Leave it to Japanese auteur Iwai Shunji to find a way around the ongoing moony-eyed romantic vampire craze as it’s defined by Twilight. Simply titled Vampire, the vampirism of Iwai’s English-language debut exists in its own world as it were, one that’s rooted in reality more than the fantasy tropes of stakes through the heart, aversion to garlic and turning into the undead if bitten — and of course sparkling! Vampire hinges on a 28-year-old high school biology teacher, Simon (Kevin Zegers, a cross between any dude on Gossip Girl and Vampire Diaries’ Ian Somerhalder), and his compulsion to serially bleed young women desperate to end their own lives. Simon finds his “victims” by trolling various suicide websites, claiming he too wants to end it all, and then meets them in order to carry out the pact. They die, he drains them with clinical precision, stuffs the bodies in a freezer and then enjoys a delicious and refreshing plasmatic beverage, which he occasionally throws up.
That could have resulted in action-packed goriness along the lines of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst, but Vampire is intensely, almost painfully Iwai. If you can picture All About Lily Chou-Chou with a bloodsucker, you’ve got it. It is impeccably photographed and composed, with a delicate, melancholy tinkling piano soundtrack that evokes Simon’s moral and emotional isolation (Iwai served as writer, cinematographer, editor and wrote the score as well). But it’s also slow, agonisingly methodical and, given all the missed opportunities, too long by 20 to 30 minutes. Those long stretches of silence don’t hold so much meaning this time around. There are two possible responses to the film: disappointment from Iwai fans and halting appreciation from those unfamiliar with his work.
The foundations of Simon’s blood-drinking compulsions remain steadfastly mysterious, and so the film shifts from encounter to encounter as he goes about fulfilling those urges. Some are moving: his first despondent soul goes by her chat room handle, Jellyfish (Keisha Castle-Hughes, turning into Jennifer Beals). She has an unfocused lack of desire to live, and her fumbling around trying to make her last day “perfect” nicely conveys a quiet sorrow. Better is Simon’s last potential blood donor, Ladybird (Adelaide Clemens), a young mother that lost her son to an abusive boyfriend. Her misery at what she perceives as her own failings is palpable, and it’s also Simon’s inspiration to lay off his enabling habits. He wants her to live and “can’t” bring himself to assist ending her life. She vows to let him suck all the blood he wants — all the life — if he ends what she calls his killings. Then they kinda sorta kiss. All you need is love after all.
But other meetings are less affecting, and actually teeter over into simply unsympathetic. When Simon meets Renfield (Trevor Morgan) at a vampire/murder fan club they wind up joyriding until they find a woman for Renfield to rape and murder — under the auspices of “doing the vampire thing.” Simon sits idly by. When Renfield is done, Simon indeed rips him a new one, calling him out on his sick fetish, but it’s too late for the viewer: Simon comes off as a spineless coward. To this point Iwai often positioned Simon at a moral crossroads struggling with his own culpability in so many deaths. His inaction when faced with circumstances he considers ignoble jolts us out of the heretofore carefully constructed quagmire. Where Simon may have come across as curious, pitiful or simply disturbed, in the blink of an ill-chosen narrative development eye he becomes infuriating. And not in a good way.
And it ends there. There’s no additional consideration of Iwai’s themes. The sexual link so pervasive in vampire lore is given short shrift. In a 180 from Renfield’s crime, Simon finds himself facing down an attraction to Ladybird, and there’s little question as to the symbolism of Simon sucking leech poison out of Ladybird’s thigh. Her sad story changes his mind? That’s it? Is Simon using blood as a surrogate for human connection? The sensationalism inherent in vampire chic and the nature of vampirism itself are explored only at a surface level and Renfield vanishes as quickly as he appeared. Iwai spends so much time and energy on peripheral details he loses sight of the good stuff. Rachel Leigh Cook shows up as a delusional wannabe girlfriend whose nosiness eventually exposes Simon’s habits. Amanda Plummer brings da crazy as his Alzheimer’s-stricken mother to … not sure what. To demonstrate he’s a good son? In another partially formed sub-plot Aoi Yu is a student whose suicide Simon prevents and then, ironically, donates blood to. Aoi appears to be here to a) satisfy Japanese investors and b) because Iwai really, really wants her in all his films. It’s not an abject failure by any stretch; for that I refer you to Twilight. Was there a language barrier? Is Zegers a strong enough actor to allow us by to interpret the man’s psyche without all the facts? Did the fanciful and realistic elements clash too much? Who knows? It’s hard to tell when Iwai has given us, uncharacteristically, half a film.