December 1, 2015 – 4:45 am

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An evil wind that slices people into halves is such a cool gag that Sion Sono makes it the centrepiece in Tag (2015), a splatterfest about a young girl who morphs into different characters that might leave audiences wondering what had just happened. Stephen Tan reviews.

It will take something really very special to beat the opening 10 minutes of Sion Sono’s Tag (2015). Starting with a deceptively low key scene of schoolgirls travelling in two buses, the focus is on the idle chit-chat of the girls until one of them, Mitsuko, bends down to pick up the pen she had dropped.

At the same time, the bus driver and some of the students see the bus travelling in front of them sliced into a top and bottom half. Within seconds, there is a gust of wind and their own bus and occupants too are sliced into two halves, with Mitsuko escaping death by her being crouched down.

Unlike Final Destination and Ghost Ship with similar death-by-slicing sequences which quickly pan away from the mayhem, Sono opts to stay with a dazed Mitsuko who (together with the movie audience) slowly registers what had just happened and showing Mitsuko in the midst of the sliced bus and victims. It’s bravado filmmaking that makes you gasp, shellshocked and then splatters you with enough gore to both make you laugh and roar. It’s such a good gag that Sono uses it a couple of times in the movie, but nothing beats the first time out.

Kevin Jagernauth, reviewing the film in The Playlist, wrote: “Walking away from the recently wrapped Fantasia Film Festival with a couple of Cheval Noir prizes under its arm, perhaps the most significant win for Sion Sono’s Tag was a special mention for its “creative, surprising, and monumental opening kill sequence.” Indeed, there will be few scenes this year as memorable, audacious, hilarious, and bloody - all at the same time - as watching two bus loads of high school girls get sliced in half by a deadly wind.”

Alighting from what’s left of the bus, Mitsuko comes across a group of hikers and cyclists who are summarily sliced by the wind. Realising that it is the malevolent wind that is attacking them, Mitsuko tries to outrun it [don’t ask!] and dashes into the forest. She finds a group of sliced bodies in a stream and manages to change her blood-soaked clothes. [Now, why would anyone who is trying to outrun an evil wind even bothers to put on a necktie as part of a “new” school uniform?]

Mitsuko’s wandering brings her to a school where she is recognised as being one of the students. Led by fellow student Aki, Mitsuko, Taeko and Sur (short for Surreal) decide to play truant and head out to a nearby lake where Sur tells Mitsuko: “You can trick fate… by doing something spontaneously that you’d never do.” She ends off her out-of-the-blue existential quip by saying: “Stay strong. Life is surreal and don’t let it consume you.”

The four girls then head back to school only to find that all the students are being hunted down by teachers wielding giant machine guns. Aki, Taeko and Sur are killed and Mitsuko manages to run off to the safety of a town. There, she is recognised as Keiko and who is about to get married soon. Mitsuko catches herself in a mirror and sees a different person (Keiko).

Keiko is brought to the church for her wedding but finds Aki, who tells her: “You’re both Mitsuko and Keiko.” Before they head out into the hall, Aki breaks the necks of four of the women there. And she repeats Sur’s words: “Life is surreal. Don’ let it get to you. Don’t let it consume you.” The groom is shown to be a creature with a pig’s head which Keiko stabs to death with a broken bottle. The “wedding” is also broken up when the gun-wielding teachers show up and, once again, Keiko/Mitsuko and Aki are out running for their lives.

As she runs, Keiko “morphs” into athlete Izumi. She ends up in a cave where is greeted by Aki, who tells her that in order for Mitsuko/Keiko/Izumi to escape and live, she has to pull out the wires-for-veins in Aki and kill her. Having done that, Mitsoku later finds herself with an old man at a game console. He tells her that the real Mitsuko had died years ago but he managed to clone her and her friends whom he is using in his games.

Back in their respective universes, Mitsuko kills herself in the bus with her pen; Keiko stabs herself with the broken bottle; and Izumi is found dead on the road. In what appears to be an epilogue, Mitsuko is shown lying in a snow field. She gets up and runs off, saying: “It’s over now.”

Loosely based on Yusuke Yamada’s 2001 manga, Real Onigokko, Sion Sono’s Tag is slightly more palatable if one is familiar with the source material. For anyone else, despite any spoiler’s alert, going through reviews of the film would certainly help.

The biggest stumbling block to the movie is the way Mitsuko morphs into Keiko who then morphs into Izumi. [The film uses three actresses for the roles - Reina Triendl (Mitsuko); Mariko Shinoda (Keiko); and Erina Mano (Izumi). Add to that confusion is the reappearances of Aki (Yuki Sakurai) and it is only towards the end that it is explained that everything that had happened is just a construct or a game. [But then, who is that Mitsuko in the snow field at the end?]

Anyone in a playful mood can say that here, Sono is simply having fun toying with the metaphysical connundrum regarding free will and existence. Even as Sur keeps telling Mitsuko that “Life is surreal and you can trick fate”, in Mitsuko’s reality, there is no such thing as she herself is a ghost in the machine.

With a marauding wind that snakes and winds - practically lifted from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, it is the slice-and-dice of Tag that wins at the end. (However, Sono also adds in a some upskirt shots when the wind blows through the students’ skirts.) While Sono has always been a darling of the art house crowd - with films such as Noriko’s Dinner Table (2005); Strange Circus (2005); Love Exposure (2008); Cold Fish (2010) and Guilty Of Romance (2011) - at the same time, these films also aren’t the sort to alienate the splatter crowd.

Tag, with its empowered heroines in Mitsuko and Aki, may come across as a Japanese version of Sucker Punch but it is also clear that Sono had in mind the audiences who helped to make his Suicide Club a hit back in 2002 or 2013’s Why Don’t You Play in Hell? They would have cheered and approved the opening 10 minutes but would they have stayed to the bewildering end?

Note: The Tag DVD is banned in $ingapore.

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