On paper, a film adaptation of a novel by cult Japanese writer Ryû Murakami, known for his gruesome shockers like ‘Into the Miso Soup’ and ‘Coin Locker Babies’, by Nicolas Pesce, the director of the haunting ‘The Eyes of My Mother’, sounds like a gruelling prospect.
Imagine my surprise when, at Monster Fest Presents’ screening at Dendy Newtown (featuring a Q&A from actress Mia Wasikowska), it dawned on me that ‘Piercing’ wasn’t just stylish, quirky and grisly... it was also quite funny.
‘Piercing’ follows Reed (Christopher Abbott, ‘It Comes At Night’, ‘First Man’), a husband and father who is tormented by traumatic events in his past and his very current compulsion to stab his new baby with an ice pick. Seeking to turn his murderous impulses elsewhere, he decides to kill a call girl, packs his ether and bondage ropes, and tells his wife that he is going on a business trip.
Reed has a detailed plan for murdering the stranger he summons to his hotel room. He writes in a little notebook (which also contains a mysterious photograph) in tidy block letters. He also mimes out the encounter, hacksawing away at the air over a bathtub in a moment of coal black physical comedy.
But the prostitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska, ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’, ‘Crimson Peak’), has a few issues of her own and proves to be more than a match for Reed’s own messed-up urges.
Following Reed through a series of cramped interior locations (rooms, hallways, the back of a cab), we are never quite sure what is going on. Hallucinations of talking babies and monstrous beetles stand alongside reality in Reed’s warped mind. Jackie’s own motivations are never made clear, either.
This is coupled with a deliberately dislocated (but beautifully filmed) visual aesthetic and setting, with the novel’s Tokyo replaced by an unknown city of skyscrapers containing archaic technology. Reed’s hotel room is retro kitsch, all dark leather and burnished wooden panels; Jackie’s apartment features black silk sheets, a shiny monochrome kitchen and an ancient record player. People contact each other using phone booths in the street rather than smart phones.
The film's sound design features a sprinkling of sleazy Italian jazz written by composer Piero Piccioni and music themes taken from seventies and eighties gialli. A cameo appearance from Goblin’s score for Dargio Argento‘s ‘Profondo Rosso’ occurs when Pesce employs a split screen device as he brings his two main characters together.
It’s a satire of modern dating, as two emotional baggage-laden individuals circle around each other, each miscommunicating their desires and intentions. It’s also an exploration of individual trauma and how an inability to process it can lead to isolation and loneliness.
Far from being lowbrow torture porn, ‘Piercing’ has more similarity to Mary Harron’s ‘American Psycho’ and Marjane Satrapi’s underrated ‘The Voices’. It’s a satire of modern dating, as two emotional baggage-laden individuals circle around each other, each miscommunicating their desires and intentions. It’s also an exploration of individual trauma and how an inability to process it can lead to isolation and loneliness.
Ryū Murakami’s stories have been filmed before, most notably by director Takashi Miike (‘Blade Of The Immortal’) with the all-time horror classic, ‘Audition’. While ‘Piercing’ is never as disturbing and gory as ‘Audition’, it does share its use of surreal flashbacks melding with the present day as well as a few themes, with Reed so busy projecting his fantasies onto Jackie that’s he’s completely taken off-guard when she turns out to have her own personality and drives.
Mia Wasikowska has played unhinged, murderous characters before in Chan-wook Park’s ‘Stoker’, Jim Jarnusch’s ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’, and David Cronenberg’s ‘Maps to the Stars’. It’s to her credit as an actor that she continues to find new wrinkles in these roles. Her take on the self-harming Jackie is by turns kittenish, lonely, amusing and menacing, exploring a sadomasochistic woman’s radical expression of her sexuality.
When the punchline ending arrived, it was so abrupt that the applause from the audience at my screening was tentative and disbelieving. Despite running at only 81 minutes, ‘Piercing’ is a compact two-hander that offers a stylishly presented, off-kilter treat for fans of black comedies.