There’s a Japanese legend about a figure known as kuchisake-onna – the slit-mouthed woman – who asks her victims ‘am I pretty?’ before killing them. The weird cut-through-the-cheeks look Takashi Miike sports in Ichi the Killer is a reference to her – and there are quite a few films about her. She also appears, along with a lot of other J-horror regulars, in my novel Anno Dracula One Thousand Monsters. It’s helpful to have this character/story in mind when watching Ghost Mask-Scar-,which isn’t strictly a kuchisake-onna film but does work up to an impressively gruesome, high body-count finale in which at least one (and perhaps two) characters transform themselves into avatars of the slit-mouthed woman, and her key question is asked. Some cultural context about respective Korean and Japanese attitudes to plastic surgery – a K-fad and J-shame, apparently – might also help, since this very complex story is informed by that as well.
At its heart, it’s a tale of two sisters – to evoke another Asian horror classic – with the added confusion that the two sisters each have additional sisters, lovers, dependents, friends and hangers-on who fit into a pattern that tends to exclude men and populate the film with Korean and Japanese women who all seem to be in the same age range and body-type (because there’s a mystery about who might be who after some plastic surgery). All the men glimpsed or referred to are feckless and useless: a father who abandons a wife and daughter, a betraying boyfriend who cheats on his fiancée with her sister, a husband who gifts his wife a fake luxury ring, a pickpocket, a masher who tells girls to the back of their heads that they’re beautiful and always gets a shock when he sees their faces, and the guy who shoves his girlfriend at the knife-wielding maniac who is roaming the streets slashing random people.
All the women have deep feelings and tragic circumstances. Pretty Japanese Miyu (Yurika Akane) is in Korea searching for her disappeared sister (Miya Sakimoto), a relatively plain woman (glasses, goofy smile), and meets cute (thanks to that pickpocket) with the extraordinarily beautiful Hana Kim (Yuha Lee), a famous plastic surgeon (though she looks barely old enough to be out of med school) who lives with the coolly jealous Hyoshin (Sou Hirosawa). A chatty, self-involved younger half-sister back in Japan has a K-double in Hana and Hyoshin’s gossipy friend. The story is kept in focus by imagining a surreally small world of collisions (some fatal or near-fatal) and coincidences (Miyu keeps showing a photo of Sis – which eventually someone recognises). Even the busy city streets seem depopulated of all but essential personnel – as if the place only had the population of a small village.
It’s a mosaic mystery, with its backstory jumbled and told out of order – so audiences have to pay close attention and piece it together themselves … with misunderstandings (a mcguffin amulet prompts wrong conclusions) and misreadings (actions that seem hateful are done for love) adding complications. It shifts into Audition territory with a sustained, gruesome finale in which (it’s no spoiler) faces are sliced and old wounds re-opened with arterial sprays and high-style ranting performances. However, the film is more of an emotional rollercoaster than a gore-fest … as one of its plastic surgeons is told by a patient, it wasn’t her physical scars which needed attention. Scripted by Etsuo Hiratani; directed, edited and photographed by Takeshi Sone, whose other FrightFest contribution this year is as the nimble cinematographer on One Cut of the Dead.