Movies · Reviews

Foreign Objects: Philosophy of a Knife

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to… Russia! And we may never go back again.
By  · Published on September 17th, 2008

Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…

Russia! And we may never go back again. I kid of course, as I would never judge an entire country’s cinematic output based solely on one film… but goddamn it’ll be a while before I pop another Russian movie into my DVD player. I don’t intentionally look for shitty films, in fact I usually go out of my way to avoid them, but sometimes the shit finds me. A friend of mine, knowing my appreciation for horror and gore, recommended this movie to me saying it was in the vein of T.F. Mous’ Men Behind the Sun only gorier, better made, and even more over the top. Now my first clue should have been the fact that Men Behind the Sun is nothing more than a crappy exploitation film filled with cardboard brutality and inept gore effects. The second should have been the fact that my friend also enjoyed Wild Hogs. Apparently I’m a slow learner, and realizing that I hadn’t covered a Russian film for Foreign Objects yet, I added Philosophy of a Knife to my Netflix queue and promptly let it fade to the back of my mind. Until I received it in the mail last week.

Philosophy of a Knife is a pseudo-documentary about Unit 731, a secret Japanese military unit that performed probably the most inhumane and barbaric acts of torture and experimentation ever sanctioned by a modern government. Using archival footage, black & white re-enactments, and an interview with a Russian eye witness, the movie explores the unit that operated from the early 1930’s through the mid 1940’s in what was then Mongolia (presently part of China.) Japanese and Russian soldiers and doctors were tasked with biological and chemical research using a variety of live humans as their subjects. Men, women, and children were burned, frozen, dismembered, poisoned, gassed, raped, blown up, irradiated, operated on without anesthesia, subjected to extreme pressure until their innards burst from their body… and more. All in the name of science, defense, and madness. Like the sleazy Hong Kong film before it, Philosophy of a Knife claims to educate by shocking you into awareness with its in-your-face cruelty, gore, and bodily fluids. But unlike Men Behind the Sun‘s 105-minute running time, Philosophy of a Knife clocks in at a ridiculous 249-minutes. That’s four hours and nine minutes of Shit-Stroganoff.

What ingredients go into Shit-Stroganoff you wonder? Well you start with one talentless and pretentious auteur named Andrey Iskanov. You add some film-school 101 cinematography consisting of (twenty or more!) static exterior shots of snow blowing in the wind; shadows against walls, sheets, bodies, and even other shadows; multiple close-ups to show the emotional angst, turmoil, and glee on the faces of captors and captives alike; and jump-cut editing and a Seven-like credit sequence that does the exact opposite of prove how serious your film is. Stir in some prosthetic effects made from modeling clay, paper mache, and urine. Find some poor “actress” willing to be strapped naked to a chair, legs held wide open as an obviously live cockroach is pressed against her obviously real vaginal lips before being shoved (via editing) inside her. Lay in a “musical” score created with a Casio keyboard and a broken microphone. Then process your b&w film in a used toilet bowl so your scenes match the authentic documentary footage you’ve cut throughout your masterpiece.

Before I get trashed for not “understanding” Iskanov’s intention or message, trust me when I say there’s not much to understand. Man is capable of horrific and terrible acts against one another, and we should never forget. Got it. As Iskanov and his cronies says in the DVD’s creepy, NAMBLA-tinged introduction,

This film did not attempt to research historical facts. An artistic film is first of all expressing the director’s point of view, his perception of the available facts… one can perceive certain scenes as either a display of savagery or as a necessity. In this case there is no abstract cruelty. There is a justified action from a certain point of view. This film is dedicated to just two things, these things being A-death and B-war. I attempted to recreate the philosophy of a Japanese assistant from Unit 731… the vision, the view. A look at the things he’s doing from within. The film not as much reflects the exact chronological order, as our subjective opinion regarding the events described. We did not set out to make an anti-Japanese propaganda, we just intended to depict the facts the way they actually are.

Yes, that last sentence does contradict the first. Just as his claim to authenticity is put in doubt when he shows the girl with the cockroach in her vagina get her face pulled off while still alive, right before the roach crawls out of her mouth. You’d think for a film filled with so much vivisection Iskanov would have a better understanding of basic biology… To look at the handful of other online reviews for the film, you may also think “Iskanov juggles the real-life terror of Unit 731 with his own nightmarish visuals to great effect.” He doesn’t. Or it’s “a visionary film that walks a fine line between documentary and fictional story telling.” It isn’t. Or that it’s “one of the most powerful films ever made.” Good god no. Yes it’s gory and “extreme” but so what. If all of Iskanov’s footage was edited out, and just the documentary footage coupled with the dry, British, informative narration were left, this film would be an important historical document worth watching and using for educational purposes. In fact, the only truly horrific scene in the film is several minutes of archival footage taken of dead and abused bodies stacked like wood in a storeroom, their faces devoid of life but filled with pain, the room’s presumed odors wafting through the television screen with hints of blood, tears, and shit. These silent (aside from Iskanov’s annoyingly omnipresent score) and brief few minutes carry more horror and emotion then all of the remaining 245 minutes could ever hope to achieve.

God this movie sucks. If FSR had some kind of list or hall of shame for the absolute worst movies, the movies that redefine shitty cinema, the movies that make you realize Uwe Boll and the Friedberg/Seltzer’s of the world aren’t nearly as bad as people say, Philosophy of a Knife would be the first film inducted.

Philosophy of a Knife is available on DVD from Unearthed Films. (And they really should have left this one buried.)

The Upside: It eventually ends.

The Downside: It ends 249 minutes too late.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.