There are horror films and then there are simply disturbing films. The modern Japanese classic Gozu (cow's head) falls into both categories thanks to the stunning performances of its cast and the direction of Takashi Miike during his prime, when every film he spawned offered a ghastly variety of morbid thrills that not only shocked upon impact, but resonated in the rear lobes of the conscience forevermore. Fusing Miike's strong background in the yakuza genre to an almost Alice in Wonderland journey of sanity extraction, the film explores a number of dark themes through a steady stream of bizarre characters and uncomfortable situations that ultimately revel in a deeply cerebral, almost Freudian gross out. If the 'American Gothic' genre were transplanted to suburban Japan and slowly roasted over Hitchcock's chestnuts on an open fire, with yazuka leads, then it might turn out something like this.
***LACTOSE INTOLERANT SPOILERS***
The plot follows Minami (portrayed by Yûta Sone), who is assigned to escort his higher up Ozaki (the always excellent Sho Aikawa) to a 'disposal' site for yakuza, after it becomes apparent that Ozaki has lost his marbles and gone paranoid schizophrenic (thinking every dog is a 'yakuza attack dog' for example). The order comes from Boss, played by yakuza regular Renji Ishibashi; a womanizing mob boss who can't achieve an erection without shoving a soup ladle up his ass. On the road, Minami is forced to knock out Ozaki after an encounter with a car 'remodeled to kill yakuza'. Since he's apparently killed his former boss and friend, an unforeseen circumstance, Minami stops at a roadside tavern to call for help, in the town of Nagoya. After vomiting from a chicken custard side dish complements of the house (and courtesy of a transexual phantom), Minami discovers that Ozaki's body has disappeared from his car outside. After this, the film becomes a strange procedural investigation, as Minami is forced to team up with the local, odd yakuza crew to track any leads, and it just keeps on getting eerier until the final revenge arc, which I will dare not even hint about here.
Gozu is deep, and like most traditional Japanese cinema, it takes its time to achieve each thrill. Sone doesn't have to do much but stand around confused and weirded out, but to his credit, he pulls off the discomfort very well while maintaining a tough thug exterior. More impressive are Aikawa, whose paranoid glares are simply unforgettable as he stares down a yazuka attack dog or his own boss in the opening credits. Keiko Tomita and Harumi Sone are likewise superb as the innkeeper and her brother that provide lodging for Minami, and the scenes at the inn are among the best. Shohei Hino is also brilliant as local gangster Nose, who suffers from a strange skin discoloration. The music is timid but threatening, and though it moves perhaps a little too slow in some spots, the tension of the film is crafted lovingly, the sets so natural and familiar to suburbia and yet so cluttered full and foreign that they provide the perfect purgatory for these events.
In short, Gozu is an essential viewing experience to any fan of psychological horror and unique movie making, and in my opinion one of Miike's strongest offerings. It's somewhat more understated than Ichi the Killer or Audition, but it compensates its lack of viscera with a more chilling graft of deeply disturbing bewitchment, with a number of scenes and characters you simply cannot forget. I haven't seen the film in English, but even if such a dub exists, I would highly recommend (as always) that you watch it in Japanese with the subtitles. Very well worth your time if you're into strangeness like Uzumaki or Suicide Club, and fascinating to behold, this is perhaps one of the better foreign horror films I've ever seen.
Verdict: Epic Win [9/10]