The Contestant, like a real life Oldboy, might be the year’s scariest documentary

Twenty years in the past, Park Chan-wook’s revenge thriller Oldboy turned him into a worldwide star, setting off a new wave of Korean neo-noirs and serving to break down limitations for worldwide cinema. The film’s memorable, irresistible hook: After a drunken bender, Korean businessman Oh Dae-su wakes up in a small, dilapidated lodge room, the place he’s been imprisoned by unknown events. As months go with no contact from the outdoors other than nameless meals deliveries, he begins to unravel, numbed by isolation and helplessness.

Watching Hulu’s mesmerizing documentary The Contestant, it’s arduous to consider Park and Oldboy manga author Garon Tsuchiya didn’t take some inspiration from its topic, Nasubi. Beginning in 1998, Nasubi spent greater than a 12 months bare, ravenous, and reduce off from the world in a equally small suite as a part of a Japanese recreation present, totally unaware that he was finally being watched by 17 million gawking followers. His real-world story was significantly much less gory than Oldboy, nevertheless it’s much more startling, given its massive, stunning twists — and given how complicit Nasubi was in his personal captivity and worldwide exploitation.

Clair Titley’s documentary begins with a temporary overview of the recreation present, Susunu! Denpa Shōnen, and the surroundings that enabled it. In an period the place actuality TV was just starting to take off, Susunu! Denpa Shōnen specialised in luring contributors into performing elaborate, harmful stunts in the hopes of furthering their leisure careers. A fast montage of footage from the present blitzes throughout a few of the present’s different most infamous moments, together with an intercontinental hitchhiking journey that hospitalized one participant, and a stunt the place two comedians got a swan-shaped pedal boat and instructed to pedal from India to Indonesia.

However by far, the present’s most infamous challenge was “A Life in Prizes,” a section the place a would-be comic was positioned in a room, bare, with nothing however a rack of magazines and a pile of postcards, and ordered to dwell fully off no matter he might win by getting into journal sweepstakes.

Producer Toshio Tsuchiya instructed Denpa Shōnen contestant Nasubi (born Hamatsu Tomoaki — the uncommon form of his face impressed his stage identify, “Eggplant”) that he’d dwell in a room with one tripod-mounted digital camera, which he’d use to videotape brief each day check-ins as he entered sweepstakes and slowly amassed 1 million yen value of prizes. After the challenge completed, Toshio defined, the present would edit Nasubi’s footage and launch it.

As an alternative, Toshio stored secret cameras in Nasubi’s room working 24 hours a day. Initially, the present’s producers edited the footage down into brief segments for the present. As soon as hundreds of thousands of followers grew to become obsessive about Nasubi, although, detractors denounced him as an actor faking the complete stunt. So Toshio started to livestream the cameras from Nasubi’s room, using an around-the-clock employees to watch the feed and hand-operate the cellular video impact that obscured Nasubi’s genitals with a CG eggplant.

The footage Titley assembles from Denpa Shōnen feels remarkably like a manically narrated model of Bo Burnham: Inside, with Nasubi’s bare dancing changing the musical interludes. Hoping for a TV comedy profession as soon as the present really aired, Nasubi performed to his digital camera throughout the window the place he knew it was on. He performs celebratory rituals every time he wins a prize, pulls foolish faces and tries out foolish voices, and customarily clowns for an imaginary viewers. The goofy antics and the ridiculous extremes of the complete experiment edge towards making The Contestant really feel comedian and weightless, a mild leisure like so many different reality-TV gimmick reveals.

Picture: Hulu/Everett Assortment

The hidden cameras inform one other story. As months stretch by, Nasubi tries to outlive with no supply of vitamin however sparse, random prizes like fruit drinks and pet food. He grows more and more gaunt and bony. He suffers bouts of lassitude, melancholy, confusion, and what appears like mania. And Toshio simply retains rolling.

Twenty-five years after the extremely discomfiting finish of the “Life in Prizes” experiment, Titley introduced Nasubi and Toshio in for studio interviews to debate their recollections of this worldwide train in voyeurism. Nasubi is calm and philosophical about his ordeal, explaining why he didn’t simply stroll away from the experiment when he started deteriorating, and taking a clear-eyed have a look at what it did to him mentally. Toshio, in the meantime, stays politely apologetic about how sadistically he pushed Nasubi to proceed on the present, however gives few explanations or insights into his behind the scenes selections. The film is more likely to go away viewers with extra questions on the story than they went in with.

A part of that comes from Titley’s refusal to editorialize, or to form the story in a means that means a bigger context. It’s simple to take it as a scary story about what persons are keen to endure (or make different folks endure) in change for fame or revenue. And given how well-known Nasubi grew to become each inside and out of doors of Japan, it’s equally simple to take “A Life in Prizes” as a milestone occasion in the development of actuality TV, and the fascination with watching folks hurt themselves on digital camera to entertain others. (Jackass began airing the 12 months after “A Life in Prizes” ended. So did Survivor. Worry Issue got here the 12 months after that.)

Nevertheless it’s simply as simple to see as “A Life in Prizes” as a companion piece to the Stanford Prison Experiment, an instance of how simply energy can lure unusual folks into cruelty and abuse, and the way simple it’s to turn into obedient and accepting in the fingers of energy, and to just accept even a ruinous establishment. As Nasubi factors out in an interview with Titley, the door to his tiny house wasn’t locked, and he might have left at any time. Previous a sure level, he says, he didn’t have the will to withstand.

The Contestant subject Nasubi in a modern-day interview, sitting on a tatami-floored room in front of open shoji, with his hair neatly cut short

Picture: Hulu/Everett Assortment

The Contestant doesn’t draw out any of those bigger concepts, and Titley’s dealing with of her topics appears light and cautious somewhat than probing. There are a lot of unsettling revelations in The Contestant, together with that Toshio inspired Nasubi to maintain a journal about his day-to-day life — which was then taken away and revealed, with out Nasubi’s data. (It grew to become a four-volume nationwide bestseller.) However the movie doesn’t discover how that occurred, or query the ethics behind it: It simply notes the publication of Nasubi’s diary as a information level in establishing the scope of his fame in Japan.

It might be thought-about admirable how firmly Titley sticks to the information, somewhat than making an attempt to attract out a ethical from the complete scenario. Nevertheless it leaves the story feeling extra like a quirky, remoted human-interest story than a watershed second in the improvement of exploitative, stunt-driven actuality tv. It performs like a feature-length model of the “Here’s a wacky story from Japan…” information objects that Titley excerpts at the starting of the movie, extra a curiosity than a greater discussion-starter. And when Nasubi enters his post-Denpa Shōnen life and embarks on a radical private challenge, the movie morphs into one thing extra like a slick, inspirational feel-good story. It’s definitely a aid to see Nasubi wholesome and completely satisfied after the early going, however there’s a fixed sense of a movie skating throughout the floor of a exceptional story, somewhat than exploring its depths.

None of which makes The Contestant any much less of a compelling watch. We appear to have moved previous the peak of grim cautionary documentaries centered on the seemingly limitless environmental, technological, and societal apocalypses looming in the close to future, perhaps as a result of they’d piled up in such numbing profusion that audiences have been turning away. Regardless of the responsible voyeuristic lure of a bare man who doesn’t know he’s being filmed, the “Wow, this guy’s so wacky!” framing of Toshio’s recreation present, and the massive, shiny uplift of the ending, this film is as scary as any of the doomsaying docs of the previous couple of a long time.

The Contestant is streaming on Hulu now.

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