From the advertising poster art of Blood: The Last Vampire, with its anime-style uniformed Japanese schoolgirl poised to strike with a raised samurai sword, we might expect a hard-R erotic toon, sort of a vampire-meets-nymphet thing. Or perhaps even a reimagining of one of those salacious Nikkatsu Studios exploitationers from the 1960s and 1970s, with nubile teenyboppers dealing death to dirty old evildoers.
When the film finally spreads its Tarantino-ish wings, however, it’s clear that producer Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and martial arts helmer Chris Nahon’s live-action remake of the 48-minute Japanese anime of the same title (2000) should have lingered in the development stage awhile longer. Or better yet, that it should have had the courage of its leering convictions.
Blood begs us to be swept up in the tale of the time-traveling, gender-shifting reincarnation of a 16th-century samurai demon hunter named Kiyomasa. According to the opening scroll, Kiyomasa fought in the Onin War, when Japan was plagued not only by human aggression but by a scourge of demons. In the tradition of monster movies everywhere, the demon-killer’s work is never done because the creatures never really die. Neither does Kiyomasa, newly reborn as Saya (Gianna Jun), a sixteen-year-old beauty in the year 1970. Saya’s mission: search out and destroy a flying, blood-sucking menace called Onigen (played by Japanese actor Koyuki), “the oldest, vilest demon of them all.”
Because demons are fond of taking the shape of high-school girls (something we’ve always suspected), Saya’s quest takes her to an American Air Force base near Tokyo, where she assumes the role of a transfer student and meets classmate Alice (Allison Miller), the general’s daughter. Never mind the useless “CIA” subplot involving Alice’s father and a cabal of guys in shades. Blood is all about girls getting together and slaughtering other girls.
Saya, with a little help from Alice, rids the world of vampires amid much CGI and a few thoughtfully staged fights. The Crouching Tiger impulse is strong and might have been encouraged, but the story (by Kenji Kamiyama and Katsuya Terada, who created the original characters, and Chris Chow, who adapted the screenplay) is demonstrably Japanese, so we get a Chinese-looking action fantasy set in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. Quentin Tarantino had a similar problem with Kill Bill: Vol. 1, with its ultra-Japanese Sonny Chiba sword sequence and the Lady Snowblood duel centerpiece. He solved that by using Uma Thurman as the ultimate cross-cultural sexy she-devil. That bright yellow track suit obliterated all resistance.
Actor Jun isn’t quite in the same class. Give her a few years. Further, Saya’s classic Nippon schoolgirl uniform has nothing at all to do with the task at hand — she’s the only student in the school wearing one. It’s enough to make us suspect that the entire movie was built around the poster art, just like Roger Corman did in the 1950s.
The dialogue is horrible (sample exchange: “Little bitch is out of control.” “Saya is all we’ve got”), the acting is worse, but once we boil all this down and discard unnecessary plot elements, it’s really not that different from one of Takashi Miike’s demonic fright films, particularly in the action scenes. Kato’s autumn-leaves sword battle is one of the rare high points.
Otherwise the “Japanese”-ness is negligible. Actor Jun is Korean, the film was shot on location in China and Argentina, and alongside the haphazard presence of the US Air Force and the CIA, the Hong Kong-France-Japan-Argentina production adopts an American adolescent’s view of the world. To paraphrase the Firesign Theatre, how can you be everywhere at once when you’re nowhere at all?
From the “Japan” of Blood: The Last Vampire it’s a long way, in every sense of the word, to the peaceful corner of Europe where a gay man is having trouble adjusting to his new job as The Country Teacher. Petr is everything a certain faux-homo character named Brüno is not: quiet, bespectacled, dressed in ordinary clothes, and reserved, with an air of sadness about him, as if he’s carrying an invisible weight.
We learn that Petr (played by Pavel Liska), a high-school science teacher, was assigned to the sleepy Czech village as a form of exile from Prague, because of complaints of improprieties between him and one of his students. Hence his shyness. The small town is the end of the line for him — one more incident and he’s fired. Peter happens to be a wonderful teacher, with the ability to bring out the best in his students. One of them in particular draws his interest, a rebellious and hard-to-motivate seventeen-year-old boy named Lada (Ladislav Sedivý), whose mother, Marie (Zuzana Bydzovská), innocently takes a fancy to the new bachelor in town, at least until she figures out the situation.
Indeed, figuring out the true situation is what writer-director Bohdan Sláma’s beautifully nuanced character study is all about — sorting out the possibilities and realizing when to engage and when to back off. Earthy, red-haired farmer Marie seems to be looking for a man to help her with her cows, but when she begins to recognize that Petr is unavailable she nevertheless welcomes his friendship — even after a disastrous, drunken visit by Petr’s former lover from Prague during the town festival. What Marie cannot abide, however, is Petr’s attraction to her son. The teacher circles the student like a moth around a flame.
Who gets burned and who doesn’t occupies the heart of Sláma’s story. The character of Petr achieves stature right before our eyes, elevating himself from a nondescript man with a dyspeptic expression to a naturalistic, Middle European version of a tragic hero. Liska, who has worked on all three of Sláma’s feature films, impresses us in the same way that Petr wins over Marie and the villagers — by the care and kindness Petr shows his students. Petr has a weakness, but then so does everyone else in the village, from Lada and his girlfriend to lonely Marie. Everybody needs someone to love, Slamá informs us, but you have line up your shots with care.