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Puzzle (2014)
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by Jay Seaver

"Meticulously and impressively constructed deathtraps."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2014 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I'm sure that the title of "Puzzle" was supposed to describe the sensation of watching it to a certain extent, although there were several times that I think filmmaker Eisuke Naito may not necessarily have meant to set the degree of difficulty quite so high. Some of that may be down to subtitling, though, and if that's the case, Naoto has made and even better murder-by-remote-control movie than I thought - and I'm pretty fond of this one already.

The plot is an old standby - deathtraps set to deliver a gruesome death or injury unless the mastermind's instructions, generally to solve a puzzle in a limited time frame, are followed. The gimmick within the story is that this that it is built around high school students, including bullied-but-resourceful Shigeo Yuasa (Shuhei Nomura) and failed suicide Azusa Nakamura (Kaho), as well as faculty like pregnant teacher Ms. Yasuda (Kokone Sasaki) and Chairman Yakai (Ryuzo Tanaka). Lead investigator is Detective Hitome (Baku Ohwada), despite his son initially being a suspect.

Or is Naoya Hitome a potential victim? Naito and his co-writers, adapting a novel by Yusuke Yamada, spend a lot of time blurring the line between perpetrators and victims, whether through misdirection when introducing characters, having former victims seek revenge, or varying the perspective from which the audience watches things play out. It's an impressive job of showing how almost all people, even in an extreme situation like this, have the capacity for both good and evil. I do think that the fractured narrative, which randomizes which facets of the characters the audience sees at any given time, makes it more confusing than it needs to be. Hiding the character arc like that requires some greater clarity in the pieces, and it's not initially clear whether the various "X days earlier" are all from a specific zero point or relative to each other, while some sequences need to be communicated batter (Azusa's attempted suicide initially looks successful and I'm not sure how Shigeo wound up with the other guys), and I wonder if it was that way in the book.

I loved what Eisuke Naito did with the material just as a thriller, especially compared to the likes of Saw and other movies featuring these sorts of bombs and deathtraps. There's a genuine viciousness to many of the constructions that may take even a jaded audience aback; the moral code motivating some attacks does not rule out committing new horror in response. And yet, Naito and company will often play for surprisingly cheerful laughs as adults stumble around trying to catch remote-controlled cars with puzzle pieces on the hoods. The style to some of the deathtraps reminds me of baby-care equipment, and the whole thing just does a great job of perverting innocence into nasty revenge without ever diminishing the truly dark bits of cruelty.

It's also kind of great-looking beyond the unconventional design choices. I don't know if Naito and cinematographer Yoko Itakura shot this on film, but it's got the sunny, smooth look of it, with just a little too much light being let in and the whole thing looking slightly washed out, especially in contrast with the stuff that's clearly on video because that's how it was shot in-story. The soundtrack is good too, and the whole thing just feels more ambitious that the two previous Yusuke Yamada adaptations I've seen (The Chasing World and Live), even if it also had a tight budget.

That does perhaps show up a bit in the cast, , and the actors generally aren't bad so much as they sometimes have a little trouble covering the full gamut of extreme emotions they're charged with - Shuhei Nomura and Kaho are both better restrained than manic, for instance. And to be fair to them, the scenes that call for some of those more extreme performances come when the movie catches up to the present and is serving up chaos after an hour-plus of intricacy.

Between the material itself and the way that the story is told, 'Puzzle" is very much not for everyone; it's an unusually violent bit of young-adult mayhem put on screen by guys with an indie/underground sensibility (look up the provocative name of Naito's last high school movie!). It's kind of nifty if it's for you, though, and genre fans will likely have a ball with it.

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originally posted: 08/20/14 13:05:02
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Eisuke Naito

Written by
  Yusuke Yamada

  Shuhei Nomura
  Kazuya Takahashi
  Saori Yagi
  Kokone Sasaki
  Ryuzo Tanaka
  Ryo Saeki

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