For the third time in as many films, the studio, Danger After Dark, has provided me with another Japanese Game of Death-type film. I recently reviewed both STRIP MAHJONG BATTLE ROYALE and DEATH PENALTY.COM for the company, and if I drew any sort of conclusion from the past three films that they have sent me it would seem that they almost specialize in this sort of fare, almost to the point of exclusion of other genres ("not true", they were quick to inform me in email). While they love putting these films out there almost as much as I enjoy watching them, I now have to take a hard look at the current film before me, surely there can’t be any more gamesmanship possible in yet another film about Asian kids killing each other in yet another turn based torture tournament for teens? Whether or not this sort of movie sub-genre is but one of my many film fetishes, it delights me to say that this one is the best yet from this company, if “not a tough game to beat” both for the onscreen contestants playing it, and the litany of future Danger After Dark films based on “painful pastimes” which are sure to follow this. As usual, when it comes to a film, they had my attention at X…
Somewhere in Japan, it seems, a series of tragic deaths is taking place. Known bullies are dying all over the county, usually under mysterious circumstances. When a group of four teenagers realizes that one of their former professors has also inexplicably “killed himself”, little do they know that “X game” has been declared nor that they have already “volunteered” to play. Much as with every “torture porn” film before it, the four “would be” contestants wake up in the same room together disorientated, afraid, and apprehensive about what is to happen next. In seconds, an ancient TV crackles to life and informs the players that they are about to suffer the exact cruel and unusual abuses that they once inflicted on a poor girl named Mariko back in elementary school From a Horrorview perspective, the remarkable thing regarding the scenes of extreme physical torment in this film is not the fact they are look suitably grotesque onscreen (which they do), but that the “physical challenges” are thematically inspired by one of the thirteen torments the foursome had inflicted on the young outcast girl from their past. For example, while they once made Mariko sit on thumbtacks, in the modern day incarnation of the game, her former attackers may be “encouraged” to sit on a school desk chair festooned with rusted nails. If any student fails to complete the act of self-mutilation that their challenge requires within three minutes, the room blacks out and a randomly selected observing player is led away to a back room by scary men with surgical gowns and electric stun batons where are fire branded with an “X”. As brutal and visually cruel as this sounds, this film makes you somehow identify with the plight of the young Mariko as several detailed flashbacks detail the original abuses she suffered at the hands of her schoolmates, which explains, if not emotionally justifies, to the viewer why they should be made so suffer badly in present day. Moreover, unlike most “games of death” films which usually only contain one complete asshole on their player roster, the players of X- Game are a particularly loathsome bunch of jerks who you will enjoy watching getting their comeuppance, save for Hidaki, the young boy who actually tried to stop the game back when it could of mattered, long ago.
Now, is the time where I have to compare this to a SAW film because this is basically analogous of the hit series of films best understood by American audiences. Personally, I feel that X GAME has better torments, if not more thematic traps than most of the stuff in the later outings of the SAW franchise. Don’t get me wrong; I think the technical mastery and computer generated viscera in all of the SAW films are works of dark art incarnate, and I don’t wish to detract anything from the genius of the “Jigsaw” killer, himself, but I found that, in the theme of this “bullying game”, the torments, while very amateur, are quite apt and, given their crimes, most satisfying. Also unlike SAW, the “X Game” takes on a social element where a player is forced to inflict an act of mutilation onto themselves or be physically forced to complete it by the other three players who don’t want to be arbitrarily scarred for life with a big red X for their failure to do so. Because of this, the game itself has a vicious peer pressure element that is not only endemic of the problem of all social abuses of group power structures, but perhaps is its deadliest facet. Truth be told, most of deaths in X GAME come as a result of random “player onto player” violence; the “punishments”, themselves, are only designed to cause disrespect and mild disfigurement. While it is true that all traps from a SAW film are patently designed to make the player atone for past misdeeds, by the end of the series they seemed to all be cookie cutter “replace the peg or lose the leg” traps that were only symbolically based in the original offenses of the player who simply did not appreciate his life or the lives of others. In this way, while X game is not as deadly as SAW, it is actually much cleaner and meaner for letting the punishment fit the crimes, if not vice versa and I dug it the most.
In the end, what’s not to love about this one? The recipe is good. It plays out like a cross between the delinquent duels from BATTLE ROYALE (right down to the classic symphony music piped into the classroom between turns) with a slice of SAW and just a hint of THE RING, especially the character of Samara herself. While admittedly this film is not supernatural, there is just something about the unkempt locks of the mad moppet Mariko as she is shown in flashback that you know she is going to grow up and leave her mark in this world, if not literally burned onto those who wronged her. Also it should be said that what this film lacks in budget it more than makes up with directorial skill. The scene at the beginning of the film, where a scarred, frightened professor is forced to play the “X-Game” in the final moments of his life ahead of what first appears to be a classroom full of his students was an incredible spectacle. Things get weirder and worse every few seconds and it scared me without sudden scenes of deafening exaggerated gore or a cheap “gotcha”. Check it out now before it is remade and ruined by an American studio with three times the original blood and budget and yet somehow a mere fraction of the onscreen elegance.
Extras Include Theatrical Trailers for this and other films.