Takashi Miike's Imprint is a film loaded with contradictions, open to an enormous range of interpretations, and saddled with a manufactured back story that threatens to overwhelm the film itself. The film has received a great deal of attention for supposedly being banned from broadcast in the US, a 'ban' that is likely little more than a marketing manouver for the DVD considering that it was entirely self imposed by the network and other stake holders that commissioned it in the first place, attention that will certainly ship more units but will also steer conversation almost purely to the inevitable 'should they have or shouldn't they have' argument around the film rather than addressing the core content of the film itself.
An elliptical, dreamlike, grotesque and otherworldly tale of obsession Imprint is simultaneously one of the most beautifully shot and deeply disturbing pieces in Takashi Miike's extensive canon, a film that can be read a host of different ways and will undoubtedly reveal new possibilities with repeat viewing, and also a deeply flawed piece of work. Given more time and attention to detail - not to mention removing the ludicrous imposition of purely English dialogue on a cast and setting that is entirely Japanese with the exception of Billy Drago - Imprint could very easily have been a classic work. It clearly is not and the failure to reach its potential stings more than a little but between the strengths of the film itself and the stellar range of special features on the DVD Imprint is an essential purchase for fans of Miike.
The cadaverous Billy Drago stars as an American man searching Japan for the woman he loves in the late eighteen hundreds, a search that leads him to an island brothel, the waters surrounding which are populated by the floating corpses of pregnant whores. And while he does not find his lost love on the island he does find another woman, a prostitute with a badly deformed face who seems to have an uncanny amount of information about both the American and his missing lover and over the course of their night together she spins out the intertwined tales of her own history and the fate of his missing lover. As the story progresses it becomes both more sadistic and less certain leaving you to question the very nature of the searching traveller, the missing woman, and the deformed prostitute. Clearly nothing and nobody is what they seem.
Commissioned for the Masters of Horror series primarily on the strength of Ichi the Killer, Audition and Gozu, Imprint plays on one level like a Miike best of targetted at fans of his best known, most transgressive work. There are a host of hot button Miike tendencies on full display here from the graphic and lengthy display of female torture, to surreal body modification, to incest, patricide, spousal abuse and virtually every other familial horror you can imagine. Miike couches his horrific imagery with beautiful camera work and design, showing a high attention to detail and light, and as is often the case with his stronger works you can't escape even for a moment the notion that there is a far more significant point lurking beneath the shocking imagery.
However, this is also where the film's weaknesses start to come in to focus. Whether it be the short run time or tight production schedule - not likely the latter considering Miike's normal work habits - or some other quirk along the way the script from Audition writer Daisuke Tengan just doesn't feel quite finished, the various strands stopping just shy of coming together in a meaningful way. The film hints at a host of possibilities without ever giving quite enough to fully buy in to any of them.
Language also plays a disruptive role in the film, Miike working for the first time in a film entirely outside of his native language, working in a language he is not at all comfortable with. I have long argued that working outside of your own fluency is a bad idea and Imprint bears all of the typical hallmarks of a director working in a language he does not fully understand. Setting aside the basic foolishness of having all the characters speak nothing but English - it would make sense when they were interacting with Drago, but nowhere else - and the distractingly obvious phonetic English pronunciations forced on the Japanese speaking cast and you get to a deeper issue that English and Japanese simply have fundamentally different rhythms, different cadences, different inflections to carry different meetings. Because Miike is not fluent in the language he cannot recognize when Drago crosses the line into camp - which he does - and also cannot quite get the cast to strike the tone needed to build the queasily unreal environment the script demands. The actors and director simply don't understand each other the way they need to for things to completely fit together.
The opportunity to see the film itself on this continent the way it was intended to be seen is enough to guarantee at least a rental of the upcoming DVD but the bonus features on this elevate it into must buy territory. The commentary track by film writers Chris D and Wyatt Doyle is shockingly willing to criticize the film's weak points - a true rarity, with most commentaries little more than puff pieces - while also finding a host of interesting topics to raise that might otherwise slip by. We then get three additional interview / behind the scenes reels. The first is a twenty minute breakdown of the make up and effects work. Second comes a fifty plus minute discussion of the film itself and the process of taking it from best selling Japanese book to screen and Miike's involvement in the Masters of Horror project. Finally - and this is the real kicker, worth the cost of admission all on its own - is a forty minute one on one interview with Miike himself, a wide ranging conversation with Miike discussing in detail his working habits, his philosophy of film making and a host of other issues. Miike is a fascinating, complex man and the chance to hear him describe his own work in his own words is not to be missed, particularly interesting is his chafing against international perception of him as purely a shock film maker while he also openly discusses catering to those expectations with this project.