(Warning: this review contains spoilers about the structure of One Cut of the Dead, which I don’t think detract from enjoyment of the film.)
One Cut of the Dead is a movie about people making a movie about people making a movie, which I suppose makes it…a cinematic turducken? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) It’s high-energy, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and the passion of everyone involved in its creation is visible in almost every frame.
It famously cost only 2.5 million yen (about $23,000) to make, which for some makes it yet another example of the deeply exploitative nature of Japanese indie filmmaking. On May 10, director Kōji Fukada, who has won praise for films like Harmonium, wrote a Facebook post critical of the practice of making student films and indie films extremely cheaply in Japan, which effectively ensures that only those who can “endure poverty” will be able to make films.
Indeed, director Shinichiro Ueda’s cast, all students of the Tokyo film school Enbu Seminar, actually paid money to appear in the film, and are unlikely to see any of its (probably very limited) financial returns. (For a more detailed account of the huge financial divide between mainstream and indie cinema in Japan, see Mark Schilling’s recent article in Variety.)
Watching the film, I’m tempted to set up a GoFundMe to reimburse every member of the cast and crew, because this looks like one of the most exhausting film shoots ever. The first 37 minutes is a single take of a low-budget film shoot that turns into an actual zombie apocalypse, with the cast racing up and down staircases in a derelict building as a handheld camera follows their every move. Then the credits roll, which apparently caused at least a few elderly audience members at festival screenings to walk out, thinking the film was over. It’s not—next we jump back a month, and the middle section concerns how the film shoot came to be. In the third and final act, we see that 37-minute take again, but this time from the point of view of the crew.
Along the way, Ueda is blessed with truly dedicated performances from his actors, many of whom essentially have to play two versions of themselves: the “characters” they play in the film-within-a-film, and then their real (often delightfully bored) selves during the middle section. This section of the film drags a little, though it contains a lot of clever nods to the idiosyncrasies of Japan’s entertainment industry (the specific things that agencies won’t allow “idol” performers to do, for example). The third act is a wonderful payoff, giving us a peek behind the curtain at exactly how some of the weirdly inconsistent moments in that first 37-minute section came to be (it’s almost never what you expect). Not content with that, apparently, Ueda provides another behind-the-scenes section during the actual credits of the actual film, which features the real crew running around after the real actors. (Apparently the “real” crew spent a lot of time teaching the “actor” crew how to do things like apply makeup quickly and squirt blood via an air hose.)
There’s so much going on simply in the film’s structural choices, and it’s sure to appeal to film nerds and anyone who just loves a bit of high-risk, high-energy, no-holds-barred filmmaking. It’s also fun to try to imagine how many of the “mistakes” in the original 37-minute section were planned and how many were the result of real-life problems.
One Cut of the Dead is the kind of filmmaking that I’d love to see more of in Japan. But I feel uneasy about the circumstances under which it was produced. To be clear, Shinichiro Ueda is working within a system in which this sort of pay-to-play situation is normal, and he and his team probably thought that the alternative was simply not to make the film at all. But I agree with Kōji Fukada that change has to begin somewhere, and it would be nice if low-budget filmmakers could make basic remuneration of casts and crews a cardinal rule of their production processes. At the screening of One Cut that I attended, the entire cast was in attendance, shaking hands with audience members afterward and signing merchandise. It’s the sort of (likely unpaid) “support the film” activity that plenty of indie film casts do without question, but it’s also yet another example of how unpaid labor continues long after the film is finished.