"Yesterday's enemy is today's friend".
Handsome young doctor Yukio (Masahiro Motoki) is well-respected by his community in the small province which he serves, on the outskirts of Tokyo. He's renowned as being a war veteran, having earned a medal for his treatment of many badly wounded soldiers during "the war".
His patients look up to him and he responds accordingly with a kind, caring nature. One woman brings her reluctant son to the practice complaining about a bruise on the lad's forehead, only for the kid to reveal rather embarrassingly that she only dragged him there so she could catch a glimpse of the popular doctor.
On an evening, however, Yukio's life is somewhat less perfect than it initially appears. His strikingly beautiful wife Rin (Ryo) suffers from amnesia, something attributed to a fire that happened in the past which has left her incapable of remembering her own history - something that mystifies Yukio too, and so he tries to coax memories back into her subconscious nightly. They live with Yukio's parents in their family home, which is attached to the surgery.
Following strange smells noticed in the nooks of the house, the family learns that the inhabitants of the neighbouring slums have been blighted by some form of plague. This coincides with the deaths of Yukio's father and then, within days, mother. Both die inexplicable deaths. Although in the case of the latter, we do get to witness an intruder in the house - a ragged, dishevelled slum-dweller with Yukio's visage - whose mere presence induces a fatal heart attack in the woman.
The following evening, the slum's inhabitants close in on Yukio's home, hammering on the windows and doors appealing for medical attention. Despite Rin's insistence that he should treat them, Yukio's appalled by the prospect of taking on these poor people as patients - though he does open his door to the local mayor, who's impaled himself on a spike while drunk.
These double standards provoke a huge row between Yukio and Rin, the doctor revealing a previously unseen classist side to his nature. Rin's behaviour is more erratic, more elusive, the following morning.
That morning is pretty eventful for Yukio in other ways too though, when he's attacked in his garden by his aforementioned doppelganger ... and thrown down a stone well feature which sits prominent amongst his beloved shrubbery.
Having cleaned himself up and now sharply dressed in a natty black suit, twin Sutekichi (also portrayed by Motoki) assumes the role of Yukio. He moves into the family home and, knowing everything about Yukio's life and attributes, becomes him. He wastes no time in closing the surgery down for an unspecified period, citing a need to cleanse the place of the germs the slum people may have covered its exteriors in. Of course, he also argues that this gives him extra time to ladle more affection on his beloved wife Rin. This is something she's initially receptive towards, but over time her suspicions are aroused.
Meanwhile, Yukio is still alive at the bottom of the well, and desperate to reclaim his life - despite being taunted by Sutekichi, who secretly visits him on a daily basis to taunt him with stories of how he's living his life.
But why? Where has Sutekichi suddenly emerged from, where has he been, what's his back-story, and how does this all tie in to Rin's amnesia?
Based on famed Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo's short story "The Twins" (other notable films based on Rampo's writings include BLACK LIZARDS, MOJU and HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN), GEMINI marked writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto's first foray into the realms of period cinema.
This 1999 venture marked a departure for the auteur who made his name with the crazy cyberpunk hit TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. If you know him from that iconic film, or the likes of his kinetic boxing-body horror crossover TOKYO FIST, or even surreal bursts of madness like A SNAKE OF JUNE and HAZE ... well, this is an entirely different proposition.
And yet, it still has plenty of moments that are easily distinguishable as pure Tsukamoto. The mad (but superb) musical cues; the love triangle theme; the increasingly insane set-pieces which approach the director's earlier chaotic cyberpunk episodes; the intensity which ramps considerably during the final thirty minutes.
But overall, even though this is recognisable as a Tsukamoto film just as any Spanish-language Guillermo Del Toro films have a distinctive flavour about them, GEMINI is more controlled, more linear, more accessible than any other Tsukamoto film to date. It's one that the haters will most likely enjoy, while still managing to be just "Tsukamoto" enough to not alienate the hardcore fans.
An enormous amount of credit for this film's success lies on the filmmaker's shoulders, of course. But there are also several other significant players. Motoki excels in his dual role performance, finding the balance between arrogance and sensitivity to deliver two complex characters who we can empathise with in different ways. Ryo is a strong counter lead, fleshing out her role into much more than the lead's missus. Tsukamoto handled the film's exceptional cinematography and editing, which conspires with Takashi Sasaki's luscious production design to give us a finished article which is visually sublime. Imbued throughout with rich colours and dense atmosphere, this is one of the prettiest horror films of the 90s.
Oh yes, it is a horror film. One that's heavily tinged with Gothic sensibilities, and one which marries itself to other genres such as drama, mystery, social commentary and even romance. But ultimately it's a horror film, albeit it has little in common aesthetically with other J-Horror titles of its era (if you're repelled by the likes of RINGU, this may well still be up your street). Even the deliberate lack of eyebrows on any of the film's characters is a consciously unnerving facet.
