Not an official review:
If you were to describe Death Trance’s overall plot or theme to any goer of Fantasia, or a fan of Asian cinema in general, you probably won’t get much of a reaction. It follows the same basic principles of any other standard feudal-era Japanese action romp. What WILL get fans interested is that you could alternatively describe Death Trance as; Versus 2.
While not a direct sequel, Death Trance has been called a spiritual successor of sorts to Ryuhei Kitamura’s zombie/martial arts opus, as it borrows a lot of what made Versus such a fun film. First of all the star of Versus, Tak Sakaguchi is back in a lead role, and while Ryuhei is not the director this time around, his very capable friend and student Yuji Shimomura fills the director’s chair admirably. The other connections to Versus? Kick ass action, lots of ghoulish characters, and 90% of the movie takes place in what seems to be an endless stretch of forest. While no zombies exist in Death Trance in their pure form, there’s a lot of zombie-like behavior coming from a variety of bad guys, so we’ll give them that one too.
Death Trance revolves around a mysterious coffin that a temple of monks have protected for over a hundred years; a coffin every low-life bandit and warrior want for themselves. It’s been told that the coffin holds unimaginable power, or can grant wishes to anyone who opens it. Tak Sakaguchi plays a character by the name of Grave, who is the first man to have ever successfully stolen the coffin from the temple where it’s housed. The archbishop of the temple, in his death throes, tells the sole surviving monk to somehow retrieve the coffin, and that he must not let anyone open it. He also gives the monk a mysterious sword, that can only be unsheathed from it’s holster when the sword itself has chosen it’s rightful wielder.
Grave meanwhile, his trekking through the vast forests of the “ancient” Japanese countryside, all the while dragging the stone coffin behind him, which is wrapped in heavy chains. Along with him is a small girl, who mysteriously follows whoever possesses the coffin, but seemingly can’t speak or communicate with anyone as to why.
I say “ancient” Japan, because in the first fight scene that has Grave fending off dozens of bandits who want to take the coffin for themselves, much automatic gunfire is used by a pair of ninjas that have said firearms somehow built into the hilts of their swords. At this point, the rowdy Fantasia audience erupted into applause. Yeah, Death Trance doesn’t really go for historical accuracy, as several fights took the liberty to include the use of heat-seeking rockets, more guns, and yes, even a grungy motorcycle. The main action set pieces here are just as, if not more spectacular then Versus, or just about any other Japanese action flick you could name. And while it’s not as bloody as most, there’s definitely enough red stuff flying to keep gore hounds satisfied.
Death Trance introduces a few other cool characters. One being Kentaro Seagal, who plays Sid, another wandering warrior who also wants the coffin for himself, and doesn’t hesitate to blast anyone who stands in his way with a pair of twin revolvers. If that last name is familiar, that’s because it should, I’m sure the crowd would have blown the roof off if Daddy Steven had made a cameo at any point in the film. There’s also an extremely powerful but nameless female samurai that wants to destroy the coffin for her own purposes.
The rest of the story follows the monk desperately trying to catch up with whoever has the coffin, as it changes hands a few times during the course of the story, and make sure it’s never opened. In the event the coffin is opened, the monk has been instructed to give that strange sword to whoever can draw it from its sheath. The sword itself got plenty of chuckles from the audience, as it’s very phallic in its design; pulsing veins and all.
The other aspect of the film is it’s sense humor, as it doesn’t take itself TOO seriously. There was a plenty of physical comedy here and there, nothing too over-the-top of course, but just enough to make you say “OH CRAP!” during the course of a brutal fight, then making you chuckle right after.
Now while I won’t spoil to what is actually in the coffin, it does lead to a eye-popping, almost beautiful final battle between Grave and the main villain. Up until this point, the movie lacked any real evil force, which inevitably means that the film’s ending is left extremely open to a sequel. So while it was kinda disappointing to see no real resolution, it does make me eagerly anticipate another entry into the story. Unfortunately however, when you look at the way Versus ended, and how almost 7 years later, there’s still no word on a sequel, it does put a damper on Death Trance’s chance of continuing it’s narrative.
All in all, this definitely ranks in my top 10 of Fantasia films to date, if everything else scheduled is as good and as fun as Death Trance, it’ll certainly be a great 10th anniversary for the festival!