DARK WATER

(Honogurai mizu no soko kara)

Directed by Hideo Nakata. Japan. 2002.


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Adroitly surfing the new wave of quality horror suppurating from Hong Kong and Japan, this watery frightfest confirms the position of Nakata as the shockmeister Laureate.

The Ringu trilogy was rightly acclaimed and even did the unthinkable in spawning, whisper it, a decent Hollywood remake (Mr. Cruise, Mr. Crowe and anyone else involved with Vanilla Sky, take note), but this trumps them all.

The primary key, of course, to all successful horror is to embed it in realism, and this is what Dark Water does: the premise is not someone stalking your dreams, but a neurotic mother going through a messy divorce and trying to cling onto her daughter. Basically, it's Kramer vs. Kramer played for shocks. (And minus Meryl Streep. She might be available for the remake, though. It would be interesting to see if she could even garner an Oscar nom in a horror. She's got such... integrity, hasn't she? What a woman.)

The shocks in this case derive from the vacated flat above the one Yoshimi (the excellent Hitomi Kuroki) and her young daughter Ikoku (Rio Kanno, equally impressive) have moved into, which is leaking water down into theirs. But is the flat actually vacated? And why does the lift keep stopping on that particular floor for no apparent reason...?

The second pivotal element of successful horror is to keep the action off-screen, as goose-bumpers from Jaws (put it this way, when you see the shark, he isn't all that scary is he?) to Blair Witch will testify. Budgetary constraints may have dictated the latter's form, but it was all the more scary for its extreme close-up, no lighting claustrophobia that forced audiences to frantically imagine what was happening off the edges of the screen. Of course, the irony then is that they were barely able to look at what was happening on the screen in case their worst off-screen imaginings were placed before them.

This delicious tightrope of tension is cranked beautifully high in Dark Water. Innocuous motifs such as the aforementioned lift, a child's bag and, of course, the eponymous water, are used to leave you feeling like are
teetering over Niagara without a safety net and, what's more, being egged on by a particularly ghostly girl in a yellow mac.

But what about the ultimate release of this tension? The canonical horror being referenced throughout is obviously Roeg's Don't Look Now. However, while that film's ending is quietly devastating, it is arguably a relief, as the narrative is clearly a chronicle of death foretold; the film is just an excruciating question of waiting for it to happen. Regrettably for your fingernails, Nakata's film does not give away the climax in such a fashion; when it comes, it comes not as relief but as even more terrifying; and it manages to sustain its terror for an unprecedented amount of time. Even the comparatively gentle coda was not enough to salve the quivering slice of fear my insides had become.

The final fulcrum of a truly unsettling horror is that there can never be any easy answers, and here Nakata again excels. If we examine mainstream Hollywood chillers such as The Sixth Sense or The Others we see that all 
the loose ends are tied up and the cause of the 'horror' is nullified. The flip-side, of course, as exemplified in the slasher movie, is to nullify the horror by making the audience identify with the killer, thus making any tension completely superficial: you don't mind if irritating teenies get gutted as you're actually rooting for Freddie/Jason/Michael Myers.

More specifically, the horror in the recent (and execrable) Fear Dot Com is, like Ringu, caused by the malevolent spirit of a murdered girl - but unlike Sadako, who was murdered precisely because she was pretty eevil (as in the Deeevil) and will carry on killing whatever... this one will stop killing people as long as she gets a decent burial! Suffice to say, the little girl in Dark Water is not just a Sadako replica - but neither is she after anything so glib and downright un-scary as the girl in Fear Dot Com. Far from it, in fact...

Anyway, we haven't even touched herein on the juicy themes of maternity and parenting which resonate throughout like a smouldering banana. Nor have we discussed the complex, possibly circular, narrative structure - but let us leave that for the more academic amongst us.

For now, I can only ask you to watch this film then try running yourself a bath - it's like walking down a hotel corridor after watching The Shining.

Peter Anderson
 
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