Saturday, March 1, 2008


The Samoan people believe tattooing is a gift from the gods.
He who misuses this gift brings shame upon himself and his family.
In Samoan culture, to live in shame is a fate worse than death.

Though not entirely a successful enterprise, the premise of Peter Burger’s The Tattooist is nonetheless an interesting variation on the Asian horror film curse: Jake Sawyer (Jason Behr) is a tattoo artist who impulsively filches an ‘au, a Samoan tatau implement, at a Singapore body art expo, a reckless decision that will bring him to New Zealand, and put him at the mercy of the machinations of an unseen, sinister force.

On the plus side, this New Zealand-Singapore co-production gets a number of things right.
The script is informed by some intriguing themes—flesh as biography, as badge of tradition and honour, and sometimes, shame (a theme also seen in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises)—and the narrative allows the audience a closer look at Samoan culture, elements of which are integral to the film’s plot.
It’s in taking those themes and bits of cultural character and turning them into a series of events in a story though, where The Tattooist doesn’t quite hit the mark.

Save for a pivotal set piece and a number of isolated scenes and sequences, the majority of The Tattooist isn’t terribly tense or suspenseful, which a film of this sort really ought to be.
In addition, the character of Jake also isn’t a fully realized—or even a completely sympathetic—protagonist. This, despite the fact that he actually has a back story that also ties in to one of the film’s themes.
His motivation never really comes across to the audience as a solid, substantial thing, character notes (his penchant for stealing tattoo designs; his curiously mercenary view of his art) don’t quite gel together into an actual person, even his attraction to Sina (Mia Blake, from Without A Paddle) seems superficial.
Yes, Blake is certainly easy on the eyes, but what exactly does Jake see in her beyond the surface? I couldn’t really say.

On the one hand, I could fob that off on Behr’s questionable acting skills, but that would be too easy, and unfair. The script (by Matthew Grainger and Jonathan King) really doesn’t present Jake as a fully (pardon me) fleshed-out character to begin with.
We see the pivotal and traumatic event that informs Jake’s character at the very top of The Tattooist, but how that relates to the narrative is sadly only (pardon me again) skin deep. We can make amateur armchair psychologist assumptions as to how that event has shaped the adult we see on-screen, but that really isn’t dealt with in any substantial way by the script.
More so than the script’s lack of suspense, this is probably the film’s biggest let-down for me. There just seemed so much potential—thematic and psychological—that wasn’t mined properly.

Which is sad, considering The Tattooist had a lot going for it, certainly much more than your average horror movie.
Aside from all the things I’ve mentioned above, there’s also the cool urban oracle sequence (witness the awesome power of hip-hop!), and the great fake tattoos (and bloody special effects) courtesy of Christien Tinsley, who got a Sci-Tech Oscar honour this year, “for the creation of the transfer techniques for creating and applying 2D and 3D makeup known as ‘Tinsley Transfers.’ These techniques allow quick and precisely repeatable application of 2D makeup such as tattoos, bruises and birthmarks, as well as 3D prosthetic appliances ranging in size from small wounds to entire torsos. They utilize self-adhesive material that features an unprecedented combination of tissue-thin edges, resilience, flexibility and water resistance, while requiring no dangerous solvents.”
Tinsley’s work can also be seen in such high-profile films as The Passion of the Christ, Memoirs of a Geisha, and No Country For Old Men, as well as the “Conor McNamara, 2026” episode of Nip/Tuck and William Friedkin’s Bug.

So you see, I would have loved to have loved this film.
If it had been that much scarier, or more thrilling perhaps, or if the screenwriters had explored the story’s themes more fully, then I may have found myself unhesitatingly recommending The Tattooist.
As it is though, the best I can say is, in dressing the skeleton of the Asian horror template with elements of Samoan culture, Burger and company certainly attempt something more valid and vital than the ubiquitous English-language remake Hollywood is inclined to engage in.
In The Tattooist, New Zealand cinema has taken knowledge learned from the Japanese and the Koreans and applied it to a story that stems from their own heritage, something to be rightly proud of.
The fact that the film itself doesn’t quite reach the heights of the best Asian horror has to offer is unfortunate, but shouldn’t negate the effort and intent.

Parting shot: For anyone who can’t get enough of Jason Behr, reviews of Skinwalkers and D-War can be found in the Archive, where reviews of Eastern Promises, No Country For Old Men, Bug, and Abominable (which actually stars Christien Tinsley) can also be found.

(The Tattooist OS and images courtesy of

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