World Cinema: Shock tactics

Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film has sparked controversy for its sadistic violence. Our latest World Cinema column asks: are shock tactics a good thing?

Ladies and gentlemen. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, then I’ll begin.

As, no doubt, many of you are aware, there is a film causing headlines around the world at the moment for its perceived assault on decency. That movie is Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film. I won’t go into explicit detail about what is contained within the film (that info is pretty easily found) but ‘a sickening film’ is one of the kinder reviews.

A less kind one regarding the director is ‘good luck to him regaining some humanity’. These are from respected cult sites, not the tabloids.

Featuring the usual torture porn staples of extreme sexual violence, it appears A Serbian Film crosses that line where art becomes distasteful and unknowable, and where not even justifications ring true. In this case, the film is apparently an exploration of the post-war Serbian psyche. Having been to Belgrade myself, I realise there is an undercurrent of unresolved anger and tension apparent, but the consensus seems to be that this could be explored in a much more intelligent way.

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However, despite appearances, I am not here to discuss the pros or cons of this latest controversial piece, but discuss the wider themes surrounding it. The forbidden has always been associated with world cinema. Indeed, it is one of the main selling points of it. For American audiences prior to 70s new Hollywood, European art house represented a liberal sexuality that could only be hinted at back at home.

It is a reputation which has become so ingrained in our consciousness that, even now, many people associate world cinema with sex and nudity. More recently, the rise of Asia extreme has brought to audiences a renewed appreciation of horror and gore. Japanese and Korean cinema has become a byword for vicious shocks and thrills. And, as is often the case, what repels us also attracts us, and it is these opposing forces which often drag us towards some of the most interesting cinema we watch.

For others it is a competition to see who has watched the most shocking films. I remember at university it was the big thing to watch Audition. More recently that title has fallen to Martyrs and now, possibly, A Serbian Film.

Are shock tactics a good thing? An argument can be made for both yes and no. And I’ll attempt here to give validation to both in the briefest way.

Getting noticed is difficult in the movie world, even for those blockbusters and highbrow Hollywood fare with million dollar marketing campaigns, or publicity departments with great media contacts.

So, what hope for a foreign language film ostensibly about a subject far from the interest and cultural concerns of most audiences? The answer here is to provoke controversy, and therefore get your film discussed everywhere.

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Of course, your film needs to be of substance to withstand the exposure and prove to the more discerning cinema goer it is worth seeking out, but if it is, then shock tactics are a legitimate and inspired way to gain attention.

The example I hold up here is Irreversible, a film with one of the most shocking and talked about scenes in recent times, but a film so full of meaning and subtext waiting to be discussed that it deserves to be seen, no matter what your eventual opinion.

An even more recent example is Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, which, for me, at least, transcended its questionable portrayal of women and justified its brutal physical violence against them by making us question the larger concepts of cinematic violence and the audience’s reaction to it.

However, on the flipside, a film gains notoriety for itself not to explore deeper themes but instead as an end in itself. It no longer extrapolates itself from the gruesome action depicted but instead becomes the controversy, losing its identity as a separate text. It essentially becomes an empty shell for the vehicle of (most often) violence depicted within.

This is the point directed at A Serbian Film, and is why most ultra-violent films are briefly talked about, then ignored. There is no real substance to them, no hook beyond a talking point of ‘have you seen it?’ to provide an emotional or intellectual connection, which is what films need to provide to survive and flourish beyond their first flush of life.

Look at the most notorious of shocking films, and you will find this substance there, even if the film itself is not to your taste.

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Cannibal Holocaust has it, Two Thousand Maniacs! is a classic of its genre, and Russ Meyer at his best is worthy of a deep appraisal. Many others are not, and I doubt that time will render them cult classics in a true and genuine sense.

Controversial films are a topic which will never grow old, and I intend to revisit and fully explore why and how films cause outrage in future columns.

Looking Forward


The first Italian film to open the Venice film festival in 20 years, Baaria tells the epic story of three generations living and dying in Sicily. Despite accusations of superficiality and not quite hitting the target, this film is still regarded as a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and a big budget emotional voyage which sucks in the audience and bombards them with visceral images and dazzling themes of the heart.

A real see it and make your own mind up type of film, though, so be prepared to disagree with my recommendation!

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Looking Back

In keeping with our controversial theme, here’s an infamous ‘classic’ of the horror genre…

Tokyo Gore Police (2008 directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura)

Set in a future Tokyo close to the edge, Tokyo Gore Police tells the story of Ruka (played by Audition‘sEihi Shiina), a revenge driven cop battling against mutants, corruption and corporations. By using extreme violence, of course.

Coming straight from the Verhoeven school of satire, this is a blood-drenched romp that never fails to entertain and horrify in equal measure.

Technically superb in all aspects, this film is far more than a curio to boast about. It does, indeed, have some razor sharp barbs to launch against modern society, in much the same way all good sci-fi reflects the world it was made in. But it also has loads of samurai swords and machine guns, all coming together in some excellent comic violence which Asian cinema delivers so well.

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