and his dolls are made from the processed corpses of human beings. Worse still, his assistant Numai is a psychopath who has taken to abducting young girls in order to create new dolls, and Marino, together with her brother and her best friend, is next on his list. But Numai is not the only danger facing the friends -- the dolls themselves are taking on a life of their own.

Many people will not find Marronnier an easy film to like. It's shot on handheld cameras, frequently using a soft-focus blur to affect an atmosphere of unreality. This atmosphere is further enhanced by the eccentric performances and the editing, which gives the impression of drifting from one unconnected episode to the next. And it does drift; although it's relatively short film, the first hour or so moves at a sedate pace that seems to be going nowhere. Kobayashi tries to crank up the tension towards the end, but the dreamlike imagery and atmosphere are not ideal for creating suspense. Even so, he manages to produce some effective skin-crawling moments. The dolls themselves are suitably creepy, and the director is able to get the most out of their jerky, sinister movements. He also manages to work in references to several famous films, including The Exorcist.

As a whole, the film resembles a manga story, which is perhaps to be expected. Although it's not based on a specific manga, Junji Ito, creator of the Tomie stories, acted as producer and helped design the dolls, one of which openly echoes Ito's spiral-obsessed Uzumaki tales. Actress Misao Inagaki is the author of the Ring adaptations, while Ochazukenori's Horror Mansion series has been translated into several languages. Kobayashi himself is obviously familiar with the style and conventions of famous horror manga, including the works of Hideshi Hino, creator of two installments in the notorious Guinea Pig series. While not as brutal as those films, Marronnier does include several gory scenes, but the violence is faintly surreal, intended to be bleakly humorous rather than realistic.

For the right viewer, Marronnier is a special find indeed: quirky, imaginative, and often funny. Others are likely to see it as sloppy, amateurish, and pointless. For me, it's solidly in the former category, and I have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of "left field" movies, and those who appreciate the more experimental side of Asian cinema.

Unfortunately, Elite's disc is deeply flawed. The subtitles contain numerous grammatical errors and poor translations. They're also badly synched up with the dialogue; there are no problems at the start, but before long they're at least a second late, and more so by the end of the film. Viewers with widescreen televisions might also find that some of the longer subtitles are cut off by the bottom of the screen. The interview featurette is also badly translated, making it impossible to understand in several places. That's not really acceptable in a major publication company. Hopefully the quality of the subtitles will not detract from the enjoyment of the film.

The other extras are a mixed bag. The deleted scenes and the behind-the-scenes footage are interesting, although I would very much have liked to see more about the making of the film, especially given the problems with the interview. The doll galleries are largely pointless, as is "The Legends of Marronnier," a bizarre featurette. Two trailers round out the package. The film itself comes in anamorphic widescreen, and there's a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 and stereo soundtracks, which are both fine. Sonically there is very little going on here, so it's unlikely to push your sound system to full capacity.

Review published 06.21.2005.

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