It can take a lot these days for a new Asian horror flick to stand out from the crowd and find its place amid the welter of product that regularly gets unleashed on western audiences. Much of it can feel, like the majority of the great heaps of highly unimaginative western horror films one still has to wade through, highly derivative and superfluous to requirement. Long gone are the heady days of the late nineties when everything coming out of Japan, Korea and Thailand would seem essential, immediate and cutting edge. But every now and then, something does turn up to make you sit up straight and take notice again; and versatile cinematographer turned director Tiwa Moeithaisong has managed to produce one such piece of work in the head trippy psychological splatter flick "The Meat Grinder", a film which manages to combine the fetid, rotten, twisted splatter of Lucio Fulci in his eighties heyday, with the sensibilities of a Natural Born Killers-era Oliver Stone, executing a blitz of mixed media cinematic tricks-and-ticks to leave the head reeling even as the stomach is still heaving at the gruesome excesses the film has in store for the unwary viewer.
It's almost impossible to give much of a hard and fast or accurate synopsis for the film, since almost nothing is as it at first seems. The film takes for granted the viewer's familiarity with the mind-churning leaps of logic and chopped-up structure, as well as the mixing of fantasy with reality, subjective experience with external fact, that has become over the years the hallmark of all the best Asian horror titles, such as Korea's "A Tale of Two Sisters", for instance, or Shimizu Takashi's Grudge series from Japan. Thus, we are plunged straight into the less-than-reliable head-space of the film's protagonist Buss (Mai Charoenpura), as represented by a jittery cocktail of stylistic cinematic devices and switches in film stock, none of which, it soon appears, can be relied upon to stay moored to their original function within the plot. Are the grainy black and white sequences always flashbacks, for instance, or are they sometimes Buss's unreliable memory of what she believes happened? As fantasy, memory and psychotic episodes increasingly appear to blur and run together, it becomes very hard to tell what is really supposed to be going on inside the troubled world of the middle-aged noodle-maker turned cannibalistic serial killer who is at the heart of the film's (apparent) events.
The film introduces us to Mai Charoenpura's character Buss as a poverty-stricken wife whose husband has seemingly disappeared, leaving her in debt to a violent and threatening landlord -- and needing to find a way to earn a living, and fast. Circumstances conspire for her to feel forced into holding prisoner and then torturing, a visitor to her home called Chart -- the husband of the missing baby-sitter for Buss's young daughter, whom Buss believes was having an affair with her husband. Recalling violent and disturbing sexual episodes from her own childhood in which her mother apparently took drastic revenge on her abusive stepfather, Buss follows in the family tradition and starts adding human meat to her noodle recipes after killing a protester caught up in a street riot during a military clampdown. Lo and behold, her restaurant business suddenly takes off! It seems that dangling human carcasses suspended on hooks above one's noodle pot is a sure-fire way of pilling in the punters!
Soon Buss embarks upon a veritable orgy of violence, wielding a meat-cleaver with fearsome dexterity and sending arterial blood spraying in unwholesomely gushing fountains wherever she turns. Indeed, the disturbed young noodle chief is soon positively wallowing in sticky puddles of blood, and up to her armpits in human offal in her dingy basement-cum charnel house. Things get complicated when she embarks upon a relationship with a young man who works in the corner shop where she goes to get medicine for her daughter from time to time, for this man is a friend of the missing Chart -- believed by his grieving family to have been abducted by the military in one of Thailand's many violent street demonstrations, but who is actually still being kept prisoner in Buss's foul, blood-splattered basement!
"The Meat Grinder" is quite unique in the way it manages to combine a feeling for psychological depth and exhibits a seriousness of tone in its moving study of its main character, with a quite visceral taste for extreme violence that sometimes happily tips right over the edge into pure comic book splatter. The tone is set in the opening scene when the unfortunate Chart first of all gets his leg sliced straight off at the knee with a cleaver, and is then made to suffer the indignity of being knocked unconscious via a clout round the head with his own severed limb! Those viewers who can still find the time for the odd spot of sadistic 'torture porn' in their horror movies will have plenty to enjoy here as well, as the main protagonist rejects simply tying up her prisoners like any normal psychopath, and instead keeps them pinned to the floor via the simple expedient of painstakingly hammering six inch nails through each one of their ravaged fingernails.
Limbs fly, blood gushes and wounds gape hideously all across this gut-churning ninety minutes -- a warped study of culinary-based murder and schizophrenia. Even more incongruously, the director chooses to set the outlandish action explicitly against the backdrop of civil unrest and military agitation that characterises modern Thailand's increasingly troubled politics, even to the extent of incorporating real documentary footage to run alongside the heightened gore-drenched events of the plot. But Tiwa Moeithaisong's scatter-gun approach to film style goes even further than that; the score even includes a cheesy pop song at one point, that plays over a love scene which cuts between a pair of lovers' tender caresses and the equally loving preparation of one of Buss's gory human-based recipes.
None of it should really work at all, in all fairness. But thanks to a very strong central performance from lead actress Mai Charoenpura, this bizarre filmic puzzle somehow manages to hang together despite sometimes feeling almost totally incoherent. It portrays Buss's confused state of mind beautifully while never being restricted to her purely subjective representation of events, occasionally taking the viewpoint of other characters as well -- and then deliberately blurring the distinction once again. The film eventually becomes a genuinely unpredictable descent into a fluctuating nightmare that's probably open to multiple interpretations and certainly requires multiple viewings ... at least for those with the stomach for the ordeal.
"The Meat Grinder" is released in the UK by 4Digital Media and comes with a trailer and, according to the press release, a Making of Documentary, although this was not included on the screener disc. The anamorphic transfer seems to represent the intent of the filmmaker reasonably well and the burned-in English subtitles are readable without being intrusive. This is an unlikely multi-layered psychological study and an over-the-top splatter flick all at once, yet it seems to work and is well worth seeking out.