Director: Yugo Sakamoto
Notable Cast: Atomu Mizuishi, Mayu Suzuki, Takuya Matsumoto, Yuni Akino, Zingi Umemoto, Rikiya Kaidou, Yu Yasuda, Wataru Ichinose, Itsuki Fuji, Masayuki Ino, Kenta Osaka
Never underestimate the DIY indie film industry either. Sure, the big leagues and studio films have the money and time to make some impressive feats of cinema, but sometimes the most interesting slices of celluloid are the ones found in the cracks of the system. Take Yellow Dragon’s Village for instance. The film looks to be made by its on and off-screen creative teams for roughly $100 and the promise of shots at the local bar at the end of each day, but there is such a freedom to its playfulness that immediately strikes.
While the film might be listed as a horror, sometimes a drama, on various platforms, it is far more than that. Yellow Dragon’s Village is premiere-low budget filmmaking at its finest, delivering a coy sense of humor along with its genre-bending play on expectations in a way that sets up its audience for one thing and then batters them with another. It uses its serious filmmaking concepts and then promptly, more than once, throws them out the window for the sake of toying with its audience.
Debuting on the streaming service Screambox, it’s that horror tag that represents the initial expectations that Yellow Dragon’s Village is playing with. Director Yugo Sakamoto, the one-man do-it-yourself filmmaker who delivered two (!) fantastic action films last year with A Janitor and Baby Assassins, tackles the horror genre with a story that starts off like any classic horror film. A group of college-aged youths find themselves stranded in the forest. It’s only when they stumble upon the titular village, where the locals offer to help them out, that they uncover a cult looking for their next sacrifice.
Shades of Texas Chain Saw Massacre or other “rural horror” flicks become very apparent and the manner that Sakamoto manages to add in just enough modernity to the mix, particularly in the vertically shot cell phone footage that comprises most of the initial character introductions for the protagonists, gives it just enough charm to overcome its more generic choices. It’s a familiar formula that doesn’t necessarily inspire a lot of excitement from its audience, but it’s well executed enough to establish the baseline of what Yellow Dragon’s Village is going to be as a film.
Even as the film starts to introduce the horror elements, the weird village and the rising tension of awkwardness between the urban kids and the rural community, it’s playing it fairly safe with its style and script. It happens at a blissfully wickedly quick pace through. The entirety of this film barely clocks in over an hour - which is, in my opinion, a choice more movies should make, and it by 20 minutes, the horror is already starting with some surprising kills that lean into some of its darkly comedic beats.
Then, in one of the most entertaining choices I’ve seen in a movie in recent memory, Yellow Dragon’s Village completely shifts tonality - and genre - to take a falcon-style diving attack into being an action flick. Looking back, this should have been obvious after seeing the director’s other films and yet the film kicks back and starts kicking people in the fuckin’ face. It’s glorious. Gloriously offbeat. Gloriously well-choreographed. Gloriously taking the expectations that this film would be another Texas Chain Saw knockoff and then throwing it into the martial arts ass-kicking realm.
Does it make sense that this rural, cult village would have three beastly martial arts masters? Or the motives for our heroes would perfectly align with the previous half of the film? Not really, but when Sakamoto is delivering charming characters, fun spins on the narrative, and impressively entertaining martial arts fights - who cares? I didn’t. I was having too much fun watching Yellow Dragon’s Village inject sly bits of humor into action and pack in 40 minutes of action into 45 minutes of the film.
The choice to combine genres and effectively change films at the mid-way point is apt to deliver a bit of shock n’ awe to its audience, but for me - Yellow Dragon’s Village is the perfect low-budget genre flick. It’s playing on expectations, it’s doing it efficiently, and it never questions its own choices but uses its charming cast and well-balanced understanding of budget restraints to pull it off.
If anything, there will not be another film in 2023 that pulls this trick so effectively. I cannot recommend Yellow Dragon’s Village enough. Check it out on the Screambox streaming service now.