REVIEW: DVD Release: Higanjima - Escape From Vampire Island

Film: Higanjima - Escape From Vampire Island
Release date: 4th October 2010
Certificate: 18
Running time: 120 mins
Director: Kim Tae-gyun
Starring: Hideo Ishiguro, Dai Watanabe, Asami Mizukawa, Kôji Yamamoto, Miori Takimoto
Genre: Action/Horror/Martial Arts
Studio: Manga
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: South Korea/Japan

Adapted from Koji Matsumoto's anime of the same name, Higanjima marks another manga-oriented instalment in the career of director Kim Tae-gyun (Volcanoe High). With less voice-overs from rappers and far more vampires this time around, it's time to escape from Vampire Island.

Akira (Hideo Ishiguro) is ostensibly a normal high school kid complete with all the personal neurosis and romantic hang-ups that entails. However, beneath his smiling exterior is a deep sadness - his older brother Atsushi (Dai Watanabe) disappeared while on holiday with his fiancé two years ago, and this still weighs heavily on his mind.

So when a mysterious woman calling herself Rei (Asami Mizukawa) comes to him suggesting his brother is alive and – more importantly – that she knows where he can be found, Akira has little choice but to follow.

With his friends in tow, and Rei as their guide, Akira sets off for the distant island of Higanjima in the hope of rescuing Atsushi and restoring some semblance of normality to his life. Upon their arrival, however, it becomes clear that neither Rei, Higanjima nor Atsushi are quite what they were appeared.

Will our plucky young heroes make it through the horrors of Higanjima in one piece?

This is not a Japanese answer to Twilight. The domination of teenagers in the list of protagonists is used to establish an innocent and affable group of good guys rather than pave the way for incomprehensible angsting. Kim Tae-gyun clearly likes to use youthful characters to support the energy and dynamism his films have become known for, and for the most part it works.

Higanjima is a fast-paced story filmed in an all-action style, and for the first thirty minutes the story rockets forward with little thought to character development beyond stereotypes, almost to the point of fault. However, Tae-gyun's vision hits a sticky patch shortly after the group arrives on the island, struggling to pull itself clear for long enough that it becomes noticeable. So much so that upon completion, a quick glance at the 122 minute run time makes you wonder whether they couldn't have left a sizeable chunk of it out.

This is a vampire film which opens with a masked man dicing up blood-suckers with a samurai sword and reducing their heads to pulpy messes with a log. Such a bold initial gambit deserves greater adherence from the scenes that follow it, but, unfortunately, this is not the case. The film sags badly in the middle because Tae-gyun made the perhaps misguided decision to focus on the human impact of this predicament rather than just deliver on the ultra-cool violence of the opening encounter. The characters are not well-established or likeable enough for this to be a good idea, with even the hero, Akira, occasionally seeming more likely to run off and cry than do something heroic.

To its credit, Higanjima picks itself up (or rather, is dragged up by the awesome Atsushi) and delivers consistent high quality fight scenes, with impressive gore, good choreography and a unique design for the vampires, which is somewhere between zombies and goblins. Disappointingly, however, it seems for all the world like they ran out of money towards the end of filming, leading to some truly awful CGI effects, which makes the climactic battle distinctly uninspiring.

Ultimately, it is hard to escape the feeling that the mark was missed with this one. Despite enjoyable moments of violence and action that remain true to the genre, it takes the film too long to reach them, and they are gone all too quickly once it does. The youthful dynamic that director Tae-gyun favours has worked against him here.

An ambitious attempt to mix the Brat Pack with Hammer Horror that falls some way short of its potential and, unfortunately, leaves the audience wondering whether they can escape from Vampire Island, too. JD

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