Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Census Bloodbath: She Kills Down By The Sea Shore

Year: 1982
Director: Karen Yang
Cast: Hsiao-Fen Lu, Alan Tam, Fu-Mei Chang
Run Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

It's always fun when we get to travel overseas in our Census Bloodbath marathon, especially when it's a place we've never been before. Today's film, Exposed to Danger (titled Sha chu chong wei in the original Mandarin and Breakout from Oppression in the U.S. dubbed cut) is Taiwan's first entry in the 80's slasher cycle. Hopefully it's not its last, because we have a lot to talk about here. 

Not the least of which being that it stars a Taiwanese John Oates.

Exposed to Danger is a lot of things, but one thing that it kind of isn't, sadly, is a slasher. At least until the final 20 minutes, this is smack dab in the middle of the "women's melodrama" and "psycho stalker" subgenres. Until it begins to wildly lift scenes from Friday the 13th wholecloth, but we'll get to that.

The story begins when Tien-Chi (Hsiao-Fen Lu) arrives in a small seaside town to be the assistant editor at a newspaper. She has just been released from prison, where she served 8 years for a murder she didn't commit. She's looking for a fresh start and she hopes the letter she holds from the paper's President offering her a job can provide that for her. Unfortunately, bizarre happening quickly dash her hopes, beginning with the mysterious disappearance of the President shortly before she arrives. 

While she tries to process the trauma and abuse of her time in prison, someone is clearly breaking into her apartment and moving things around, watching her through her window, and putting her in the path of danger at every turn including cutting her bike's brakes and knocking over a ladder she's using to clean her ceiling. On top of all this, tensions at work are boiling over. Mrs. Chu (Hsiung-Kuo Li) is jealous that this pretty girl can waltz in and get a job in her department, and the President's young secretary Shih-Yun (Fu-Mei Chang) is seething with rage that she's receiving attention from the office cutie Hsiao-Tung (Alan Tam), who has - to her credit - instantly and obviously fallen madly in love with the new girl.

Anyway, it's not really a spoiler to say that the perpetrator is clearly Shih-Yun, because the movie does not keep its cards close to the chest and if you don't figure it out twenty minutes in, you must've fallen asleep. She does begin a murderous rampage eventually ending with a catfight on the beach, the villain shouting "Kill her!", a false ending involving a boat, a decapitation, and gee where have I seen that before?

I couldn't find many photos for this movie online, so pretend this is relevant.

That's the longest synopsis I've written in a while, but there are a lot of important factors that need discussion. Something I really want to drill down on is the prison element, because that isn't something you see in Census Bloodbath very often. It does speak to the way this movie is structured in no way like a slasher, but the way certain elements in her life trigger flashbacks to her harrowing abuse at the hands of the other prisoners are some of the most brutal, intense material I've seen doing this project.

I think part of why this film works so well in spite of its unclear focus on what genre it wants to be is that while everything is shifting and changing around her, Tien-Chi's character and psychology is always front and center, in perfect focus. I don't want to lay this all entirely on the fact that this film has a female director, but I don't not. It's a rare occasion that we get to dig in on an entry in this genre that has any sort of female touch behind the camera, and I love that it comes packaged with one of the most well-shaded female leads I've seen in quite a while.

I also don't want to diminish the contributions of actress Hsiao-Fen Lu, who works with the camera to let you into her character's head at every turn. There's a showstopping performance moment where she plays her younger self in flashback with such youthful venom and naïveté that it seems like she's a completely different actress, but that speaks to performance as a whole. It shows how well she knows her character and how she's been changed by what she's been through. 

When I put on a film called Exposed to Danger, I certainly wasn't expecting this. Maybe a Stripped to Kill prototype or a slasher set in a photography studio, but certainly not this.

Even though the whodunit side of this film is quite weak, and frankly the Friday the 13th Final Girl sequence is only interesting insofar as you can see an American film translated into a Taiwanese editing and cinematography style, there is plenty to chill the spine in Exposed to Danger. Menace lurks around every corner of this movie, and Karen Yang works hard to keep you as off-kilter as the protagonist. 

Even simple moments like Tien-Chi riding a bicycle are sprinkled with unease (this moment in particular involves a child doing tricks around her and threatening to knock her off her bike for no reason other than his own pure enjoyment), and a scene where investigating a murder-suicide puts her in the path of a knife-wielding banshee proves that even the people who don't want to specifically kill her are a constant source of danger.

Yang's style lights up the screen in these moments, as well. Take the simple flashback triggered by a bar of soap (in prison, she was slashed by a bar of soap with a razor blade embedded inside), which becomes an impressionistic nightmare involving the soap flying toward the camera in jarring insert shots. And then there's the matter of Shih-Yun. She might be an obvious antagonist, but letting us in on this quickly allows us to spend time in her twisted home life, which involves incessantly shrieking at her wheelchair-bound grandmother and chaining men up in the basement. It's all very What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and it's intense in a way that feels legitimately dangerous.

All told, it's not quite what we're looking for in Census Bloodbath, but it's something I recommend to cinema history thrill seekers who want to take a walk on the obscure side. I had a ball watching Exposed to Kill, and while it has its flaws, it's hard not to be sucked in by its unique style and characters. I think this movie struggles to carve a space for itself in film fandom by its lack of a firm genre. People who approach it as a slasher are inevitably going to be disappointed, as are the people who found it in the pack of kung fu films where it has mostly been available in this corner of the globe. But approaching it on its own terms, Exposed to Kill is a memorable slice of foreign genre cinema.

Killer: Shih-Yun (Fu-Mei Chang)
Final Girl: Tien-Chi (Hsiao-Fen Lu) 
Best Kill: Wu-Ten the photographer is murdered in a three-part kill that involves wild banshee shrieking while he's slashed up, plunging down two sets of stairs, and being stabbed repeatedly while he's down. It's wild.
Sign of the Times: Sometimes the score will just evolve into electric guitar squealing at unexpected interludes.
Scariest Moment: Shih-Yun sneaks glass into the spring rolls that Tien-Chi serves at an office party, which cuts open the mouth of Mrs. Chu's son.
Weirdest Moment: The moment where Tien-Chi is knocked off a ladder involves some wild physics about a bar of soap being slid beneath the ladder at the exact moment it wiggles. Also she's in the process of wiping down the chandelier in what has been described as a "small apartment."
Champion Dialogue: I think the somewhat dubious translation of the subtitles disqualifies this film from an entry in Champion Dialogue, sadly.
Body Count: 5; not including three people who are murdered offscreen, which Tien-Chi is sent to report on.
  1. Ping-nan is stabbed in the back in flashback.
  2. President Wang is bludgeoned with a flashlight.
  3. Hsiao-Wai the Monkey is hanged offscreen.
  4. Wu-Ten is slashed, falls down stairs, and is stabbed in the back.
  5. Shih-Yun is decapitated.
TL;DR: Exposed to Danger is a bizarre mishmash of genres, but all of them are pretty good!
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1411

No comments:

Post a Comment