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Puzzle ("Pazuru")

North American Premiere
  • Japan
  • 2014
  • 85 mins
  • DCP
  • Japanese
  • English (subtitles)
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Noriaki Hill High seems like the sort of place where little ever happens, a small-town school with decent students, thoughtful teachers and a tolerable level of bullying. Awkward, soft-spoken Shigeo is just the sort to be on the receiving end of that, which is perhaps why he’s sympathetic to fellow student Azusa following her very public suicide attempt. But hers won’t be the last blood spilled on Noriaki Hill school property. Four male students stroll into the school after hours one day, cut the phone lines, don cheerful flower masks, and take a pregnant teacher hostage. The quartet set about enacting an elaborate treasure-hunt game, inflicted on the handful of adults still on the premises, which concludes with one hospitalized and another kidnapped. The police are on the case the next day, their prime suspects the same cool kids who’ve sought to make Shigeo miserable. A new challenge, this one dragging the whole town into its gruesome gears, is set in motion, and as it plays out, the school’s darkest secrets will come to light and the line between villains and victims blurred and broken. The game is afoot — play it right or pay dearly for your mistakes!

Edgy young Japanese novelist Yusuke “CHASING WORLD” Yamada specializes in surrealistic, paranoid teen thrillers of diabolically complex revenge schemes, desperate survival challenges and sudden deadly violence — peppered with nonchalant black humour and nuanced characters. Two of his books see their film adaptations screened at Fantasia this year. One is LIVE, which Noboru Iguchi took in a hysterically grand guignol direction, going over the top as only he can. On the other hand, Eisuke Naito’s version of Yamada’s PUZZLE takes a more experimental and abstracted tack with art-film flourishes, revelatory elliptical leaps and understated performances. The promising young auteur of low-budget, high-concept genre subversions (he brought us 2012’s LET'S MAKE THE TEACHER HAVE A MISCARRIAGE CLUB — a theme revisited here) contrasts and even amplifies the cruelty and sullen menace of the scenario with brightly coloured, kid-stuff visual elements (the familiar time-bomb neckbrace never looked so kawaii!), cartoonish editing tricks and an incongruously lighthearted musical score of playful piano motifs. As the pieces fall into place, PUZZLE adds up to giddy, gory brain-twister in which vengeance is as much a first step as a final solution.

— Rupert Bottenberg