★★★ out of ★★★★★
Bashira is an artistically ambitious and technically accomplished feature debut film from special effects auteur Nickson Fong. As much as it is a treat for your eyes and ears, though, the film’s plot is overly complex and the execution of the work sometimes over-shoots the target. The story often feels like two competing stories going at the same time.
This film is a curiosity. It strives for something great, and it tries to weave together a few really heady ideas, but in the final output, it over-thought the premise, and the movie struggles to untie the narrative knots of its mash-up of themes. It has a bit of historical Japanese folklore, electronica dance club raves, high school bullying, and coming-of-age tropes.
To best try and summarize the plot here is the IMdB description:
An electronic musician and a troubled fan are plunged into a hallucinogenic nightmare where they must confront an ancient Japanese entity – capable of bending space and time and wreaking havoc and death – in order to save their souls.Official IMdB Summary
Andy (Liam Aikin) is a house DJ cranking out electronica beats at a large nightclub and is beginning to develop an up-and-coming reputation. Along with his musical partner Chris (Brandon Gill) and producer Allis (Emma Caymares) they write and produce thumping house sounds and text with their fans. One obsessive fan is under the nom-de-web Amaryllis, who shares her song ideas and provides tons of positive feedback to Andy and Chris. Amaryllis is actually a young woman named Layla (Mitzi Akaha), a half-Japanese girl who lost her mother to suicide as a young girl, and who uses music as an escape.
Layla is the victim of bullying at school and drops into depression and thoughts of suicide herself. It also just so happens that we find out her bullies all died tragically in “accidents”. After a series of nightmarish episodes, she determines that the source of her episodes is somehow tied to her mother’s roots, and she drags her reluctant father back to Japan with her. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Layla’s bullies start paying visits to Andy and Chris.
Upon arriving in Japan (in what appears to be Feudal Japan), Layla meets her grandmother (Akiko Shima) who informs her that she has inherited a curse from her mother: an evil spirit that her mother summoned called Bashira.
The movie then splits into two missions:
- Layla enters into a ritual that fakes her own death, and will need to purge the evil spirit with the power of song. Her cousin Maya (Kiki Sukezane) will help keep watch during this ritual.
- Andy finds out that a song that Layla had shared with him creates a disruptive gate of evil, and needs to combat this with a counter melody that can be used to beat the sinister song.
What follows is a cross-global combination of rituals, spatial portal jumps, musical compositions, and car chases, with plenty of ghosts and demons thrown into the mix. In writing this the plot seems clear, but the execution is anything but. I do appreciate a bit of complexity to my stories, and I don’t want to be spoon-fed exposition, but this had me losing track of the motives and the means throughout the film. The combination of the two paths seems incongruous, even if, on their own, it could have provided a good structure for their own movie plots. Rather than editing it for one story, it becomes two stories traveling down parallel paths.
Nickson also took some cues from Kwaidan, particularly the ritual, which re-introduced the kanji illustration to send people into the afterlife. It’s a beautiful nod, though this whole sequence seems so anachronistic it feels like it’s from a different movie altogether.
It did not help the clarity of the plot that there is a good portion of the movie that is in Japanese, and I had to turn the subtitles on halfway through the film in order to comprehend the plot details. The producers should really add in subtitles for these sequences, as without them you’d better brush up on your Japanese literacy.
The acting performances across the board were a bit stiff at times, and the dialogue is certainly not the strong part of this film. The most appealing character for me was the Grandmother, Yone, who really had a sparkle to her eyes. Also, I’m not a fan of electronic dance music, and there were multiple times where in order to play the counter-song, the LAPTOP would not boot up, and therefore no music. Pick up a guitar, perhaps? I think the club sequences bogged the film down a bit, and padded the run-time.
If the whole story sounds as twisty as the Matrix, it may be because Nickson was the effects technical director for Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions. And instead of “I know kung-fu!” you get “I have an ancient Japanese spirit curse!”
The experience that Nickson brings to bear shows up in the lighting, the sets, and the lovely transitions of the ghostly apparitions. Overall, the movie looks fantastic. The subtle hints of the flashbacks and the portal moves, all show off the adroitness to which the digital effects were used. The color palette was glorious, and the framing of the cinematography was always compelling. I do think they over-did Andy’s apartment, though. It seems like a “sexy ruin” of an apartment, a dilapidated but somehow romantic interior that you would expect a group of baroque vampires to be living in. It was distractingly stylish. Points for trying, but trying perhaps too hard.
Bashira is not rated, but would certainly qualify for an R-Rating. But, like most ghost story movies, the gore and violence are not extreme. There are some crunchy digitally enhanced contortionist performances that are rather grotesque, and there are a couple of splattery deaths due to the mind-controlling power of Bashira’s song. this fil was playing at the 2021 Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, which ends on December 15. (You may have a couple days to catch this if you read this review on time.)