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Philosophy Of A Knife
cast: Tetsuro Sakagami, Elena Probatova, Yukari Fujimoto, Tomoyo Okamoto, and Tatyana Kopejkina

director: Andrey Iskanov

249 minutes (n/r) 2007
TLA / Unearthed NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 4/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
When reviewing John R. Hand's Frankensteins Bloody Nightmare last year I was slain with boredom by the main feature but excited by the trailer for Andrey Iskanov's second feature film Visions Of Suffering, which appeared to evidence a singular new talent in horror. I have yet to see Visions Of Suffering, but DVD label Unearthed have continued their relationship with Iskanov by (not only releasing but) co-producing his third feature film Philosophy Of A Knife. It takes home a meagre rating and I clank the dustbin lid down hard on it for all to hear... and yet I really don't think that impossibly of the film. I write in the knowledge that I cannot avoid comments that will cheer Iskanov while what I really want to do is critically injure him, make him think about his flaws. But maybe he enjoys the crass and infantile side of himself, would have it no other way. For the truth is that Iskanov is that rare visionary talent, but like so many skating the extreme he is doing himself a disservice with overblown shock tactics. There are a thousands of cine extremists but only a few have any real practicable ability, the rest of them coursing along on nastiness or rubbing sex in your face.

Most cine extremists are desperate, attention seekers who incorporate pornography and hard gore horror attention in lieu of a real imagination. Big infants, they may as well be banging their plastic plates from a high chair, their rude and crude efforts amounting to nothing more than viewer indifference. Likeable a chap as he was, Nick Zedd, though key to the movement, was a transgressive but a poor example of a filmmaker. His short films, including Whoregasm, and War Is Menstrual Envy - Part One, are choppy exercises in film technique. You could never call Nick Zedd's films uninteresting though, even a little exciting. Richard Kern was in truth only interesting, and until he branches out into formidable feature-length that is all he would ever be. Kern seems to have left film behind. Catherine Breillat continues to churn out dross like � ma soeur!, and Anatomy Of Hell, and Bruno Dumont is repeatedly praised for films when slug pellets might be the real answer. Takashi Miike, despite a rich imagination, flitters away the ultimate intellectual, creative effectiveness of his films with an abject childishness, a glee in his own cruelty and bloodletting. Breillat, Dumont, and Miike, are no better than Andreas Schnass, the lot of them are nil value shock jocks.

John Waters, Jorg Buttgereitt, Carl Anderson and Shinya Tsukamoto are among the few who succeed in that balance of art, intelligence, exploitation and, though not always overt, good humour, that permits repeat viewing. Philosophy Of A Knife is the first Iskanov movie that I have experienced, and an experience it certainly is, but the film is unmanageable in one sitting, and what is so infuriating about the director is that while succeeding in his objective to deliver the most unpalatable horror film ever made, he is a director who has the skill and the technique to make films that could take you off the planet and somewhere new. Iskanov has manufactured an otherness for his unpleasant fantasies and he could capitalise on it and court the wider world. Where David Lynch has become muddled and obtuse, Iskanov could grab us and whisk us off into his disturbing dreamscapes. Instead, he tries to pummel us into submission and we either distance ourselves or are harmed in the assault.

I say harmed because, Philosophy Of A Knife, supported by the diet of excessive violence that the youth today are fed, is a tipping point movie if ever I saw one. This is a Guinea Pig film to the power of four; torture porn prolonged to a point beyond human endurance. The director as much as admits it is too much by separating them into a part one and a part two. Not that we have to concern ourselves too greatly about British children putting their brains in a sling to this horror show as Philosophy Of A Knife would never survive the BBFC. I wouldn't put it past the makers to challenge the British Board of Film Classification just to see how many cuts would have to be made and enter the record books on the figure. There is porn that some might consider goes further, after all, the actions in Philosophy Of A Knife are faked, but Iskanov is too technically inventive and demanding a talent and the horror show too sustained.

I watched Philosophy Of A Knife in three parts, a two-hour stint followed by two of one hour each. Following both hour two and hour three I slept and on each occasion had bad dreams. Not a nightmare, I did not wake screaming, but I awoke recalling that I had dreamt an unrelentingly gruesome adventure. No horror film had affected my dreams since I saw Dr Terror's House Of Horrors as a child. If this could infect my sleep what else was it capable of? There are the full-time nay-sayers who have some stupid auto-defensive response whenever someone puts a health warning on their beloved medium, but I put that warning on Ichi The Killer, and I place another caveat on Philosophy Of A Knife: this film is dangerous, it can damage an immature mind... and it could kill.

There is much that is interesting, if not fascinating about Philosophy Of A Knife, but a lot of it is squandered in the director's malcontent. Purporting to be a documentary with 'artistic recreations' the film recalls the period of the second world war and nosing into the atrocities that come to pass at a research facility Unit 731, the re-enactments based on archival material, litigation evidence, eyewitness testimony and surviving memoirs. Stories of Japanese inhumanity and experiment camps are not new and are familiar ground from Tun Fei Mou's movies The Men Behind The Sun, and Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (both of which are obvious inspiration on Philosophy Of A Knife). There is an initially interesting perspective as the location of the facility is on the border with Russia in the town of Harbin. The subjects of the human experiments are, reportedly, ordinary Chinese and Russian villagers, the location of operations remote enough for the grim crimes to continue unchallenged. The inmates are dubbed on the itinerary as 'nantra', which translates as a 'log of wood'. On the documentary side, assuming you decide the reconstruction closer to gory pantomime than anything approaching the truth, the film dips into a lot of archive footage, seemingly in a rare attempt by Iskanov to excuse himself what he is to reconstruct. The film will close with 20 minutes of interview as if to ease the viewer out of the horrific brain searing images that that Iskanov has just put in your head. An enormous effort has been put into this film by Iskanov, not just in the studying and matching of archive footage, but in the connecting of sounds and, in the enacted horrors, the setting up of shots. Never still, never quiet, each sequence shot from innumerable angles and distances, much of that creditable to Iskanov (though Victor Silkin, who plays the old surgeon in the film, also undertook some of the camera duties).

