Ox-Head Village 牛首村 (2022) Director: Takashi Shimizu [New York Asian Film Festival 2022]

Ox-Head Village   

牛首村 Ushikubi Mura

Release Date: February 18th, 2022

Duration: 115 mins.

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Writer: Takashi Shimizu, Daisuke Hosaka (Script), 

Starring: Koki, Rinka Otani, Haruka Imou, Riko, Riku Hagiwara,

Website IMDB

Tuesday Jul 19, 9:00pm

Film at Lincoln Center

Director Takashi Shimizu will attend the screening.

Ox-Head Village is the third film in a series directed by Takashi Shimizu following Howling Village (2019) and Suicide Forest Village (2021). In each film, he has a haunted village taking centre stage and uses the same formula for each instalment: a mystery story framework where everything is typically initiated through an urban legend spreading on social media and a main young protagonist investigating it, all while having close encounters of the spooky kind. Curses are uncovered and a supernatural confrontation ensues.

This set-up is par for the course when it comes to Shimizu, the man behind Reincarnation (2005) but fans of his earlier works should be prepared to lower expectations on frights. This trilogy is Shimizu at his most audience-friendly. Compared to his earlier work, the cast of each film skews young, albeit with a supporting cast that has one or two veteran actors for background support. The characters get involved in a mixture of found footage, folk horror and also comedy, the latter of which is used to temper the supernatural scares. Ox-head Village adheres to the above formulas as it presents a solidly shot, broadly entertaining film that should appeal to a mainstream audience but leave horror fans slightly deflated.

The story begins when a duo of wannabe vloggers head for an overnight stay at a haunted hotel to live-stream a video of a girl named Shion (Koki) wearing an ox head taking a test of courage by entering an elevator reputed to be a portal to a supernatural realm. Things go wrong when spirits intervene and the girl, trapped in the elevator, actually goes missing. The video goes viral online. This is how Tokyo high school boy Ren (Riku Hagiwara) comes to see it and shows it to Kanon (Koki), the girl he is crushing on. The two realise that she bears an uncanny resemblance to Shion. This is just the first in a strange series of incidents that affect Kanon as she gets eerie calls on her smartphone, experiences the sight of a spectre, and has strange dreams that hint at a twin from her childhood. But with all this spooky stuff happening, could it be a doppelganger instead? Kanon becomes determined to find out the truth behind the video and travels to the site of Shion’s disappearance with Ren in tow.

And it starts off as a nice trip. One gets the sense that Shimizu’s film doubles-up as a coming-of-age horror/road-trip movie, as we head to sun-kissed Toyama Prefecture to experience real-world attractions like a fancy resort, the beautiful landscape, and the mirage in Toyama Bay. All of this before heading to the more eerie, albeit eye-catching Tsukino Mineral Spring Hotel, a haunted hotspot that has lots of urban legends tied to it. This is skilfully used for context/material, as are local customs, shrines, and Jizo statues which provide further local flavour. The Toyama tourism board will secretly be pleased with most of the film as even the bits that are meant to be scary are couched in the gorgeous landscape.

A lot of time is spent on creating story context as the kids explore and uncover location-specific urban legends and the grisly history of a village where human sacrifice took place. These parts are novelistic but solidly set up to reveal a vengeful spirit with a grisly and tragic background. This is delivered via plodding flashbacks and, more effectively, exposition from legendary actor Akaji Maro whose gravelly voice is perfect for intoning the harshness of the past. This past allows the film to root itself into some more unique aspects of history.

The main actress is Koki, a model/songwriter who is the daughter of Takuya Kimura (trend-setting member of SMAP and actor in (Love and Honour, Sword of the Immortal). She is fine.

If the locality provides an interesting context for the film’s story, the horror is a so-so experience as it accompanies these interesting details through reused plot twists, tropes, and reveals that you can guess. Long-time viewers of J-horror will recognise elements of Ringu (1998) and the scares are all sourced from previous J-horror titles and previous entries in the Village franchise – a person hitting a car windshield, hands creeping over the characters from their surroundings, blurry ghosts in the background and camera pans letting spooks slip in and out of frame. These are all tried-and-tested formulas that Shimizu helped establish in the early days of the J-horror boom but, at this point, they are tired. Their delivery lacks any fright so audiences won’t be that scared. Furthermore, Shimizu uses relies on CG that is funny rather than scary and some of the acting in response to the scenes of horror is hammy. The net result is that horror hounds will be left yawning but the film is more accessible to a wider audience. That written, the atmosphere is consistent when it needs to be and so auds will be absorbed into the story.

With the fact that so much time spent fleshing out its mystery narrative and ramping up the lukewarm scares, the final third of the film feels rushed as the big reveals segue to ghoul chases that move at a breathless, confused pace that is only rescued by ending the ghost story in a circular manner from where it all began. The main actress is Koki, a model/songwriter making her debut here, holds everything together well. She is the daughter of Takuya Kimura (trend-setting member of SMAP and actor in (Love and Honour, Sword of the Immortal) and she is good leading lady material but she also benefits from a fairly charismatic supporting cast, particularly Riku Hagiwara’s wannabe beau. Also, Gaki no Tsukai‘s Naoki Tanaka has a role – just throwing that in there.

If the start of Shimizu’s career is defined the Ju-On, an episodic franchise laser-focussed on blood-chilling scares and memorable ghosts that sear themselves on your memory, the stuff that alienates a non-horror audience, his village franchise represents a more restrained and fun experience that you can take your grandparents and kids to and they would probably enjoy. It is well shot, acted, and has an intriguing story to keep viewers hooked. Not a horror classic but good.

2 thoughts on “Ox-Head Village 牛首村 (2022) Director: Takashi Shimizu [New York Asian Film Festival 2022]

  1. “If the locality provides an interesting context for the film’s story, the horror is a so-so experience as it accompanies these interesting details through reused plot twists, tropes, and reveals that you can guess. ”
    Exactly! I liked the locality, the nature, the real surnatural spots used by Shimizu (the tunnel, the abandoned building…) – real Japanese YouTubers have been there. But yes… The movie is not good. I still have to write something about it, but it’s hard to find inspiration. ^^

    1. Neither of us liked Howling Village but this is an improvement. I think a less demanding audience (i.e. those easily scared) will enjoy this.

      Yes, researching the hotel revealed a host of YouTube channels that do paranormal stuff. I would watch those videos but I don’t want to see a ghost and end up in a Pulse situation!

      I’ll check out your review if you can finish it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.