Magic and Murder: P (2005) & The Butcher (2007)

2009-10-27

One of the most profound dogmas in Chinese (and other Asian) philosophies is the notion of balance, yin and yang, the equilibrium between light and dark, good and evil. It’s a basic ideology, a mindset that is applied to elements as divergent as cooking and art, science and interior design. Yet within each discipline, the same faith in stability and the strength from same applies. As part of their Halloween release schedule, newly formed Palisades Tartan offers up to excellent examples of this foundational back and forth. The excellent ghost/demonic possession tale P offers a subtle, often scary look a life as a Thai bar girl in Bangkok, with some frightening folklore and magic thrown in for good measure. On the other hand, The Butcher is the kind of geek show nightmare that makes Hostel look like a sunny Eastern European travel ad. Gory and gruesome with no more desire than to completely shock its audience, this Korean scandal was recently banned in its own home country as being too brutal for audiences to endure.

In P, we meet up with notorious “witch’s granddaughter” Aaw. In order to help the child’s failing self-esteem, the aging relative teaches her magic. Laying down both the benefits and the backlash, the girl grows up into a beautiful teenager. When the local merchant demands reimbursement for all the credit she’s given the family, Aaw is sold into white slavery and shipped off to Thailand’s sex capital to work as a dancer in a bar/brothel. The madam sees real possibilities in the new country rube virgin, and the re-named Dau is soon seeing customers, getting paid for unspeakable acts she could have never imagined during her life back home. Suddenly, she remembers her magical gifts, and starts using them to get revenge on those who’ve wrong her. But she fails to heed her grandmother’s rules, creating a demonic entity that invades Dau’s dreams – and then heads out into the night to feed.

As for the storyline in The Butcher, there isn’t much of one. The premise is rather simple – a filmmaker hires local mobsters to kidnap people. He then brings them to a remote location set up as a combination studio and slaughterhouse, attaches cameras to his hostage’s heads, and then he films them as a masked maniac in a pig get-up murders them in completely inhuman and horrific ways. During this particular session, a married couple are caught, and the filmmaker has a field day with this unusual dynamic. While making his sickening snuff entertainment, he gives the husband an actual chance at survival. All he has to do is suggest a new, nasty way for his wife to die and the auteur of atrocities will let him go. Of course, there is a catch. Just because one member of this perverted production company says he will live doesn’t mean the man with the chainsaw agrees.

The differences between P and The Butcher are a primer in conflicting approaches to terror. One is a sly story of prostitution and personality clashes inside a combination of superstition and supernatural sorcery. The other is a first person POV assault on the senses, a nonstop stream of video splatter inter-spliced with endless screaming and character pleading. P plays on its characters with style and a sense of purpose. One could easily see The Butcher as a cruel commentary, a slap in the face of foolish American audiences who, as the “director” here laments, simply can’t get enough hardcore violence. While both rely on the culture and customs of their particularly country, one makes better use of the sinister subtext they provide. The other simply sits back, turns on the ever-present camcorders, and watches while people are vivisected with vicious callousness.

P is the much better film, for reasons that have little to do with the amount of blood being spilled. In fact, there is probably as much arterial spray in Dau’s demonic revenge as there is throughout The Butcher‘s callous corpse grinding. Western filmmaker Paul Spurrier, no stranger to Thai ways, also recognizes the need to keep his fellow fright fans laden with grue. But unlike the 8mm miscreance of director Kim Jin-Won’s eviscerating excess, we shudder at the thought of our heroine’s horrific secret. Indeed, The Butcher is more for the confirmed gorehound, the person who can’t enjoy a scary movie experience without seeing organs removed and eyeballs garroted. There is nothing wrong with such an approach: it has its own unique, visceral qualities that when handled properly, make the menace practically leap off the screen. But P finds a way to make it work as part of an actual story. The Butcher is just a sideshow with a high tech sheen.

There’s also another issue with the latter title that bears discussing. With everything from Paranormal Activity to Cloverfield mimicking the now infamous Blair Witch style of handheld shaky cam creep-outs, it’s hard to look at The Butcher as something new. In fact, films like The Pooghkeepsie Tapes and [REC] have illustrated caught on tape carnage better than most of the material here. In fact, the only thing this movie really has going for it is the insane killer with a passionate Porky complex. Watching this animal-headed freak walk down a dark corridor, his fatalistic intent ever-present and palpable, is more than enough to conjure up a good case of the willies. But then the rest of the narrative is taken up with endless whiny, our husband begging for his life like a schoolgirl being unfairly grounded by her parents. In the end, we enjoy Dau’s determined attempt to rise above her degrading circumstances. The Butcher just wants us to wallow around in its senseless splatter.

Still, as perfect illustrations of the whole hard and soft, subtle and sledgehammer style of Asian horror moviemaking, this duo is almost definitive. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find two films as patently polar opposite of each other than these – and yet, we can still see the same traditions and cinematic trademarks within both. For all its sleazoid suggestion and underage smuttiness, P is really a tale of payback gone mystical, while The Butcher breaks down the basics of onscreen violence into three practical components – maker, murderer, and those who enjoy watching both. And the determining factor for both is blood – lots and lots of blood. While that meaningful monochrome symbol showcases the inherent concept of yin and yang, P and The Butcher discuss the conceit in clots of brazen blood red. While neither film is perfect, one clearly wishes to engage, not enrage, its audience.

RATING 7 / 10
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