“King of Thorn” (いばらの王) was one of the films that caught my eye at TAF 2010. The visual, soundtrack and story all looked great, and so I was in line to see it opening night, May 1. While the movie delivers in the style department, it fails to be compelling due to problems with plot and character development.
Without getting into too much detail, “King of Thorn” is basically a sci-fi survivor story. A mortal disease called the Medusa virus is running rampant on a global scale, and the fate of humanity looks grime. Once infected, the patient goes into a seizure and his or her blood dries up, leaving a stone-like corpse. A company called Venus Gate offers put people into cold sleep until a cure can be found. Their Cold Sleep Capsule Center can only hold 160 people. Among those chosen is Kasumi, a very depressed Japanese girl. She lost her parents to the Medusa Virus and does not want to be separated from her twin sister Shizuku. An indeterminate time after the chosen ones enter hibernation, something happens at the facility and they all wake up. Giant thorn-covered vines drape everywhere and strange mutant creatures start preying on them.
It turns out that Medusa is not a virus, but some thing from outer space. It landed in Siberia and ends up infecting a girl named Alice. The power of Medusa is actually to bring dreams into reality, and Alice’s imaginary cat-boy friend comes to life. A distraught Alice set fire to her house and unwittingly spread Medusa. Venus Gate, a religious sect, shows up and takes Alice, believing that she has a gift from the heavens. They experiment on her, and she becomes the core of the Cold Sleep Capsule Center. It appears that they might be trying to conduct some sort of mass experiment, though this is not entirely clear. At any rate, it turns out that Kasumi fell off a cliff to her death before the hibernation even began. Her sister, Shizuku, goes nuts and reveals that her power to make the imaginary real is even greater than Alice’s. Venus Gate seizes her and begins experiments. She goes out of control and the facility goes to hell. She imagines that Kasumi is alive, and then puts her into her capsule to wake up with all the others.
It could be that the rest of the mess in the facility was imagined by the 160 people in the capsules, or at least some of them. Those who have suffered from trauma or have mental problems seem to be more able to make the imaginary real. One little boy, Tim, plays survival games a lot and knows what all the monster are, so those might be his doing. Lady named Katherine keeps quoting “Sleeping Beauty” (いばら姫), especially the part about the princess asleep in her bed surrounded by a briar patch, so maybe she dreamed that up. And it seems that the people who survive were all chosen by Shizuku to play a role in helping Kasumi reach her. I personally think that Shizuku was attempting to bring Kasumi to terms with reality, wake up and live without her.
The movie really reminded me of “Cube,” where people wake up in a strange technological nightmare and try to escape, dying horribly gruesome deaths one by one. A big difference is that it is not traps that kill them, but living creatures. There is a strong emphasis on the game-like reality: clearing levels, getting ammo, fighting enemies, finding secret passages, chunky events that move the plot along. The confusion of imaginary and reality, triggered by a computer system of some sort, brings to mind Otomo Katsuhiro’s “Magnetic Rose.” The confusion of memories and fiction, and the real and imagined is well executed in the film. The truth of the Kasumi/Shizuku relationship is certainly interesting to watch unfold. The central computer as a little girl with an agenda has been done (though she is older and sassier, I prefer GLaDOS from “Portal”). The backgrounds are amazing, a twisted biotechnological nightmare.
The highlight of the film was really the opening sequence. The viewer is bombarded with TV news reports about the Medusa virus, and the feeling of fear and helplessness is visceral. We watch in slow motion as a girl falls from a rooftop. Splat on the pavement. She looks like a crushed stone statue, as all of her blood has been dried up by the Medusa virus. Then the president of Venus Gate comes on to tell us about a process of cold sleep and the possibility of a cure. Spots are limited and there will be a lottery. Mayhem in the streets. We feel terror, and see it used the service of power, a theme we have all become too familiar with in the past decade. The bus trip to the Cold Sleep Capsule Center through the Scottish countryside is also surreal. An epic score and the aria builds as we pass through deserted towns and see the fortress-like facility in the distance. This sent shivers down my spine. As a set up for the action, this opening sequence was perfectly executed.
After Kasumi goes into cold sleep, though, I kind of lost interest. It’s entirely possible that my expectation for “King of Thorn” were simply too high. And I certainly missed a lot by not reading the manga first (Marco and the computer guy from Venus Gate have something going that I don’t get). The whole reason why the facility malfunctioned and manifest the imaginary as it did isn’t entirely clear. The development of Kasumi through the process of her escape takes place in lurching leaps, and it feels a bit awkward. I suspect the problem is the structure of the narrative as a survival game. Super buff and tattooed Marco killing monsters just isn’t that fun to watch, and sparks didn’t really fly between him and Kasumi. The ending was awkward, with Kasumi deciding to live even though she will eventually die from Medusa like everyone else (unless I am missing something). I usually like crazy girls, and Kasumi is as crazy as a loon (and cute in her glasses and bandages), but I just wasn’t into it (not even yuri tension with Shiizuku could convince me). Maybe I was having a bad night because of the crowded theater. “King of Thorn” is surely worth watching, but left at least this reviewer wishing it had been a little more than just a popcorn flick.