Versus (2000) ***½
It is a commonly espoused opinion among hardcore fans that East Asia is where it’s at these days, so far as horror movies are concerned. Truth be told, the much-vaunted originality of Asian horror is to some extent illusory, an artifact of Western audiences’ unfamiliarity with age-old commonplaces of Eastern legend and literature, to say nothing of the spotty distribution that Asian cinema has faced on this side of the globe. After all, a film that the Japanese or Koreans dismiss as derivative crap might still come as a breath of fresh air to an audience that has never been exposed to the earlier works its creators were ripping off. But a lot of what’s come out of Asia in the last ten years or so unquestionably is as groundbreaking as it looks through Occidental eyes, and once in a great while, you’ll encounter a filmmaker like Ryuhei Kitamura, who somehow manages to be derivative in a breathtakingly original way.
Versus was Kitamura’s first truly feature-length film, following the five-reelers Heat After Dark and Down to Hell; indeed, Versus was originally planned as a sequel to Down to Hell, and its finished form could fairly be described as an enlargement of the original film. Some have described the relationship between the two movies as resembling that between Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi and Desperado, which is probably a fair description, too. In any case, both Down to Hell and Versus take the Evil Dead-like premise of a spot in the woods where demonic forces do extremely inconvenient things to dead bodies, and conceal it within a first act that would lead the average uninformed viewer to anticipate a very different sort of movie. But as befits its much longer running time (roughly two hours, as opposed to just 45 minutes), Versus goes off along the way in a few directions its predecessor had not. In fact, it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Versus eventually goes off in every direction current in either Japan or Hong Kong at the turn of the 21st century.
We start off with a samurai (Toshiro Kamiaka) battling a band of zombies in a forest. This evidently has something to do with the 444th portal to the underworld (out of a total of 666, naturally), but if you attempt to figure out what at this early stage, you’ll only wind up hurting yourself. The samurai acquits himself admirably at first, but then a woman, another swordsman, and some sort of priest (Hideo Sakaki, from Black Kiss and The Suicide Manual) arrive on the scene, and the latter interloper kills the samurai.
But forget about all of that for a bit, and turn your attention to a pair of convicts on a prison break. We never will learn these guys’ real names— or anyone else’s, either— so let’s just make up a couple of easily remembered handles for them. The one who seems to be taking the lead in the escape (Tak Sakaguchi, later of Aragami and Godzilla: Final Wars) rather looks like what would have happened had Johnny Depp been born Japanese, so we’ll call him “Akira Deppu;” his companion (Alive’s Motonari Komiya) isn’t long for this movie, so “Mr. Fucked” should do well enough as a moniker for what little time we need to be concerned with him. As the two jailbirds scamper up and down the wooded hills, it comes out that they are on their way to a rendezvous with a band of yakuza, for whose leader they apparently once worked. It also comes out that one of them is dragging along a severed hand at the trailing end of his manacle, but that’s neither here nor there for the moment. What matters is that the meeting with the rest of the gang does not go exactly as expected. For one thing, Akira Deppu and Mr. Fucked don’t have to spend much time talking to the yakuza lieutenant (Sword’s Kenji Matsuda) in charge of the rescue to discern that “rescue” might not be the strictly correct word for the undertaking. Secondly, those gangsters have brought along a girl (Chieko Kisaka, of Suicide Club)— apparently an abductee— for some purpose known only to their boss, and it seems that she and Deppu recognize each other from somewhere. Finally, Akira Deppu just has a really big mouth. No sooner has the girl’s presence been revealed than he starts antagonizing the other gangsters, riding the ass of the one I’ll call the Screaming Nutball (Minoru Matsumoto, from Neighbor No. 13) with particular ferocity. The situation devolves very quickly into a John Woo-inspired standoff, with Deppu slyly seizing one of the other gangsters’ pistols. The yakuza lieutenant gets shot down during the scuffle, but the situation has only just begun to spiral out of control. Evidently this stretch of woods is awfully close to that 444th gateway the characters in the prologue were so non-specifically concerned about, because the dead gangster gets right back up again just moments after being killed. The Screaming Nutball and his surviving buddies get a little weirded out over that, and spend a good couple of minutes blowing their erstwhile leader away again. Then, evidently in a transport of enthusiasm for the scientific method, the Screaming Nutball shoots Mr. Fucked in order to see if he’ll come back to life as well. He does.
