|The Plot: Philosophy of a Knife is best described as “documentary”, focusing on the Japanese medical prison where live human beings were used as guinea pigs for various experiments having to do with biological weapons and human endurance. Many died, but the way in which they died were far more brutal than most of the world could imagine. Director Andrey Iskanov delivers the true story of all those involved in very brutal fashion, as many of the horrendous experiments are re-created so that we can fully understand the anguish and horror of the situation.|
The Review: Andrey Iskanov is a filmmaker I have heard a lot about, but seen nothing from. His work has all been snatched up by Unearthed Films – and if there’s any company out there that I trust when it comes to horror, it’s Unearthed. They rarely let you down, have a true love for horror and release some incredibly wicked stuff. Iskanov is best known for his previous expressionist works like Nails and Visions of Suffering; films I have not been fortunate enough to see. However, from what I’ve seen in the trailers Philosophy of a Knife carried over a lot of the same visual style from the director’s previous work and falls right in line with his directorial style. Let me go ahead and state the obvious right off the bat, this film is not going to be for most audiences. It really isn’t. There’s so much going on with Philosophy of a Knife I don’t even know where to begin. Some people are going to really appreciate the creativity behind it and the brutality and unflinching manner in which the director tackles this subject matter. Then a lot of people are going to see it as self indulgent exploitation trying to cover it’s exploitative roots with arthouse pap. That’s just the way it is. I imagine both opinions have their merit and are right in a lot of ways. I personally reside somewhere in the middle, whereas I really enjoy Iskanov’s visual direction, love the overbearing sound FX and think it’s a film that is insane with creativity. However, with a running time of four and a half hours – I couldn’t help but watch the film as both an audience member and a film fan and wonder why this film couldn’t have been trimmed down at least an hour or so. This definitely isn’t going to be the sort of flick to walk in uninitiated, and truthfully I doubt anyone is going to make it all the way through in one sitting – so, preperation is the key with Philosophy of a Knife. With the right frame of mind, the decisions the filmmaker commits to are at least understandable – although that doesn’t mean they aren’t debatable. Some controversy with the film that popped up over the summer happened when Dread Central posted up a review for the film that was completely and utterly negative on all counts; receiving a zero out of five rating with that site. Although I understand how the reviewer may feel that way, I personally usually reserve a rating like that for films that have no technical merit nor anything as far as entertainment. Regardless, the review inspired negative responses from both the folks at Unearthed as well as a very spite-filled letter from Mr. Iskinov himself. You can take either side of the argument and agree with one or the other, which speaks as much for the film as well as this particular situation.
Iskanov is a filmmaker who has become relatively well known here and the world over at this point, his films are reviled and beloved by quite a few people and I have to say I didn’t expect to find myself having such troubles with the editing. I know, I know, it’s a four and a half hour movie – but with the bevy of respect Iskanov is usually given I didn’t expect such a crawling pace or for the film to have so many shots that simply feel like “filler”. There are a seemingly infinite number of scenes in the film that are comprised of either stock footage of frozen Japanese landscapes or shots of interior walls and hallways in vacant buildings – accompanied either by a spooky piano tune score or simply buzzing sound effects. I really do think that if you went through the film and cut down these sequences that seem to go nowhere – you would shave down roughly an hour off the film. I literally found myself fast forwarding the DVD through many of these shots. Not neccesarily because I wanted to get to the gore or anything like that – but no one wants to sit through four hours worth of this. If you can run through some of the filler at least you get some of your time back out of the experience. I realize why Iskanov might have found this to be neccesary, aside from simply giving the audience a break away from the immense cruelty throughout, it seems like he strives in creating an atmosphere of slow dread like that of those forced into this unbearable situation – however this is to the audience’s detriment. No matter how brilliant a proffessor at any school may be, if his classes are six hours long and it takes him half of that time to get to his first point; no one is going to come back to that second class if they can help it. I don’t mean to be so hard on Iskanov, but I think under a lot of this excess Philosophy of a Knife could very well be a really great film. An unbearably hard one to sit through because of the gory horror of it all no doubt, but a great none the less.
A major selling point for me checking out Philosophy of a Knife was when first hearing about the film, I found a top 100 most violent films ever made list over at the RueMorgue forums that featured this very film at the top of the list. That’s a lot of hype to live up to for sure, being ranked above the likes of Premutos, Infantry of Doom and Peter Jackson’s Dead-Alive… that’s going to take a very special kind of film! Is Philosophy of a Knife that film? For my personal tastes, no it is not. There’s no doubt about it, this is one incredibly grotesque film for sure. Faces are essentially melted down with tumors, legs and arms are frostbitten until they become gory mangled bits of flesh and even worse. All the more disturbing is that it is all based upon too real of events, but for gory mayhem it’s hard to give it the prize just because it’s longer than the other films on that list. Really, the first hour is made up almost entirely of backstory involving Unit 731 and the events that lead to it. Then after nearly every gory sequence you’re given those breaks that last between three to five minutes – and the feature sometimes weaves between repetitive segments. You’ll get something like this: Gory Experiment – Interview with Russian Translator – Strange Montage Sequence – Shots of ‘Love Story’ Subplot Between Female Prisoner & Guard – Gory Experiment; and then repeat. Then towards the last half hour of the film the Russian translator being interviewed kind of takes over as he regails the audience with his stories and conspiracy theories that have little to do with Unit 731. A lot of this seems to me like things that could have been left once again on the cutting room floor. His insinuations that Americans have laid the blame for the dropping of the A-Bombs on Russia for some reason (I must assume he means our desire to scare the Russians for our post-war talks, but this is hardly a means of blaming anyone) are pretty outrageous, then he tries to bring out something about American POW’s taken in by the Japanese considered themselves on vacation due to their money being placed in a bank for them the entire time they are captured… I know, didn’t make any sense to me either, especially since Americans captured by the Japanese during WWII were almost always entirely more likely to wind up dead than if captured by the Germans. I wonder if he has any conspiracies on maybe how the Bataan Death March never happened or something. So, I guess I’ve made the point that this is going to be a hard film to love haven’t I? Well, some actually might, I don’t want to fool you. This actually is a very well put together film from a stylist point of view. I see the vision within Philosophy of a Knife and think it’s an incredibly brutal look at one of the most tragic cases of human torture on a large group of people. However, as a dramatic recreation of that I think it might be missing out on a lot of opportunity. I give the film two out of five, because anything less than that would be to negate how dark and absorbing it can be – and anything higher would be rewarding it despite being so terribly slow and awkward. At the end of the day, I think if you’re a fan of extreme cinema you pretty much have to see it. However, if you’re into WWII history and you’re looking for a film to tell this story – this probably won’t be your cup of tea.