Shinichiro Ueda follows up his breakout hit One Cut of the Dead with a similarly entertaining and inventive character drama.
When your breakout feature as a writer/director is predicated on narrative twists and sudden aesthetic left turns, there can be pressure for your next film to retain a similar element of surprise. Shinichiro Ueda’s Special Actors is his solo follow-up to One Cut of the Dead (he co-directed another feature in-between), the independent Japanese zombie horror of sorts that earned more than one thousand times its budget back in its home country, and became a word-of-mouth hit overseas.
For the sake of those still yet to see it, this review will avoid explicit spoilers for One Cut of the Dead; suffice it to say that Special Actors was always going to struggle to live up to its predecessor. That said, the results are largely entertaining and inventive.
Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa) has had a lifelong dream of being an actor, with much of that ambition stemming from his love of Rescueman, a camp superhero series he still rewatches on VHS as an adult. However, something is hindering Kazuto’s career path: he suffers from a nervous condition that causes him to faint at the slightest hint of stress. Not the best trait for staying in character during auditions, and certainly not ideal when casting directors start laying into his poor line delivery.
After being fired from his day job, Kazuto bumps into his estranged brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono), who proposes that he join his line of work. He takes him to Special Actors, an agency that employs actors to stage every day, ordinary situations: be it standing in at a wedding, laughing at a film festival screening, crying at a CEO’s funeral, or pretending to be a mugger so a boyfriend can look tough.
Relatively low-stress work all around, until the agency is hired for an elaborate mission by a young woman whose sister has been indoctrinated by a cult. She says the cult is intent on taking over the inn left to the two sisters by their deceased parents. The agency is tasked with infiltrating the organisation to extricate the sister, with a fully scripted plan to pull off the con.
It feels fitting that Ueda has gone down the heist comedy route, given how One Cut of the Dead gradually reveals itself to be so much about the execution and improvisation of a madcap plan. Staying clear of any single-take showiness, Special Actors is comparatively less ambitious in its aesthetic; arguably even visually flat despite a seemingly bigger budget to play with. It succeeds on infectious energy above anything else, featuring a number of highly entertaining comic set-pieces.
Special Actors is also driven by a similar ambivalence towards the distinction between performance and reality as its meta predecessor. Like with One Cut of the Dead, it’s a farce that lingers in the mind thanks to the ideas it toys with, and, as is the case with many a good con artist flick, warrants repeat viewings for the way it plays with your perception until the very end.
Published 28 Aug 2020
This madcap meta-horror from Japan’s Shin’ichirô Ueda breathes new life into the zombie genre.
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