Invitation Only -- Film Review

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Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

BUCHEON, South Korea -- Just because "Invitation Only" claims to be Taiwan's first slasher film doesn't mean it brings anything new to the carving table of torture porn. Its set-up of five people lured into an exclusive party only to serve as savage entertainment for the rich is basically "Hostel" transplanted to a hollow set with even hollower grounds for gross-out cruelty. Rookie director Kevin Ko may have nailed down the basics of horror filmmaking, but he does not offer a personal take on the genre or much local color.

Spanish production-sales company Filmax has acquired most international rights outside Asia, which may lead to exposure beyond Asian-themed ancillary niches. Even so, only gorehounds not concerned about corner-cutting production values need RSVP to a screening invitation. Followers of Japan's porn scene may check this out for adult video star Maria Ozawa's voluptuous but all-too-fleeting presence.

Clerk-cum-chauffeur Wade (Bryant Chang) catches his boss, IT wunderkind Yang (Jerry Huang), in flagrante with supermodel Dana (Maria Ozawa). As if to appease him, Yang asks him to attend an "entrepreneurial networking party" in his place.

The party is an initiation ceremony into an elitist club founded by an expatriate financier. The five new members are showered with welcoming gifts, but just as surprisingly, they are abruptly exposed as social-climbing impostors.

The action then jumps hurriedly from one sequence to the next in a pattern familiar to the genre: The victims are hunted, assaulted, slaughtered. Survivors flee or retaliate.

The snappy editing and swarthy lighting partially averts careful scrutiny of the bare bones production design. The set, a cavernous and shabbily-furnished warehouse, has no character, and is out-of-place as a venue for privileged decadence.

Two torture set pieces are intended as the film's high point. Staged like a floor show with victims strapped to a chair, they make a sinister contrast with the ritzy audience. Close-ups in exaggerated camera angles on abused anatomical parts are obscenely long, and should satisfy most sadists, even though methods are garden variety. Hardened horror-fans have seen those surgical instruments and DIY tools before. For squeamish viewers, there is no respite visually or aurally (sound effects are screechy) nor comic relief.

Compared with the loutish, hormone-driven tourists in "Hostel," the two protagonists Wade and Hitomi (Julianne) are easier to root for. The latter, in particular, displays brainy resourcefulness that's more interesting than animalistic survival instinct, such as her ability to suss out escape routes inside the CCTV control room, or her improvised tailoring to disguise herself as another guest.

Both scenarios supply much-needed tension amidst mind-numbing gore and repetitive hide-and-seek sequences. Wade also grows in stature, from day-dreaming slacker to someone with grassroots pride who fights back and defies being dissed as "loser" during a critical car chase.

This makes it all the more disquieting to see the victims' humiliation and agony depicted with so much relish. They get a rough deal just for being allegedly "jealous of the rich." Sniggering contempt for the working class seeps out not just through the perpetrators' mouths, but from the tone of the film itself.

Sales: Filmax, Three Dots Entertainment
Production: Three Dots Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures
Cast: Bryant Chang, Julianne, Jerry Huang, Maria Ozawa, Kristian Brodie
Director-editor: Kevin Ko
Screenwriter: Chang Chia-Cheng, Carolyn Lin
Producer: Michelle Yeh
Director of photography: James Yuan
Production designer: Cheng Yi-Feng
Art director: Wang Zi-hsin
Music: Cody Westheimer
Costume designers: Li Jonan, Cheng Yun-Chu
Editor: Henry Wei
No rating, 95 minutes