I also want to give special mention to Chu Ishikakwa's score. It's sublime in its own outrageous way: the opening theme tune alone is a wild symphonic gumbo of ethereal chants, noisy discord and orchestral theatricality. Elsewhere, piano and (synthesised) cello stand-off against one another in a piece that is at equal turns freestyle and very precisely beautiful; tribal drums beating like pounding hearts at other times. The score as a whole is very singular and memorable.
Is GEMINI Tsukamoto's best film? Well, it's a tough pill for me to swallow because TETSUO: THE IRON MAN captured me at just the right time so that film's ingrained in my soul as a life-influencing classic. And TOKYO FIST, too, caught me at an opportune moment. But I have to concede that GEMINI is possibly Tsukamoto's most well-realised and linear, most satisfyingly complete film. I feel bad saying that because I am a fan, and I'm in no way denigrating the worth of the likes of VITAL or the powerful KOTOKO ... but yes, this may stand the test of time as his greatest achievement.
GEMINI comes to UK blu-ray courtesy of our friends at Third Window Films. We were sent a screener disc for review purposes.
Presented uncut at 83 minutes and 21 seconds in length, and in a new 16x9 widescreen transfer, GEMINI looks very good indeed here in 1080p HD resolution. The disc is MPEG4-AVC encoded. Boasting strong, clean and vividly colourful images throughout, unobtrusive fine grain contributes to the natural filmic clarity on offer here. I haven't seen Mondo Macabro's recent US blu-ray release for comparison.
Similarly, the Japanese stereo DTS-HD audio is a highly reliable, even balanced and clear for its duration. Optional English subtitles are provided; these are well-written and easy to read at all times.
The disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, we get a pop-up scene selection option allowing access to the film via 16 chapters.
An interesting array of bonus materials begins with a highly engaging and informative new commentary track from Tom Mes, author of "Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto". Elaborating on the themes of Rampo's 1928 source inspiration and pointing out throughout both the film's similarities and departures from the original story, Mes also imparts a wealth of information at key moments regarding the film's nods to traditions, folklore and so on. He offers a heap of background info on the cast members, as well as revealing that ex-boy band member Motoki was the catalyst in getting this project up and running. We also learn that Motoki, heavily influenced at the time by Gaspar Noe's CARNE, envisaged GEMINI being around 50 minutes in length. Of course, that all changed when the project grew in stature and Tsukamoto jumped on board.
Mes also goes deep into the social commentary lurking within the film, as well as the undeniable visual impact of the film and where it stands in Tsukamoto's career trajectory. A strong feminist aspect is also brought interestingly to the fore; the suggestion of this being an allusion towards schizophrenia is also highly intriguing. It's a great commentary track, and comes highly recommended.
An onscreen disclaimer apologises for the quality of the subsequent extra features on offer, putting their inferior visual characteristics down to them being archival and recorded with lesser technology. To be honest, although the video extras are presented in slightly soft standard definition and in a pillar-boxed format, I didn't feel at all upset by their quality: everything looked perfectly acceptable to me.
These begin with a 105-second original trailer which contains plot spoilers.
Next up is an excellent 18-minute Making Of featurette consisting of on-location footage taking us behind the scenes of shooting several of the film's key scenes. Interspersed with clips from the final product, these moments reveal Tsukamoto to be a focused and attentive director, dedicated to realising his vision to his own liking. He's not without humour or warmth, however, and it's plain to see that the cast and crew had fun in-between their committed takes.
Then we get 20 minutes of actual "behind the scenes" footage, with a handheld camera capturing lots of on-set action in a candid fly-on-the-wall fashion. This reveals even further the preparation and, at times, ingenuity that went into conceiving this low-budget gem.
A 6-minute make-up demonstration follows. This shows make-up artist Isao Tsuge transforming one actress into her character, while subtitled text handily breaks the process into steps and offers instructions for those who'd like to try this at home. The demonstration is followed by a short interview with Tsuge.
17 minutes of footage from the film's premiere at the 56th Venice Film Festival is a most welcome addition to the disc. Harking back to September 1999, this is shot video diary-style, following Tsukamoto and his small entourage around the fest and through their enjoyable press conference.
All of the above archival extras are presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles.
The first pressing of this release (1,000 units) also come with a limited-edition slipcase adorned with new artwork by Ian McEwan.
Shinya Tsukamoto's body of work has proven to be a highly acquired taste for many. If you like his style, you love him. If you're not so keen, as he says himself in one of this disc's featurettes, you'll most likely "leave the film within the first ten minutes". If you tried with Tsukamoto before and found his films to be a struggle, I'd still recommend giving GEMINI a go. It's a departure for him, and perhaps his most accessible film as a result. Beautifully shot, atmospheric, dramatically alluring and at times highly volatile, it's a strong film. And Third Window Films have done it justice on this mighty fine disc.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Third Window Films|