Directed by Shunji Iwai
Canada 2011

The line on Shunji Iwai’s English-language debut, Vampire, is “Don’t worry. The film is really not about vampires,” which is true. There are no mythical shenanigans; no supernatural mystique artificially injected into this story about a serial killer and his travails. However, the title of the movie does not mean to mislead. Iwai’s Vampire is definitely fantastical, and like Lily Chou Chou and Swallowtail Butterfly before it, requires a persistent state of suspended disbelief to truly shine. And by toeing the line of surrealism so expertly, Iwai, like a filmmaking Dracula, puts the view under a spell, allowing him to fully control (and subvert) one’s expectations.

The story follows Simon, an attractive young biology teacher who lives with his Alzheimer’s afflicted mother. His hobbies include grousing, being a shut-in, collecting lab equipment, and draining blood from suicidal women. He finds the women on websites, and uses a plethora of excuses to get them to go along with his plans. Some he tells he’ll participate in a suicide pact. Some he tells the blood is for medical research. All are lies. Simon has no plans to die.

Simon is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters. Mina, a quiet, morose Japanese exchange student, desperately seeks Simon’s attention. Renfield is a maniac wannabe, a vampirism fanboy who wants nothing more than to have his own lengthy Wikipedia page and maybe some rape charges. And at the top of the heap is Laura (Rachel Leigh Cook), Simon’s stalker/girlfriend, who might be even more sociopathic than Simon (“she grew up rough” her step-brother explains). Compared to some of these characters, Simon’s madness may be more or less reasonable.

Kevin Zegers (Gossip Girl) does an incredible job as Simon, balancing the character’s complexities without appearing psychotic. Cook is thoroughly enjoyable as Laura, and Adelaide Clemens is an absolute revelation as the Lolita-esque Ladybird. But in the end, the true star is Iwai and his gorgeous direction. His shot selection is superb, the pacing is riveting (some would say breakneck by Iwai’s standards), and he’s able to seamlessly shift gears at will. In fact, there are a couple scenes in the movie that might be too beautiful, if not juxtaposed with some genuinely macabre context.

Vampire may not be a vampire movie, but it probably does more for the monster than Twilight ever could do. It’s a case study of a mythological creature, an origin story of legend using a subject that might hit closer to home than any Edward or Jacob could. This beast is a man, and the things he does, as appalling as they might be, are still in the realm of human experience. Never has the trope “the monster is inside of us” been expressed so clearly.

Vampire will screen at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival at the Admiral Theater on June 5th at 8:30 PM.

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