The only on-screen interview subject is Anatolky Protasov, a military translator and doctor of medicine who was born and studied in Harbin and was a contemporary drafted in to assist with the investigation into what took place there, studying papers and interpreting for those suspected of war crimes. I have done no research into the truth behind these stories but Protasov speaks authoritatively and naturally. This is not scripted dialogue; these are real time responses. He certainly believes what he reports and too many of the details are too surprising to come from one man's imagination. Having said that, Protasov will contradict himself in time. In the aftermath section of the interview at the close of Philosophy Of A Knife he will recount how the lead microbiologist, a sick bastard named Dr Ishii will instruct his assistants to commit suicide and yet later will recall instead that they travelled with him on the escape boat. He will also recount how the paper evidence is destroyed and then tell a different story as Ishii falls into American hands and the grim research is inherited by the US (to negative ends) and yet there was still another copy that could stay home playing its part in the improvement of Japanese medicine to this day. The version in which Ishii was adopted by the military and transferred to America to continue his research appears to be a fantasy that Protasov may, over the years, have convinced himself of, in a likening to the 'paperclip conspiracy' case which saw Werner Braun's scientific know-how put to use in the American aerospace programme, despite his role in decompression experiments in Nazi Germany.

Iskanov is alive with ideas attacking the viewer on more than one sensory level. The interaction between the visuals and the soundtrack are important, music and sound effects acting as double layers of audio assault. Genetic research is discussed and Iskanov marries the talk to rare found footage of conjoined twins as they dance or are otherwise active. Possibly filmed in the 1940s and shot to display how sprightly these young oddities can be the footage is silent, but Iskanov adds a clip-clop noise to their footfalls, the effect of which is jarring, comical and disrespectful. But this is not a one-off example of this stunning but occasionally tasteless practice as Iskanov repeatedly exaggerates and deliberately applies mismatched noises to the visuals. In footage of American troops firing flame-throwers, the director applies terrible screams to phantom combatants, invisible in the footage because there is unlikely to be anyone there in the first place.

The music is constantly changing, can sound sombre, can sound tortured. A phonograph record is placed on a turntable during one barbaric act and throughout another a Japanese nurse twangs nonchalantly on a Jewish harp observing an unspeakable atrocity, unmoved. The make-up effects are often badly executed, as sloppy and messy and jagged as that found in the early work of Andreas Schnass, but this does not trouble Iskanov. The film is in black and white, with the exception of the two inter-cut interviews with Protasov and a single piece of colour found footage of a jeep-full of celebrants. The film's bare bones representation of the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki is a clear example of Iskanov at his strongest. It is a horror detached from the other nastiness in the film, an unidentified man in a suit is arranging a few flowers at the moment the H-bomb hits. The flowers and his sleeve burst into flames. There is a jostle of edits and the few furnishings catch fire. The movements are frantic while outside the window the explosion is depicted as more of a pretty sparkle-fest. The lack of realism forces adjustment upon readjustment on the viewer. The confusion of images hinting at the horror is preferable to the smacks of in the face horror more common to the film.

The players are frustrating. The young Russians seem resigned to their fate. One of the girls eventually struggles as she is led to a horrific end but an air of futility hangs over the film and this is not at all healthy. The young performers are for the most part good looking. Elena Probatova (in the role of the 'favourite girl') wears a benign smile and is offed with a bullet, which seems subtle by comparison, but the impact is dramatically upped, and she has already suffered horribly in the laboratories. Anna Subotina is an attractive blonde with eyes as big as her face and provides the film with the only moment of actual intimacy with close-ups of her sex. Credited as the 'insect experiment girl' she has a cockroach introduced to her private parts, and though the full insertion is faked in the edit the feelers tickling the labia are real and so is the anatomy. I squirmed and I have the rival genitalia.

Iskanov hints at what he is truly capable of when in more idyllic mood. The release of the favourite girl comes with a slower gait accompanied by a gentle lilting score of synth and soft sax. The black and white shots are quite wonderful even when fracturing the natural beauty with streaks of barbwire and other detrimental infiltrations. Iskanov is capable of visual poetry and it is a great pity that he is reluctant to harvest the magic and instead retreats repeatedly to the tormentors and the tormented. It would be interesting to see what Iskanov could do with a romantic drama. He could still study the emotionally tormented and retain the barbwire in the trees as a metaphor for love's crueller moments. Iskanov, however, is not yet adult enough to contemplate such a challenge. It could be his There's Always Vanilla holiday away from the mutilation zone. Take up my challenge, Iskanov, and show the world your true worth. In the meantime Iskanov is a genius behaving abhorrently and at a complete disservice to himself.
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