MARCH 20, 2011
Until the recent tragedy, I was not aware that earthquakes were quite common in Japan (more than 20% of quakes 6.0 or greater occur there), so I'm surprised that Retribution (Japan: Sakebi) is the first J-horror film I've seen that had any reference to it, with minor trembles occurring every 10 minutes or so in the film. If I had watched the film two weeks ago, I might have thought it was an homage to the quake-phobic New Nightmare, so thanks to reading up on the disaster, I was able to put the movie into a little more context.
Not enough, however. As with many J-horror films I didn't quite get the ending, so I looked around on the IMDb board for a theory, and discovered that the film as a whole was symbolic of Japan and how director Kiyoshi Kurosawa looked at it as a sort of decaying country that was forgetting its past. Obviously, that sort of stuff went right over my head - in fact I actually commented that he was going out of his way to make the country look ugly, with major scenes occurring in landfills, junkyards, remote rundown housing developments, etc. I didn't realize that was part of the point.
OK, so what if you're just as ignorant about Japan as I am - does the movie work? Yes it does, as long as you're appreciative of the sub-genre to begin with. There's not a lot of changing the wheel here - ghosts making creepy sounds as they advance in an unnatural way on our hero is the backbone to many of the scares, and once again we have a climax involving the unburied remains of our sympathetic villain. But the mystery is a bit more interesting than usual, with a cop finding clues that seemingly point toward him as the killer of an unidentified girl and eventually uncovering a series of seemingly unrelated killings. The thing that ties them all together is a bit weak when revealed (spoiler - the "killers" all rode the same ferry that passed by where the ghost died when she was alive), but it's still better than the usual "I'm buried in the basement and I kill everyone who comes into the building instead of just saying what I want" deal.
And the scare scenes were, well, scary! One great thing about Kurosawa here is that he doesn't "announce" his scares with musical stings, or cut to a wide shot of our hero so that something can scurry past in the foreground. Instead, he frequently uses long takes, with characters moving back and forth in the foreground, and careful viewers will spot our ghost suddenly appearing unnoticed in the background. Sort of like the scene in Halloween when Annie is on the phone and Michael suddenly appears in the doorway (and then vanishes again), but again, without the sting to help us. He also uses mirrors in a very creative way, allowing to see things the hero does not, but again, not cutting to it to hammer the point home. I wouldn't be surprised if I were to watch the film again and see the ghost in a shot or two that I had missed before. The long takes aren't just used for scares - there's a remarkable stunt around the halfway point where a guy clearly jumps off a 3-4 story building to the unpadded ground below all in one unbroken shot. And if there WAS some sort of CGI replacement or edit in the shot, they certainly fooled me.
Another impressive and appreciated form of restraint was shown in the earthquake scenes. Instead of shaking the camera around and doing a "Star Trek", the camera remained rock solid still, while everything clearly shook and rattled independently. I saw some interior footage of the recent quake, and to me it just looked like any modern action movie - lot of shaking around, and unless something actually fell off the wall it was hard to tell that anything major was happening. But here, by keeping the camera so perfectly still, we can actually get a greater sense of the chaos that is occurring. Well done!
In fact, the technical qualities are so impressive, I have to assume that the ridiculous "poor man's process" shots of people driving are intentionally bad. "The outside world no longer seems real to me" or something. I was actually curious why no one had ever remade this one (Kurosawa also directed Pulse), but now I think I know - it's too centric to Japan, so the remake folks would have to put effort into adapting it for US audiences. They'd rather just stick to simpler stuff.
But yeah, that ending (spoilers!). I figured early on that our hero's girlfriend was a ghost (no one ever saw her, and at one point he even says he's single. Also it's a Asian horror film, there has to be a twist along those lines somewhere!), but I'm not sure I got WHY he killed her. The other murders we see are all caused by the victim doing something to offend or annoy their killer, but all we see of his girlfriend is how supportive and caring she is toward him. So is he just an asshole? I was also baffled by the arrival of his partner on the scene, who the ghost suddenly attacks and... for lack of a better word, squeezes him into a bowl of dirty water? What the hell was that about? Until the last 5 minutes, this was actually one of the easier to follow Asian horror films I can recall; it's almost like they saved all the usual incoherency for the final scenes, dishing out their confusion in the same way Ti West dishes out action in his movies. I've often said that a bad ending to a good movie can ruin it (just as a great ending to a bad movie can save it), and this one comes dangerously close to doing that. I don't mind ambiguity, but there's a difference between being ambiguous and being just plain confusing.
But still, one of the better ones, and another win for Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who I guess I should pay more attention to (in addition to Pulse, he also helmed Cure, which I quite liked). How is his film Loft? I looked over his filmography, and that seems to be the only other full blown horror feature he's made since Pulse. Looks like he tries his hand in a lot of genres, so even if it's not horror, if you know of any of his other films that I might like feel free to suggest them below.
What say you?