Peter GutiérrezA member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. He is also a contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez View all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
Just when all of us thought there was nothing fresh that could be done with the very fatigued serial killer subgenre, here comes a gem from 2004 that’s finally been released on home video. In fact, even describing Late Bloomer as a “serial killer movie” demeans it a bit, oversimplifying it to the point where its startling originality is diminished. There’s no ominous music, stalking cameras, amateur psychology, scary masks, and so on. Instead, there’s naturalism and finely observed detail of the sort that may turn off some horror fans but should turn on far more who are simply interested in superior genre filmmaking. The long tee-up to the first scene of violence builds tension and expectations in ways that are far from formulaic—and actually, it shows my own short-sightedness by terming the first act a “tee-up” at all: it’s simply a character-driven drama of the most personal kind.
Indeed, as a much-needed antidote to the slick, corporate horror that the majors have been releasing recently, you could not do better than Go Shibata’s black-and-white portrait of a man whose alienation and unfulfilled desires explode into bloody mayhem. Late Bloomer is the kind of film in which even the planned murders feel spontaneous, and we’re left thinking about, even empathizing, with the killer, not simply guessing who the next victim will be. The interiority and intimacy of the film is achieved by Shibata’s consistent use of close shots, a strategy that only makes the final long-take pull-backs and dolly-ups that much more effective: we’ve been so immersed in the protagonist’s private spaces, both physical and mental, that it hits like a ton of bricks when we’re re-introduced to the wider world beyond.
While some might dismiss Late Bloomer as gimmicky, given that it’s the first film I know of that uses horror-thriller conventions fully within the social context of the disabled community, such folks probably have not actually seen the movie; that’s because there’s just too much artistry and ambition on display here—if you wanted simply to create the pretext for a “wheelchair killer” tagline on a movie poster, you could do it with a lot less attention to all the pre-production, production, and post-production details that leap out from nearly every shot in Late Bloomer.
What’s more, the reasons for protagonist Masakiyo Sumida’s descent into homicide are overdetermined in an audience-respecting way. Working from an idea supplied by the star (who actually does have cerebral palsy) and a collaborator from his student filmmaking days, Shibata’s script layers on the multiple forces at work in compelling and often complex ways.
Of course this equal opportunity approach to portraying a murderer is part of tearing down infantilizing stereotypes of the disabled, but Shibata has not made a message movie in the strict sense of the phrase. In an eye-opening (if slow-paced) interview included on the DVD he mentions with embarrassing sincerity how making the film gave him “the opportunity to become a better person,” but I’d argue that this does not equate to a goal of changing the public’s attitude toward a marginalized group. The tone is just too thoughtfully Sumida-centric to be condescending. Besides, I imagine it’s hard to collaborate with someone on the level that Shibata has done here while pitying them. I know there’s controversy surrounding this title, and I’m guessing that some of it involves Sumida’s participation itself (note that his character shares his real name), that perhaps it was exploitative, especially given that he claims he had no idea he’d be playing a killer until the shooting started. This is definitely a tricky area to comment on, but my advice is to see the film, watch the special features, and decide for yourself.
As for Shibata’s stylistic touches, Late Bloomer makes me want to see everything he’s ever done or ever will do, as his work here variously recalls the best of Harmony Korine, the brilliant Korean film Oasis, and even, in its experimentation, the classic Tetsuo, the Iron Man. To be sure, Late Bloomer is not as kinetic as Tsukamoto’s film is (few are), but the editing is so razor-tight that even when scenes themselves might seem “slow,” the overall pace is somehow brisk and intense. Shibata unwinds the narrative in a manner that’s dexterously insinuating, shifting its perspective and playing with real-time as needed. In fact, there’s only one really clunky instance of storytelling, and that occurs when one character talks aloud to herself for the audience’s benefit.
I missed Late Bloomer during a theatrical run last year at New York’s late, lamented Pioneer Theater, so when I heard it was coming to DVD, I was excited to check it out. Boy, am I glad I did. Oh, and before I forget, one of the special features is a fascinating interview with Sumida-san himself. All in all, another winner from the Bone House Asia label.
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