Described by press as a bizarre fusion of The Wicker Man (1973), Friday the 13th (1980), and Rashomon (1950), X-Cross (pronounced “criss-cross”) is actually one of the most inventive and exhilarating J-horror offerings in recent years. Escaping a traumatic break-up with her boyfriend, Shiyori (Nao Matshushita) agrees to holiday with her vivacious best friend Aiko (J-pop star Ami Suzuki), who wants a break from juggling four different beaus. The girls vacation at the remote Ashikara mountain village where, whilst bathing in the hot springs, their already terse relationship erupts into an argument. Shiyori returns to their cabin alone, whereupon she discovers an abandoned cell-phone ringing and the mysterious caller warns: “Get the hell out. They’ll cut off your leg.”
It transpires, Ashikara village is home to an evil cult who for centuries have abducted women and chopped off their legs as part of an insane ritual. On the run from hooded, axe-wielding cultists, Shiyori tries desperately to find Aiko, but suspicion arises she may not be her friend. Whereupon the film freeze-frames and flashbacks to tell of Aiko’s outrageous toilet encounter with a freaky, one-eyed, gothic-Lolita named Reiko (Ayuko Iwane). Crazy for revenge since Aiko stole her boyfriend, she gives chase wielding a gigantic pair of scissors as this time-hopping nightmare takes more, nerve-jangling twists and turns.
A real crowd-pleasing, edge-of-your-seat horror fable, X-Cross is more hot-blooded and shock-laden than what younger viewers may expect from J-horror. Which means it’s a breath of fresh air for those fed up with Ring (1998) clones about vengeful long-haired ghosts and a nostalgic treat for Asian film fanatics familiar with the fairytale gone bezerk manner of manga horror. The slasher movie set-up, which places two beautiful girls in a deserted holiday resort where their cell phones are out of range and a ranting hunchback plays “Crazy Ralph”, suggests an American influence, but the weird flights of fancy that follow are pure horror manga, especially scissor-wielding schoolgirl Reiko - who in a recurring gag, proves as indestructible as The Terminator (1984).
Equally drawn from shojo horror is the central theme of trust. Traumatic events push to the fore the tension and suspicion underlying the girls’ shaky friendship, yet ultimately strengthens their bond. A concept embodied in the red and blue lights of their respective cell phones and the theme song, “You and I”, sung by faux lesbian duo T.A.T.U. Neither girl is a screaming bimbo, but complex, capable heroines whom we can happily cheer along, as when gutsy, hotpants swaying, karate kicking Aiko finally gets fed up and launches into a chainsaw versus giant scissor duel with Reiko. Surely a screen first.
In his best movie to date, Kenta Fukasaku confidently steers the tricky narrative authored by Death Note (2006) scribe Tetsuya Oshi, making clever use of the cell-phone concept to rocket back and forth through time. He proves as adept at skin-crawling details (rows of mounted scarecrows that are really corpses crucified along the highway) and slow-mounting psychological dread, as with splatter set-pieces and laces the pulse-pounding action with story-driven visuals, including a mural that comes to life to recount the twisted history of Ashikara village. As with many an Asian horror, it’s driven by nightmare logic rather than common sense, but romps along to a rousing finale - very 21st century Japan in the use of a camera-phone to combat black magic evil!