Exte (Japan, 2007)
I’ve had a copy of Exte sitting on my shelf for around five years. Every time I picked it up to watch it, I’d think to myself, “It’s about killer hair extensions,” and put it back down. I read a number of positive reviews that almost convinced me I should watch it, and then I remembered it was about killer hair extensions, so I didn’t. One of these reviews mentioned that it was made by Shion Sono, who directed the rather wonderful Suicide Club, a film that stuck with me for its unnerving strangeness, but which contained no killer hair extensions. Finally, wanting to review another non-English-language film this October, for a change of pace, I succumbed and slipped the disc into my laptop. And, sure enough, Exte is all about killer hair extensions. It’s also a bloody marvellous film.
After the body of an unidentified young woman is found in a shipping container, packed in human hair, an opportunistic and more-than-slightly creepy morgue attendant, Yamazaki, cuts off her hair (as is his wont) and notices that it grows back. This is all the excuse he needs to steal the body and take it home, placing it in a hammock in his studio apartment. Over time he learns that the dead woman grows hair in huge, uncontrolled bursts, fuelled by anger. And angry she should be, as it turns out the woman was a victim of the black-market organ trade, harvested for her viscera, hair and one of her eyes, probably while conscious. As is typical of ghosts in Japanese films, she is driven to take out this anger on anyone who comes to her attention, and the instrument of her revenge is her hair.
Running parallel to this is the story of Yûko (played by Chiaki Kuriyama of Kill Bill and Battle Royale fame, not wearing a school uniform here), a trainee hairdresser at the wonderfully named Salon Gilles de Rais (“It’s French, you know!”). After an unpleasant run-in with her abusive sister, Yûko ends up taking in her young niece, Mami, who decides that she wants to learn how to be a hairdresser as well. This leads to horror and weirdness once Yamazaki drops by the salon to hand out free vengeful ghost hair extensions, lovingly arranged in a birdcage. Said hair goes on the rampage, bringing madness, mutilation and death. Yûko and Mami fight for their lives, with only their hairdressing skills to save them. Admittedly, when faced with killer hair extensions, these are useful skills to possess.
One of the real joys of Exte is how far it is willing to take both its premise and imagery. If you set out to make a body horror film about hair, it makes sense to use hair in every twisted, disgusting way you can envision, and Sono lets his imagination run as wild as blow-dried hair on a windy day. Long strands of crawling black hair fill the screen, growing like an invasive plant species on speed, carpeting their prey like swarms of insects, invading every orifice they can find and bursting out like bean sprouts from Hell. This is the comic made nightmarish, and no matter how ridiculous things get, you will be squirming while you laugh.
More interesting the well-used tropes of long-locked and vengeful Japanese ghosts, Exte is a story about very human obsession. The fetishistic love for hair of Yamazaki, the morgue attendant, (“I want to fill this town with lovely hair!”) drives the film. He is both comic relief and monstrous villain, usually at the same time, and the film is at its most engaging when he is on screen. His is a clownish figure, dressed in wigs and garish clothes, whose glee at the horrors he inflicts is both charmingly childlike and utterly perverted.
A small detail that delighted me was the clever demolition of the fourth wall as a way of introducing the characters in Yûko’s life: Yûko and one of her friends at the salon have recently watched a soap opera that used clumsy, exposition-ridden dialogue as a way of revealing its characters’ thoughts, and have adopted this manner of speech to take the piss. This conceit allows the characters to introduce themselves to the audience with a big wink, and is funny for as long as it lasts (which, coincidentally, is just as long as it needs to serve its purpose). This is just one example of a script that knows how to use comedy without overplaying it, and gets the jokes out of the way when it needs to be horrible to us.
Exte is undoubtedly the best film about killer hair extensions I’ve seen. I cannot imagine that I will ever watch a better film about killer hair extensions. Don’t make my mistake and let yourself be put off by the ludicrousness of this premise; Exte embraces it in a way that isn’t campy or dumb, giving us a delightful mixture of comedy, weirdness and outright disgusting body horror.