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NYAFF 2015, Day 13: Violator Finds That Hell Is Where You Make It

By  · Published on July 8th, 2015

Cinema One Originals

The New York Asian Film Festival returns for a 14th year showcasing an exciting and eclectic mix of movies from Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, China and Malaysia. This year brings a total of 54 feature films including two world premieres and three international premieres, and while I’m once again unfortunately unable to experience the fest on the ground in NYC I’m excited to cover as much as I can remotely.

Day thirteen of the festival features Violator, Wolves, Pigs and Men, and Chasuke’s Journey.

NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

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A typhoon is heading towards Manila, and while all outbursts of weather lead to hard times this particular storm promises a darkness the likes of which haven’t been seen in ages. People go about their business in the final hours, concerned about the impending inconveniences, but mostly unaware of the evils riding in on the wind. Mostly. Some have come to expect the end – a woman finishes her smoke break with a co-worker and leaps from a rooftop, two friends share one last conversation and hug before setting themselves on fire, a pregnant teacher discovers her classroom floor covered in blood – but it’s a terminal, morally corrupt police chief who will come face to face with evil.

He and two of his officers take refuge in their precinct, a lonely outpost but one safe from the flooding in its position atop a hill. A janitor and a civilian join the cops, one for work and the other for shelter, but the dynamic shifts when one of the policeman bring in a teenage boy on charges of property damage, assault and possession. To be clear, he’s not worried the kid is holding drugs, he suspects the young punk may be possessed by the devil himself. The long, dark night suddenly grows both longer and darker.

Writer/director Dodo Dayao’s feature debut explores evils both supernatural and man-made, and while it’s the former that casts its shadow across the city in the form of a storm it’s the latter that fuels the pain, suffering and death to come.

The first half of the film acts as something of a disjointed anthology moving from one character to the next, one situation after another, with no apparent thread between them. Some end in violence, some in simple conversation, but a darkness pervades them all equally. It’s most evident in the atmosphere Dayao creates around them – a conversation atop a high-rise occurs in direct sunlight, but as the talk darkens an almost visible weight descends until we’re made witness to a calm and meticulous tragedy.

The entire film carries a sense of dread about it – these people know what the storm is bringing even if they don’t believe it – but one segment accomplishes that and more with barely a sound to accompany the visuals. We watch what appears to be a VHS recording, devoid of sound or score, showing various people dressed alike, singing and acting in unison. We come to realize it’s a cult of some kind, and when a woman enters the frame panicked and fearful only to be captured and forcibly carried back off-screen we fear what’s to come. Our fears are met. An ominous unease turns to terror as the images change before our eyes – think of the incredibly creepy home recordings in Scott Derrickson’s Sinister, but now imagine them even creepier without a score to build tension.

The second half shifts gears to hunker down at the police precinct – Precinct 13, naturally – as the teen’s presence and actions unsettle the men and lead to more violence. There’s a “reap what you sow” air about the events as the men are sinners of the highest order, but feelings of guilt seem as tenuous as those of faith. The chief’s illness leaves him violently disinterested in God, and that may just be an invite the devil finds impossible to ignore.

This section, the far more narrative-centric half, is actually weaker for it. Dayao crafts some powerful shots and a few unsettling images come our way, but the dark interiors muffle the visual power on display earlier. The final confrontation feels both expected and underwhelming too leaving viewers unsatisfied. There’s a sense that the atmospheric evils weaving their way through earlier scenes land with a literal thud in this back end – guilty men trapped in a building with what may be Satan – and when it leads where we expect the letdown is palpable.

Violator is – for at least the first half – a haunting, at times mesmerizing horror film that eschews jump scares in favor of a frightening unease that rises like the flood waters. “To fight the devil,” says one soon to be corpse, “sometimes you have to be the devil too.” He’s fooling no one though as his dark deeds preceded his encounter with the devil and instead highlight the fact that mankind has no need for the Prince of Darkness – we’re already capable of evils the devil himself hasn’t even dreamt of.

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NYAFF 2015 runs June 26th through July 11th. Follow our coverage here.

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.