The hardest thing about discussing Shinichirō Ueda's One Cut Of The Dead is that almost any discussion of it at all threatens to ruin the fun of watching it unfold. It is one of the slyest, most delightful movies to come out of Japan in a long time — and I suspect your preliminary confusion comes from how most people are not going to associate the words "sly" and "delightful" with something that looks like a zombie-horror-survival picture. I say looks because the movie's success revolves around not just one but a whole slew of subversions of expectations, and not in the smarmy "is it all real or not?" vein I was bracing for. If you'd rather have your surprise preserved, go see it now, because any substantive discussion of the movie is impossible without unpacking it completely.
Take 1: Non-stop zombie horror
The first minute, and then the first thirty minutes, of One Cut Of The Dead, are different kinds of setups. At first we're watching what looks like a very low-budget indie horror production, where a scared axe-wielding girl confronts her now-zombified boyfriend and begs him not to eat her.
Cut!, shouts the director. Camera pulls back to reveal a zombie movie in progress. It's not progressing well; this is take twenty-something of this scene. The director is a monomaniacal hardcase, hollering and slapping his actors around to get them to emote. The lead actress thinks it's all her fault. Only the script coordinator / makeup woman seems capable of holding her own against this slave driver, and she convinces everyone to take a breather and collect their heads.
Nothing much happens at first. Then everything starts happening at once. The set — a found location that looks like an abandoned water-treatment plant — comes under siege by real zombies. Turns out the director was responsible for bringing them to life, the better to invest his production with the frisson of real fear. And soon the whole thing turns into a fight for survival, with the axe-wielding but uneasy female lead and the more collected (and marginally competent in martial arts) production coordinator fighting for control of the situation.
All this, as the title implies, is shot in a single unbroken handheld take lasting some thirty minutes or so. The effects work is rudimentary, but it gets the job done; the fact that it's all done on the fly is the most notable thing about it. (Zombie horror is more about the execution, pun intended, than the concept anyway.) But then the credits roll, and we're left with more than an hour of actual running time in the film. Was that really the point?
Take 2: 28 days earlier
Evidently not, because then comes a title card: ONE MONTH EARLIER. What we have just seen was ostensibly the result of a project put together by a Japanese horror/SF TV channel, where a production crew would stage a zombie horror/action film in real time with live cameras and no edits. How all this came together is where the movie goes next, and where the movie also goes up several levels.
Problems abound with this production from the beginning. The director they've chosen for the job, Higurashi (newcomer Takayuki Hamatsu), a gloomy, bearded type, we recognize immediately as the on-screen director in the first segment. He's a workman, one of those folks who gave up a long time ago on the idea of Art and has settled for delivering on-time, on-budget, and with minimal fuss. But there's his feisty daughter, who harbors ambitions of following in Dad's footsteps without selling out — although her feistyness keeps getting her booted from one job after another. And there's his wife, a former actress now settling for being a homemaker, trying to fill the void with one autodidactic obsession after another. She would still be in front of the camera if she hadn't been a little too enthusiastic about one of her roles. Passion just gets you into trouble.
At first Higurashi tries to stick with the project as nothing more than a giant logistics exercise: how to get everyone to hit their cues, how to keep the crew just out of camera range as they daub on makeup and strap on prosthetics in seconds flat. But then all the little issues that have been bubbling away just out of sight come to a boil on the day of the production. The actors hired to play the on-camera director and production manager get into a car accident and can't make it to the set on time — and so the director himself and his own wife stick their necks out. (After all, it's not like they don't both know the script.) The sound man has, um, stomach problems. The crane used for the final shot gets knocked over and destroyed. An actual zombie invasion would be a step up.
Against all these odds, the director and his crew frantically improvise. And this is where the movie begins to really shine in two different ways. One is on the level of physical comedy, where we see how what looked like some slightly amateurish pause on-camera or a jarring turn of events were actually desperate (and increasingly funny) attempts by the crew to wrest things back under control. The other is how all this becomes a way for Higurashi to stand up for what he really believes in — to realize that you can execute something like this mechanically or with real passion, that you can turn the doing of it into its own art form and inspire others to rise to your example in the process. All that is brought to a fitting climax in the last few minutes, when Higurashi is compelled by his producer to ditch the crane shot ... but insists there's still a way to pull it off.
Take 3: The bigger picture
Ever since I was old enough to understand how movies are a collaborative medium, I was fascinated by the technical side of the art form — not just the mechanics of special effects (the way they did the light trip in 2001: a space odyssey was mind-boggling), but every other kind of logistics. I watch something like the one-take shootout in Hard-Boiled, or Jackie Chan's borderline life-threatening physical stunts, and I don't think How did they do that? so much as I think What's it like to devote yourself to pulling this off, to trying dozens, even hundreds of times to make it happen? Or, in this case: What's it like to only have one chance to get it right?
Thoughts like this crossed my mind often as I watched the first segment of the movie unspool. I wonder now if that was part of the strategy. Because the zombie-horror stuff is so perfunctory (the cheesiness of the gore makes it more accessible than it might seem) it actually allows our mind to wander in the right direction: how is this being pulled off? The movie gets some of its biggest laughs, and widest smiles, by how it answers those questions in the final segment.
I don't want to make it sound like I'm unimpressed by the sheer level of technical achievement involved. That single-shot opening is impressive, all the more so since it was apparently not stitched together with invisible cuts a la Irreversible (or, before that, Rope). Tough to pull off, but not totally unprecedented: Russian Ark was a (great) film executed in a single ninety-plus minute take, no edits — with only three tries to get it right, and pulled off properly only on the third time around. Victoria went even further: a single 134-minute take, also nailed after three attempts, but they had the luxury of not needing to close down the Hermitage to do it.
But the real achievement of One Cut is how it makes us care about such a stunt in a way that's far more personal than usual. Most movies with some manner of stunt execution, the stunt ends up being the most interesting thing about the movie. Here, the stunt execution itself is a story element; instead of overshadowing what's going on, it provides a foundation for the movie's real aims.
Most of the really intriguing filmmaking going on at any time and in any place tends to be by way of smaller, scrappier, and more resourceful teams of folks. When you have tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to throw at the screen, the results are enjoyable, but impersonal. I mentioned above the movies of John Woo and Jackie Chan, and it strikes me now that countries with smaller but no less energetic film industries than the United States turn to ingenuity to fill in what money alone can't. The results of that work has always been most satisfying to me, because all the work is up there on the screen. One Cut Of The Dead isn't just a love letter to the cinematic underdogs who pull off amazing things with sheer sweat, it is one of those amazing things pulled off with sheer sweat.