Shin’ichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead was the surprise indie hit of 2017 and served as a breath of fresh air with its delightful originality and creatively self-reflexive premise. After the glut of zombie films throughout the 2010s efficiently ran that resurrected genre into the ground, Ueda’s layered experiment about a production crew making a broadcasted single-take zombie film, where all the expectant hijinks that could go wrong do, was a delightfully manic comedy that signalled to the world a talent in the making.
To take a tired horror trope and breathe life into it, while at the same time utilizing a filmmaking gimmick to its fullest potential, all within a debut feature set Ueda up for immediate cult status and a prominent position on my radar for the years to come. His follow-up to this audacious debut, Special Actors, has finally arrived and — while noticeably more traditional in structure than the unfurling levels of One Cut — its prominent inventiveness and sustained wild energy make it an endearing sophomore feature for the budding cult figure.
If it wasn’t clear by the title, the director remains ostensibly fascinated with twisting the traditional components of a film production to fit his outlandish premises. Kazuto is a hopeful actor who suffers from fainting spells in high-pressure situations, making his usefulness on a film set suspect when he can’t differentiate between the fact of the production and the fiction of his roles.
After a chance encounter with his estranged brother, he joins a troupe of “special actors” who work for hire to do whatever scenario you want. Seizing on a growing trend in Japan where you can hire actors to fill out the attendance at a funeral à la Shunji Iwai’s A Bride For Rip Van Winkle, the special actors are available for any deceitful scheme or clandestine ruse you may need to appear extra convincing. A fake mugging to appear tough to your crush. A fake complaining customer to test your restaurant staff. For the right price, this guerilla acting troupe will sufficiently warp reality around your specifications to get the results you want.
As one could see, Special Actors likes to bend and play with that divide between reality and the reality of acting jobs, which Ueda mines for a sufficiently twist-laden, inventive narrative. The actors’ major job, which gives the film its heist-like feel, is when they are hired by an inn owner to infiltrate a cult known as Musubiru, which has brainwashed her sister.
Playing the part of newly joined members, Kazuto and his brother work to learn the secret doctrines of the cult and expose them to the impressionable converts in a humorous “it takes a scammer to beat a scammer” type logic. The cult plot makes great use out of Ueda’s ”special actors” concept and works to add some needed stakes to a funny but open-ended premise that needed that kind of gravity— much like the broadcast television angle of One Cut of the Dead gave that film its much-needed excitement.
Playing fast and loose with the levels of fact and fiction in Special Actors pays off dividends in the conclusion when multiple cleverly implemented twists come to light. The leadup to this satisfying climax is left a tad rocky by some misplaced overacting and some bits of comedy that fall noticeably flat.
Kazuto’s fainting spells, meant to endear us to him as the adversity-laden protagonist, are only utilized for a running joke, which runs out of steam pretty quickly. This does not dilute the overpowering charm of Special Actors, but it should be noted that it’s a charm that does not come as naturally as in his previous feature.
That being said, as follow-ups to surprise indie tours de force go, Special Actors is an equally original and delightful comedy — which, if anything, speaks to Ueda’s versatility. Far from the fluke indie hit of subverting tropes and gimmicks, Special Actors can exert that same originality and cult charm in a more grounded premise.