Reviews

NYAFF Review: Helter Skelter

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It would seem to me that being a supermodel might actually be one of the most difficult jobs out there. It’s not the photo shoots or the runway walks, both of which are probably harder than people give them credit for but not more difficult than, say, building a house. No, it’s everything else. It’s the fact that a supermodel can never stop being a supermodel. Everything she does has to fall in line with certain preconceived notions about her and about what she does, and she needs to make sure her appearance never goes outside the realm of stick-thin perfection. If that happens, then she’s tossed aside. 

I can see why that sort of thing would drive a person crazy.

Helter Skelter (Heruta Sukeruta | ヘルタースケルター)
Director: Mika Ninagawa
Rating: 18+
Country: Japan

Ririko (Erika Sawajiri) is a model who was essentially created in a lab. She’s not a Frankenstein-esque monster, but the baby parts used to make her skin smooth and perfect mean she’s not too far off. As a girl, she was “ugly,” but multiple full-body plastic surgeries took care of that… temporarily, anyway. Over time, the skin deteriorates, turning black and disgusting, forcing the girl to either return for more surgery or accept the consequences of her actions. Those with money follow the first path; those without commit suicide. It’s like the vanity dilemma in Se7en, and there’s only one outcome. Ririko, under the care (hah) of her manager, Hiroko Tada (Kaori Momoi), is able to return for surgery after surgery, but that takes its toll as well, and eventually a replacement arrives. Kozue Yoshikawa (Kiko Mizuhara), with her Asian looks and European eyes, sets Japan on fire and Ririko is pushed out of the spotlight.

It sounds like the setup for a Black Swan-style psychological thriller, but that comparison is not quite right. The rivalry exists, there’s threat of violence and hallucinations, but the lesbianism (yeah, it’s got some) doesn’t take place between the rivals and the rivalry isn’t really the focus of the film. In fact, the film doesn’t really have a focus. It just kind of meanders through a bunch of different Ririko-related events. The two hour runtime means there is plenty of time for this apparent narrative confusion to bring the film from one weird, exhaustingly long scenario to the next. Although its runtime is only two hours, Helter Skelter feels like a four hour epic, without the epic part. It’s just long. Long and slow.

It’s not helped by its thoroughly unlikeable cast of misfits. The only person in the entire film even worth caring about is Ririko‘s assistant, Michiko Hata (Shinobu Terajima), who really should know better than to do what she does. She’s taken advantage of in some really disgusting ways, and it’s never clear why she stays. Sure, Ririko couldn’t survive without her, but what about Ririko makes her worth suffering over? Nothing. Nothing at all. I kept expecting/hoping that Helter Skelter would turn into a plastic surgery based slasher movie, but that never happened, and it’s a missed opportunity. With characters this irritating, some good old-fashioned murdering would have made things far more interesting. There would have been some payoff for all of the unpleasantness that builds up over the course of the film. Instead, it just goes on and on and nothing really comes of anything. Even when people are injured or mutilated, it’s just not satisfying.

Helter Skelter

But it’s not all bad. Helter Skelter is like its models: kind of vapid, but gorgeous. Visually, it’s stunning. Even when the film was at its most irritating, I was still able to get some enjoyment out of how good the lighting and cinematography were. The costumes, the sets, everything is just excellent. One would hope, given the subject matter, but the team really went all out. I would say that Helter Skelter is the most beautiful movie I’ve seen in quite some time. The music, too, is noteworthy. It’s not always “good,” but it’s never not interesting. I don’t know if it was made just for this movie or not, but in the soundtrack is a rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon in D with Japanese lyrics playing over it. It’s bizarre, and that’s hardly the weirdest thing to play.

It’s just unfortunate that these looks were wasted on this film. The first half hour or so is good, because the meandering nature hasn’t revealed itself, but then it slowly goes downhill. There are so many false endings, and with each one I sighed louder and louder. When the credits rolled, I was ecstatic, which is never a good thing. The film needed to either be more focused on the central rivalry between Kozue and Ririko, even if that meant just remaking Black Swan with models instead of ballerinas, or cut out about 90 minutes and become a short film that was added to the next iteration of Three… Extremes or something like that. Those could have been great… or at least good. What is left here is something that is decent. It’s a clear case of style over substance, nice to look at but quickly forgotten.

Just like the models it portrays.