Saturday, 27 November 2010

Dark Water

As is so often the case with tag lines for movies, "the most shocking film yet" is a misleading entry point into Dark Water. While it is undeniably a horror, it's not the scream-a-minute shocker you might be led to expect, but rather a sustained mood piece in the tradition of classic horror like The Haunting. You can tell Nakata is a cineaste: there are direct references here to The Haunting (the sudden, unnatural bulging of the surface of the water tank) and The Shining (liquid cascading through open lift doors), but the main thing he has assimilated from both films is the brilliantly sinister evocation of the supernatural; as a rarely glimpsed but ever-present menace.

Dark Water is almost literally saturated - outside, it's always raining; inside, the grey, dank, mournful interiors threaten to buckle under the weight of turbid water. There's a sense of creeping dread, building drip by drip to an inexorable cascade.

The story centres around Yoshimi Matsubara, at first as a small child waiting forlornly to be picked up from nursery, then as a young woman, sitting in a solicitors' waiting room, before being ushered in to discuss divorce proceedings. This is a nice cut sequence that lays the groundwork succinctly for the film's recurrent themes of neglect, fear of abandonment and loss. We learn Yoshimi now has a child of her own, Ikuko, whom she is fighting for custody of; together, Yoshimi and Ikuko move into an old apartment block and into the world of Mitsuko Kawai. Darkness, inevitably, follows.

Something that did strike me, as when reading The Amityville Horror was - why didn't they just leave? Sure, there are impediments - Yoshimi being embroiled in a custody battle and trying to hold down a day job, not wanting to unsettle Ikuko again - but there are more than enough warnings early on that this is not a good place to be. The question is facile though; obviously Yoshimi can't leave, a/ because it would ruin the film and b/ because she is subconsciously drawn to the apartment block - she needs to find some kind of resolution for the ghosts of her own past. Ultimately that comes through Mitsuko and not her own child Ikuko. On a logical level, Yoshimi's wilful transition to the astral plane is a bit of a stretch, but taken another way, it's symbolic of a reconciliation with the spectre of her own past - not an altogether uncommon trope in tales of the supernatural.

One small detail remains puzzling - I'm sure I remember a scene in the theatrical release with the ghost of an old man in the lift. This doesn't feature in the DVD release though... it leaves me wondering whether it was simply cut or if I'm making up ghosts of my own.

Dir. Hideo Nakata, 2002

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Sansho the Bailiff

It's a real privilege to watch a film like Sansho on the big screen; to soak up the rich atmosphere of Mizoguchi's epic story in the way it was intended.

Remarkably for a film almost half a century old, it's dated very little. By today's standards of course, the characters are somewhat archetypal and the transformations they undergo a little jarring, but the acting is still of a high quality; measured and poignant. The cinematography is a revelation, evoking the haunted, mystical landscape of rural Japan with a quiet mastery.

Set in medieval times, Sansho is essentially a morality tale about a governor who takes a stand against the moral bankruptcy of feudal lords and their exploitation of the peasant classes. For his beliefs he is exiled, and his wife and children, Zushio and Anju, set off on a journey to find sanctuary in another province. When they are brutally separated, the children are sold into slavery and Sansho, a merciless landowner and tax collector, becomes their master. After a decade of captivity, at the prompting of his sister, Zushio resolves to escape and follow in his father's footsteps: to attain a position of power and right social injustice through the abolition of slavery, exerting his revenge on Sansho in the process.

There are certain thematic parallels with A Man For All Seasons but for me, this is much the better film. While displaying the same conviction, Zushio and his father are possessed of a more human, less obtuse nature than Thomas More. Sansho encompasses human tragedy on a grand scale rather than in the intriguing but ultimately hollow clash of Church and State. Given that it's dealing with heavy emotional material, Mizoguchi's film is strikingly unsentimental; he doesn't shy away from depicting the brutality of Sansho's house or the cruel ironies of fate to which all characters are hostage.


Dir. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954