While the gangsters busy themselves with re-killing Mr. Fucked, Akira Deppu grabs the girl and runs. They are pursued by the most Rambo-riffic of the yakuza, and a rather odd martial arts battle ensues between him and Deppu. While that’s going on, several complications are arising for the other three criminals. The Screaming Nutball insists that they must remain in the area until “He” arrives, even despite the rather obvious disadvantages of hanging around in a place where the dead habitually return to life. And in point of fact, those disadvantages are even greater than they appear on the face of things, for the short, high-strung gangster we’ll dub Captain Panic (Yuichiro Arai) has just recognized that clearing over there as the one this particular mob has been using for years as the dumping ground for the bodies of assassination victims. You guessed it— all those dead folks are about to wake up on the wrong side of the shallow grave, and since most of them were yakuza themselves when they were alive, most of them will also have guns. Now, that problem is mitigated to some extent by the fact that the Screaming Nutball is expecting reinforcements, in the form of a team of crack assassins whom he means to sic on the big boss whenever he deigns to put in an appearance, but an army of pissed-off, pistol-packing zombies is still a four-alarm pain in the ass. Furthermore, when the big boss arrives, we realize we’ve seen him before as the samurai-killing priest from the opening scene! This, inevitably, means that the head of the Screaming Nutball’s mob is actually the reincarnation of that long-dead priest, and as in his past life, he has business to attend to here in the Forest of Resurrection— black-artsy business for which Akira Deppu and the kidnapped girl are both vital ingredients. Let’s just say that a mutiny plot from some coked-up subordinate is the last thing he’s going to let stand in his way. Mind you, the reincarnated wizard isn’t the only one who has come in pursuit of Deppu, either. When the two prisoners made their break for freedom, they were in the process of being transported somewhere by a deranged policeman (Yukihito Tanikado) and his partner (Battlefield Baseball’s Shoichiro Masumoto)— the latter of whom was the owner of that severed hand that was stuck in Mr. Fucked’s manacle— and neither one of those guys is willing to countenance the idea of their charges slipping away permanently.
If you have even the most passing familiarity with both Asian action movies and Western zombie films, then there will be little or nothing in Versus that you haven’t seen before. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that even the most dedicated fan will have seen any one film that incorporates all of the ideas Kitamura recycled to create this movie, or that carries each of them quite as far over the top as Versus does. From the gangland shoot-em-ups made by John Woo and his imitators, Kitamura borrows the balletically stylized gunplay, hyperkinetic editing, thundering electronic background music, and shamelessly testosterone-soaked bad-assery. From 30-odd years’ worth of samurai, swordsman, and chopsocky flicks, he takes the crazed fight choreography, extensive use of wirework stunts, and wildly exaggerated notions of the efficacy of martial arts training for increasing the body’s capacity to endure physical punishment; one might also score the themes of destiny and reincarnation that eventually come to the fore as holdovers from those films as well, although Asian culture is so permeated with such ideas that to do so would probably be giving too much credit to specifically cinematic antecedents. The influence of Western zombie movies is most strikingly apparent in the myriad subtle echoes of The Evil Dead that litter the entire film. What Kitamura himself adds to the mix is an infectious, enthusiastic affection for everything he rips off, together with a sense of humor so dry that you might miss it were it not for one perfectly timed and orchestrated gag at about the half-hour mark. It comes just as the audience is likely to begin asking themselves, “So, do you suppose this guy Kitamura knows how ridiculous this is starting to look?” and it establishes beyond question that yes, he really does— only he’s having way too much fun to let a little thing like that restrain him. Unfortunately, there are a few points at which Versus would have benefited from a bit of restraint, most notably during the drainingly overstuffed third act. A full two hours really is much too long for so frenzied and chaotic a film, and I was ready for the wrap-up well before Kitamura was.
Versus is also notable for its rather cracked sense of story structure. The entire first half of the movie passes without once suggesting that there is any sort of purpose behind the increasingly out-of-hand action. Only after a good hour has gone by do the first inklings of genuine storytelling appear, tossed off in a cockeyed manner that blindsides you with the realization that, as if by magic, you suddenly understand what’s been going on all this time. It was a ballsy move on Kitamura’s part, and at this early stage of his career, it’s difficult to say whether skill or luck had more to do with its success. It does indeed succeed, though, and what might be even more surprising is that this seeming afterthought of a story is honestly pretty damned compelling, and leads up to one of the best surprise endings I’ve seen in a very long time. Perversely, however, I also found it slightly disappointing when it became apparent that Versus was going to have a real plot after all. By the time the reincarnated yakuza guy settled down to reveal what he was up to, I had thoroughly gotten over my case of the what-the-fucks, and was really grooving on what I thought was shaping up to be a vibe of “That’s right— this movie makes absolutely no goddamned sense. And you know what? It’s never going to make any goddamned sense, either!”