"I usually have an iron stomach when it comes to gore, and I enjoy watching graphic make-up effects, but some of the embalming scenes here did something no other film has done in awhile: make me feel physically ill."
- Raging Gaijin
EM Embalming (1999)
AKA: Em Embalming, Em: Embalming
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Writer: Katsuaki Takemoto, Satoru Ogura
Producer: Saki Amamiya, Izo Hashimoto
Cast: Reiko Takashima, Hitomi Miwa, Kojiro Hongo, Masatoshi Matsuo, Yutaka Matsushige, Seijun Suzuki
Running Time: 95 min.
Plot: See review below.
Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com
RAGING GAIJIN'S REVIEW: I suppose it was only a matter of time; somebody was bound to make a horror film about the process of embalming. And here it is, straight from acclaimed Japanese director Shinji Aoyama. Truth be told, "Em: Embalming" covers a wide variety of topics, not just embalming. Themes as diverse as incest, organ harvesting, religious sects, and drugs are touched upon. Fortunately, the movie never feels sporadic or stretched too thin despite its wide breadth of subject matter. Shinji Aoyama isn't that concerned with shock for shock's sake either, even though things do get graphic during a few embalming sequences. Aoyama's approach is more akin to the measured, disturbing horror of Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Unfortunately, the movie's slower pace, weak antagonist, and ambiguous story mean that it doesn't leave as much of an impression as it could have. It's a worthwhile and interesting film for Asian horror buffs or fans of the director; just be prepared to feel sick to your stomach rather than actually scared.
The main character is a Japanese woman who happens to be an embalmer. She makes corpses presentable for grieving family members at funerals. She's good at what she does and doesn't seem too phased by her macabre work. But she suspects something is up when she discovers a needle in the eye of her latest case, a young boy who supposedly committed suicide. The search for the real reasons behind his death leads her into a labyrinth of deception that reaches all the way to the highest political offices in Japan. Along the way she stumbles upon a mysterious organ thief who may or may not be her father and a teenage girl who had a "close" relationship to the boy who died, while a possible romance blossoms between her and the hard-nosed detective following the case.
"Em: Embalming" is full of intriguing and suspenseful sequences and ideas. Director Shinji Aoyama knows how to create an atmosphere of terror where anything seems possible. I usually have an iron stomach when it comes to gore, and I enjoy watching graphic make-up effects, but some of the embalming scenes here did something no other film has done in awhile: make me feel physically ill. Yes, the "corpse" that is embalmed is obviously a fake dummy/mannequin, but it's convincingly shot and quite gruesome just the same. For this reason, horror fans and gore-hounds might want to check this out.
If the plot sounds interesting, that's because it is, although the film takes it time getting there. The final antagonist is a bit disappointing simply because he/she is not all that threatening once revealed, and the ending doesn't resolve much, which is particularly disappointing in the case of the lead character's father. If you like movies that leave a lot of room for ambiguity and let the viewer fill in the details, I imagine you'll enjoy this more.
This is a film that I'm glad I watched but, in the end, I don't think it was as strong as it had the potential to be. Shinya Aoyama's slow, dread-inducing pace works against "Em: Embalming" in some respects, as well as the movie's many opaque elements and lack of resolution. It seems rare nowadays that a movie leaves *too* much to the imagination, but I think this is one such film. It's a good Asian horror movie but that's it, just a good one. I'd recommend watching this if you like Kiyoshi Kurosawa-style horror, but make sure you see all of his movies first.
RAGING GAIJIN'S RATING: 6.5/10