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Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2002
Classic horror executed just right
Directors are forever talking about their "vision," but the reality is that many of them end up as craftsmen for hire, constrained by genre conventions, audience expectations and, especially in the case of Japanese films, the original material. Nearly every commercial film made here starts life as a book, manga or TV show -- the bidding wars for original scripts, so common in Hollywood, are almost unknown in Japan.
Some directors work more or less happily within these constraints; others chafe against them. One in the latter category is Hideo Nakata, who made his name in the horror genre, besides making a bundle for the backers of the two hit "Ring" films he directed. The movie business being what it is, he is now thoroughly typed as a horrormeister, a label he dislikes. "If you were to ask me whether I love horror from the bottom of my heart, I would have to say no," he says in the program for his new film.
Horror, says Nakata, is "a way of polishing my craft," a healthy, if distanced, attitude. After all, no one expects a horror director to exult in his gruesome material, unless his name happens to be Hannibal Lecter. But in his "Ring" films, whose plot was driven by a deadly videotape inhabited by a vengeful female spirit, Nakata was interested less in simply delivering shocks, though he did that effectively enough, than in creating a spooky alternative universe. Though the tape itself was the stuff of urban legend, the first film's atmosphere, especially, hummed with menace, as though Nakata somehow believed that this stuff about evil lurking in the spirit world was more than junk-fiction bunk.
His new film, "Honogurai Mizu no Soko Kara (Dark Water)," is based, as were the "Ring" films, on the work of Koji Suzuki -- the Japanese Stephen King. But instead of a trendy gimmick, the film relies on classic genre tropes to run its narrative motor, including a haunted old building, a little girl in jeopardy and parents badly in need of therapy. Think "The Shining" transposed to Tokyo, and Mom instead of Dad on the verge of a meltdown.
But where Stanley Kubrick's flawed masterpiece had a stone-cold heart, a perfect match for its wintry Rocky Mountain setting, Nakata's film is wet through and through, in both the visual and emotional sense. Nakata puts more water on the screen than any director since James Cameron in "The Abyss," while focusing on the teary turmoil of his unstable main character -- a woman in the midst of a messy divorce and in danger of being judged an unfit mother and losing her child. The film could have easily devolved into the pathetic: supernatural soap opera. But Nakata keeps ratcheting up the tension, while building up the Dark Side atmospherics, albeit more subtly and slowly than the hyperkinetic Cameron might have.
Also, Hitomi Kuroki's performance as the mother may occasionally veer into hysterics but is never merely for show -- she makes us believe in not only her character's desperation and terror, but the worm of madness eating at her core. Though a beauty with the proportions of a fashion model, Kuroki is old enough, at 41, to convincingly play a Japanese woman no longer able to rely on dewy youthful charm to get her through, whose only real status in this society is as a wife and mother.
As an exercise in horror, "Honogurai Mizu" is plotted mostly by an often-thumbed book; just about the only real novelty is the setting: a drab apartment building, just like thousands of others, crumbling to ruin in post-bubble Japan. The execution, however, is a cut above average, while the very everydayness adds to the frisson of fear: We may not know a mother like the one Kuroki plays, but chances are we've lived in a manshon like hers.
Yoshimi Matsubara (Kuroki) is in the process of getting a divorce from her abusive husband and fighting a messy custody battle over their only child, 5-year-old Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Ordinarily, this would be a slam-dunk for the mother, but Yoshimi has a history of mental instability, precipitated by a lonely, miserable childhood. Raised by an emotionally distant, absent mother, she was always the last one to be picked up from her kindergarten at the end of the day -- a scene she obsessively remembers and desperately wants to avoid with Ikuko.
Needing to demonstrate her independence to the family court, she moves into a new apartment with Ikuko and begins looking for a job. The apartment, however, is a mold factory with a leaky ceiling and gives her the willies in a way she can't quite put her finger on. Ikuko, however, begins seeing the shadowy figure of a little girl in a yellow raincoat, who may or may not be real, but seems to be beckoning. Then Yoshimi starts to see her, too, out of the corner of her eye, while the spot on the ceiling drips and grows, and little feet scamper along the floor of the flat above. Fear begins to steal into her soul, especially when a creepy little red bag begins showing up again and again, even after she stuffs it, frantically, into the trash. The senile old super and the sneaky real estate agent are no help with the leak or anything else, the job hunt is a nightmare and every day it rains torrents.
Not unexpectedly, Yoshimi's mental decline accelerates, culminating in a raging row with her husband in front of the family-court people. Her lawyer (Shigemitsu Ogi), an understanding type, advises her to cool it, but it's not easy when odd things keep happening at home. Finally, after a frightening encounter at her kindergarten with the girl in the raincoat, Ikuko falls into a coma. What, Yoshimi wonders, does this pint-size apparition want? The answer appears to be on the roof of the apartment building, in visions that clutch her with dread. Even so, she has to know, to save not only her daughter, but her sanity.
"Honogurai Mizu" has been bought for a Hollywood remake by Pandemonium, a production company run by former 20th Century Fox President Bill Mechanic. But how, I wonder, will an American director put the uniquely Japanese atmospherics of this film on the screen? The incessant rain, I suppose, he can find in Seattle. But where is he going to get that rainy-season slime peculiar to old manshon that haven't been properly aired in ages? A lot of you out there can help him with that one, can't you?