Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Dark Water

These Japanese horror films are all starting to run together in my head. There was Ringu, which became The Ring here in America, wherein a little sopping wet girl haunted a mother and child through the magic of VCR technology. Then there was Ju-On, remade here as The Grudge, in which a little sopping wet child and mother haunt a whole bunch of people via the somewhat unoriginal medium of the Haunted House. Then there were about five thousand more movies like this, and then Dark Water, in which a little sopping wet girl huants a mother and child by hosing them down repeatedly with the namesake murky liquid.

Hollywood has dutifully agreed to remake Dark Water, and the New Hotness Jennifer Connelly version will hit theaters soon. I wonder if the American filmmakers will attempt to add something to this material to keep it a bit more fresh, because mainstream American audiences have seen The Grudge and The Ring, and may possibly resent having to shell out $10 to see the same concepts played out three times.

Apparently the similarities between all these movies don't bother Japanese audiences, because they keep churning these suckers out, along with sequels, tie-in TV shows and comic books, and on and on and on. Personally, I admire the attention to detail and then attempt to generate genuine suspense rather than cheap "scares" that's evident in these movies. I just wish someone would turn this genre on its head and open up some more possibilties. How many rain-soaked dead children can there be, before we all recognize that this image has become not so much other-worldy but mundane?

Even the minor notes of Dark Water feel similar. (As well they should...director Hideo Nakata also directed Ringu as well as the American sequel to The Ring from earlier this year).

Newly-divorced single mom Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) and her daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno) move into a crummy apartment in a building full of weirdos. Soon, they start to see weird shit, including an oddly out of place young girl with long stringy black hair in a raincoat. And Ikuko starts sleepwalking and talking to herself and drawing creepy pictures in school.

Okay, see, I'm gonna stop here. I don't want to see one single more movie where a parent is shocked to discover a creepy, horrifying or otherwise mysterious drawing done by their child. This idea is trite and overused, and it's a cheap device in the first place. I'm tired of the entire idea that kids are somehow more "in tune" with the universe than everyone else. Only kids can go to Neverland, only kids can see ghosts and fairies and only kids can appreciate magic.

Let's get real for a second. Kids don't know crap. You're telling me the same little bastard who can't tie his shoes or put on underwear by himself can penetrate space-time and congress with the undead?

Granted, these themes are recycled elegantly. The cinematography by Junichiro Hiyashi is smooth and artful, and includes some very nice tracking shots (including one where we pan up a large water tower before bounding over it in a high-angle shot to observe the roiling waters inside). The flashback scenes to the tragedy that incites the story, as well, is gracefully pulled off. The perimeter of the shot is blurred, allowing clarity only within a small window in the center, reflecting both low visibility in a rainstorm and the indistinct nature of this half-remembered, blurry event.

But that's not enough to make up for the rote nature of the plotting. The final explanation for the haunting in particular is silly and overblown, and the climax is both staggeringly depressing and unsatisfying (and requires a drawn-out, extended epilogue). I think what might have been needed is some more context. The film only has two main characters, Yoshimi and Ikuko, and the apparation's motivation is only explored during the final 20 minutes or so. If Nakata wanted to build some additional atmosphere (and differentiate his newer film from his older film), he might have sketched in some more of Yoshimi's world.

Are there neighbors in this apartment building? Why does Yoshimi fight so much with her ex-husband? Nakata takes great pains to establish childhood abandonment as a major theme in the film - Yoshimi remembers her mother failing to pick her up after school even as she is late in picking up her own daughter, and we see in flashback that the ghost girl was left at school by her own mother as well.

But he's clearly not interested in the psychology of abandonment. The water motif in the movie really links up only to the physical circumstances of the dead girl's passing, but never relates back to the concept of being left behind by a cold, uncaring parent.

There are a lot of ideas in Dark Water, but they are all underdeveloped. Perhaps the American remake can salvage the promise and give the movie some definition and heft. It worked for Ringu, which I also felt was kind of distant and ineffective as a horror film.

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