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Review: Before We Vanish

Caught a midnight screening of Before We Vanish at IFC Center. I don’t think Quentin Tarantino himself could have made an alien invasion movie this delightfully offbeat: there are no flying saucers, no laser beams, not even a single monument in flames—just inquisitive visitors struggling to understand what the weatherman is pointing at, or why their chosen “guides” keep abandoning them in order to go to “work,” or why the human race seems so upset about its impending destruction (after all, it’s nothing personal).

Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira, as far as I’m aware) has a well-earned reputation in the U.S. as a master of J-Horror, so an outright dark comedy represents a bit of a tonal departure for him (with perhaps the sole exception of Sweet Home, a slapstick splatter flick in the same vein as Evil Dead, better known these days for its video game adaptation on the NES). It is, however, thematically consistent with my favorite of his works, the psychological chiller Cure. Like that film’s homicidal hypnotist, Before We Vanish’s extraterrestrials (who possess human hosts, absorbing their memories and basic knowledge) warp their victims’ minds, stealing their “conceptions” of such abstract notions as family, ownership, and love, gradually eroding their sense of self and leaving them permanently dazed and vegetative.

If that sounds way too heavy, don’t worry: there’s plenty of humor to temper the existential terror. The awkward interactions between our alien protagonist and his host’s perpetually stressed-out wife, for example, never fail to earn a laugh, and the violence is so absurdly over-the-top that you’d think Kinji Fukasaku returned from the dead to ghost direct a few scenes. Before We Vanish won’t win any awards for its production values (a sadly common state of affairs in the current Japanese film industry), but Kurosawa deserves praise for creatively concealing his budgetary constraints. Indeed, the result is charmingly old-school, though the surprisingly heartwarming climax is a welcome antithesis to the bleak, soul-crushing pessimism of Japan’s traditional sci-fi storytelling (see: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, Genocide, Blue Christmas).

[Originally written February 10, 2018.]

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