Reviews

Demons within and without

Jesus faces an internal struggle in Last Days In The Desert and two Japanese horror queens battle it out in Sadako Vs Kayako

Two films this week deal with demons - the kind that lives within us, and the sort that inhabits cursed VHS tapes.

Last Days In The Desert (M18, 100 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) dramatises the 40 days that Jesus Christ is said to have spent fasting and praying in the Judean Desert, a crucible that would turn a carpenter into a prophet. Or, as the film implies, anyone, into some kind of seer.

The New Testament writes that it was a time of temptation.

Satan himself proffers earthly treasures to throw Jesus off the career track picked for him by his father.

Writer-director Diego Garcia, a Colombian now working in the United States, plays up the idea that the sojourn was a trial primarily of the spirit, less so the flesh. Jesus - once again, played by a very non-Semitic actor in the form of Ewan McGregor - is beset by an apparition that seems to live inside his own mind, because Garcia fashions him in the actor's own image.


Ewan McGregor (above) plays Jesus in Last Days In The Desert and Toshio, Kayako’s son, appears in the movie Sadako Vs Kayako. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The director's portrait is far from revisionist; it seems to be an attempt at portraying a historical event as it might have happened, 2,000 years ago.

All the same, Jesus' self-inflicted wounds feel modern, a touch Freudian. His concerns over whether his father truly loves him would feel right at home on the couch of a New York therapist.

But it is not just him in the desert, though. He meets a family and his interactions with them push his faith to the sticking point.

The father (Ciaran Hinds) is a herder scratching a living from the dry earth. The mother (Ayelet Zurer) is sickly and needs attention from her husband and son (Tye Sheridan), a restless teen yearning to leave the wasteland.

Garcia is fascinated by questions of identity and how nurture has a way of beating nature. His Mother And Child (2009) has mothers whose affection for their offspring transcends time, and mothers who feel nothing. Albert Nobbs (2011) is a period drama in which Glenn Close plays a biological woman who prefers living as a man.

Jesus grapples with not just who he is, but who he imagines that he is. But the film's real triumph is one of cinematography rather than its incisiveness on the question of his divinity (though there are hints that this is not in doubt).

Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki - the person who gave you vertigo in Gravity (2013) and froze your cheeks in The Revenant (2015) - makes the desert throb with spirituality.


Ewan McGregor plays Jesus in Last Days In The Desert and Toshio (above), Kayako’s son, appears in the movie Sadako Vs Kayako. PHOTO: ENCORE FILMS

Spirits of another sort infest Sadako Vs Kayako (NC16, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars), touted as a battle royale between the two reigning evil queens of Japanese horror. Cue jokes about Alien vs Predator, Freddy vs Jason and Batman vs Superman.

Yes, like those films, this effort reeks of cash grab, of stunt event rather than movie-making. But director Koji Shiraishi (The Curse, 2005) is a horror veteran who largely respects the ideas that make up the constituent franchises, which started with Ringu (1998) and Ju-On (2002).

The curses must follow certain rules and the story follows them to the letter.

Everything else, however, is bedlam. Recent releases based on the horror franchises have already descended into self-parody, as all horror franchises tend to do past a certain number. Here, the appearance of ghostbuster Keizo (Masanobu Ando) and grade-school sidekick Tamao (Mai Kikuchi) are an attempt to inject manga-style humour into an otherwise relentlessly grim work.

We get that Keizo and his out-of-the-box thinking are required to bring the two demonic entities onto the same pitch, and there are some well-placed scares here. But Keizo's and Tamao's characters feel as if they wandered in from a high-school comedy featuring a cool teacher and his magic pet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Demons within and without'. Print Edition | Subscribe