Cruel Restaurant (Zankoku hanten)
Japan (2008) Dir. Koji Kawano
It’s Halloween so the form is to watch some horror films in celebration. As a quick filler this 74 minute, low budget, shot on video exploitation shocker from Japan was dug out of my archive of unwatched films. With a description like that and the fact the lead actress is a former AV star, even realistically low expectations are likely to be too high.
A fisherman on a quiet beach reels in the severed hand of a woman. A journalist Toshiko Shirizawa (Miho Funatsu) just happens to be sunbathing in the exact same spot as this happens. She reports the story to her editor but instead is told to check out a nearby Tougen Dumplings restaurant whose eponymous dish boasts a moreish secret recipe that is proving very popular.
The small restaurant is run by shy waitress Miss Lin (Mihiro Taniguchi) and stern chef Mr. Chin (Sakae Yamazaki). Two police detectives, Goro Nojima (Katsuya Naruse) and Ganzaburo Iwanomoto (Yûsuke Iwata), are there under the suspicion that the unique filling is made of human flesh after many locals have recently gone missing. They team up with Toshiko to learn the truth about this secret ingredient.
It’s not the most original story, paying a fleeting nod towards the Hong Kong horror Dumplings from a few years earlier, but not in the way you might think. For such a cheap, and dare I say tawdry, production the payoff to the plot’s central conceit is very original, unexpected yet quite befitting of the concomitant build up.
Similarly it is not to be taken seriously as pretty much every character is a tired trope or blatant cliché of the worst order. For example, Nojima is the older cynical cop while Iwanomoto is the inept youngster, whose idea of covert tailing is literally being two visible steps behind his target.
A supplementary character, food critic Hoemi Masumoto (Chihiro Koganezaki), is a loud, snooty bitch, dressed in a tight fitting gold mini dress and big hair. She is at the restaurant because her sister, also a food critic, went there and was never seen again. Toshiko notices that Hoemi has the same ring that the severed hand at the beach had, so maybe her fears are legit.
Mr. Chin is a terse, uptight fellow with little compunction in using his fists or any nearby weapon to silence anyone asking questions about his meat supplies, which come in boxes dripping with fresh blood. Even Lin doesn’t know where the meat comes from but is too afraid to ask, so she just takes a bath instead because ex-AV star.
The horror remit is covered by the deaths that occur after people start to take their frustrations out on Lin. Each time she is attacked, Lin passes out and awakens to find a severed head or a bloodied corpse in the back of the kitchen, and becomes convinced that she is the killer. Suddenly she is haunted by visions of bloodied heads talking to her that aren’t there and in one dream, finds herself chopping up her own body.
But as Chin continues to act cagey and the dumplings continue to sell with new different tasting meat something is clearly up. In one of the sillier (!) moments, Toshiko has the idea of having a schoolgirl Chie (Mina Arai), a girl with a huge appetite, eat every order of dumpling at the restaurant to force Chin to find replacement meat, so she and Iwanomoto can investigate and follow him respectively.
Writer-director Kôji Kawano and co-writer Satoshi Ôwada, for all their faults in relying on hackneyed clichés and recycled plots, have at least tried to make the investigation a curious one, with a slew of quirky ideas employed to the misdirection of apparent obvious clues. The big reveal comes out of left field as suggested earlier, tying up loose ends too, closing with a mid-credits denouement to flip everything on its head.
However one element of the film we haven’t discussed is the sexual content. It would appear that if a current or former AV star wishes to try and “go legit” the transition isn’t an immediate one, with the CAT III subdivision – for graphic content in between mainstream and porn – providing a suitable bridge. In other words, the ladies are doing what they did before but less frequently and less explicitly.
Aside from taking baths for no reason, Lin is also subjected to an unpleasant food assisted rape scene, forced to strip and bonk her lascivious old dumpling tutor Mater Hoi (Kêsuke) and “touch” the place on her body where the true spirit of dumpling making comes from (and guess where that is)…
Some might find this wholly unnecessary but CAT III is rarely about being classy, although in this instance there is a point to it, beyond exploiting the lead actress Mihiro Taniguchi, another of those Japanese girls who looks too cute and chaste for the seedy AV industry. It takes a while but she does show the occasional flash of personality towards the end but mostly she pouts and gets naked.
The other female cast members may or may not also come from the same background if their background is any indication, while the men don’t fare much better. Only Sakae Yamazaki gets to have fun being as the quietly psychotic Mr. Chin, his time covered in blood commensurate to Mihiro’s nudity. The effects are cheap and nasty as expected but the effort is at least there, and that counts the most.
As a CAT III film the budget limitations and ropey acting are a given, yet this lack of polish gives the film a somewhat gnarly, visceral feel that CGI cannot replicate. Cruel Restaurant has niche appeal even within the horror milieu but truth be told, there are worse ways to spend 74 minutes.