Occult Bolshevism (2018) review

Introduction

Not so many cinema-enthusiasts will know Hiroshi Takahashi for his directorial work – Sodom the Killer (2004) and more recently Toshimaen: Haunted Park (2019). They might remember his name from his involvement as screenwriter in classics like Ringu (1998) and the well-regarded horror drama like Ju-on: Origins (2020. As making a horror-classic is difficult this day and age, can Takahashi, with his Occult Bolshevism, at least offer the spectator a pleasant horror experience?   

Review

One day, Ando (Yûki Tomoyama) and his fiancée, Yukiko Tachibana (Hanae Kan), join a experiment led by Professor Asano (Kousuke Takaki) and medium Sumie Miyaji (Yoko Chosokabe) in an abandoned factory proudly adorned with the pictures of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.

To start the occult experiment, Mita (Yozaburo Ito), a former prison guard who witnessed multiple executions recounts a story where he got frightened by a death row inmate’s desire to desire, a transgressive desire bursting forth as his death lurked around the corner. Yet, before his story can attract and bind the spirits, Ando disturbs the process by attacking Mita with questions. To restart the process, Sumie Miyaji invites everyone to sing the Bolshevik Party Anthem. Later, after the first session, Yukiko hears from Nagao (Asako Minamitani) that the ultimate purpose of the experiment is to select a mediator to contact the other world.

Occult Bolshevism (2018) by Hiroshi Takahashi
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Occult Bolshevism might be somewhat uneven at a narrative and cinematographical level, but Takahashi does succeed in deliver a pleasing horror narrative – with lots of eerie and creepy moments.

The unevenness of the narrative is due to Takahashi’s failure to integrate the Bolshevik references within the narrative in a more meaningful way. While the communist chants are beautifully used to create an atmosphere that echoes the best of Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu, the presence of the pictures of Lenin and Stalin and the reference to the Stalin’s Great Purge or Great Terror remains underutilized.

What unfolds in the narrative can only fleetingly be linked to Stalin’s paranoic violence to consolidate his own position by purging his ‘perceived’ opponents (Narra-note 1). The experiment’s ultimate goal might indeed be an attempt to purge something supernatural – a purge that, in the end, proves to be self-destructive, a purge of oneself. Despite the thematical unevenness, the finale of the Occult Bolshevism does deliver. This is, in part, due to the strange twists and turns the narrative takes in the end, but ultimately it is mainly the engendering of unsettling atmosphere that ensures the spectator’s pleasure.

Occult Bolshevism (2018) by Hiroshi Takahashi

One element that supports the atmosphere is the fluid integration of visual fragments of horror. In our view, Takahashi uses such imagery in such a way that the spectator is able to grasp the dynamic of their appearance without diminishing the unsettling impact of such moments. For the spectator, it is quite evident that Yukiko Tachibana starts seeing things, starts seeing reflections of the ‘Other’ world protruding from the environmental darkness, due to the experiment, due to the calling forth of spirits. Yet, what she sees remains unsettling as neither she nor the spectator are fully able to narrativize such imagery. The bursting forth of such imagery thus functions as a fleeting stain that endangers the safety of the symbolic world, the network of signifiers that gives the subject a safe place within the societal field.

The composition of Occult Bolshevism offers a decent play with dynamism – i.e. he uses  slow-moving spatial movement effectively and plays thoughtfully with the cut. Yet, this does not stop Takahashi from stumbling a few times with his composition. The fast zoom-in sequence, for instance, is not only too obviously aimed at forcing discomfort within the spectator, but also breaks the atmosphere by changing the pace too abruptly.  Despite the many dynamic moments, Takahashi’s composition relies heavily on static moments. Such moments are either utilized within the composition to allow the dramatics of the signifier to come to its full right or to engender a sense of tensive anticipation within the spectator. 

Occult Bolshevism (2018) by Hiroshi Takahashi

The ominous feeling within the narrative’s atmosphere is dictated by the musical accompaniment – i.e. the subtle classical pieces and the more disconcerting music. It is not, as some might argue, the mere slow rhythm of the pieces that gives rise to such premonitory feeling within the spectator, but how this rhythm (e.g. determined by the touching of the keys) emphasizes the emptiness that marks the atmosphere and imbues it with an eerie quality.

The more disconcerting musical pieces, on the other hand, do not aim to exploit such emptiness, but to erase it radically. It is because the disturbing sounds erase the emptiness and introduce an auditive excess that certain interactions and signifiers feel more dramatic and attain their promontory value (Sound-note 1).

While the auditive decorations play a role in creating an atmosphere of anticipatory discomfort, the effectivity of these decorations is function of the performances. More than anything, what pulls the spectator into Occult Bolshevism’s narrative and keeps him on the edge of his seat is the elegant way the cast exploits the rhythm of speech to heighten the impact as well as the seductiveness of the signifier.

With Occult Bolshevism, Takahashi delivers a pleasing horror-narrative – any horror film-fan should check it out at least once. Yet, the narrative is mired by Takahashi’s failure to exploit the Bolshevik theme more deeply and by the various cinematographical impurities. Even so, Takahashi’s horror narrative proves that Bolshevik imagery, history, signifiers, and chants have a lot of potential for horror-narratives.      

Notes

Narra-note 1: Takahashi narrative can be read as a critique of the cult-like dynamics that underpins dictatorial systems like Stalin’s communism. In this sense, what needs to purged is anyone who threatens or might threaten the consistency of the group. The sacrifice is seen as necessary to consolidate the communal feeling of the group and to warn others not to put the imaginary consistency of the group in danger.

Sound-note 1: In some instances, Hiroshi Takahashi utilizing sounds to heighten the feeling of uneasiness within the narrative. Some of those sounds (i.e. the surge of laughter) struggle to fulfill their function. Rather than making the spectator more ill-at ease, these sudden sounds threaten to derail the tensive atmosphere, either by their unexpected pun-like effect or their overly outlandish flavour. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Johan says:

    Very intriguing movietheme!
    Intetesting review and preview!

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