Tuesday, June 19, 2007

reVIEW (3)
[1 of 2]

Hideo Nakata's Ringu opens with an image of the sea, waves moving in its ceaseless, eternal rhythm. His Hitchcockian psychosexual thriller Kaosu (Chaos) has its title card set against a shot of rain. Even his first Hollywood film, The Ring Two, opens with images of water. If opening images are anything to go by, Nakata seems to have a yen for water.
If there is any credence to this notion, then actually having the word in a film's title, and having it as a central image, might just have been inevitable.
Once again adapting material by Koji Suzuki, as he did with Ringu—this time out, the short story “Floating Water”—Nakata opens Honogurai mizu no soko kara with a credit sequence whose backdrop is filthy water, immediately submerging the audience in the medium used by the tale's supernatural menace to spread its sinister influence.

Appropriating as its English-language title the name of the Suzuki collection where “Floating Water” is contained, Dark Water revolves around Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki), a separated single parent raising a child on her own (as was the scenario in Ringu). This time around, the child is a little girl, Ikuko (Rio Kanno), who finds herself in the middle of a custody battle. And while this domestic crisis is on-going, mother and daughter move into a new apartment, where strange incidents immediately begin to occur, as a ghostly force seems to have found a target in little Ikuko.
What follows is a film with more ambitious aims than Ringu, and one of its triumphs is that Nakata succeeds in hitting the bull's eye dead-on.

Though Yoshimi is just as harried a single mother as Reiko Asakawa was in Ringu, Yoshimi has abandonment issues from her childhood, that she is anxious she not repeat in Ikuko's case. Ultimately, this is a bitter irony, given what Yoshimi is forced to do to resolve the central dilemma of Dark Water. Also, Ikuko is a far more normal child than Ringu's Yoichi, who emanated an unsettling, other-worldly maturity in his demeanor.
With these telling differences, it is clear that Nakata strives to people the story with individuals, to steep the tale in as much reality as possible, before the supernatural slowly seeps into its fabric.
Structure-wise, he even does away with the gambit of the creepy opening set piece, as seen in Ringu. In fact, Dark Water could have been played with the tantalizing possibility that all the strangeness was taking place in Yoshimi's head, a ploy perhaps of her scheming husband to gain custody of Ikuko. This isn't Nakata's tack, however. But given that the story could have been told from this angle, pitting the tension of a natural, rational explanation against a supernatural, irrational one, becomes a testament to the authenticity of the scenario; of its reality.

While in Ringu there was already a strong feminine presence, with Reiko and Sadako (and, to a limited extent, Yamamura), in Dark Water, the masculine presence is nearly non-existent, with only Yoshimi's ex-husband, a helpful lawyer, and a couple of other males playing very minimal roles. As far as Dark Water goes, the feminine is near-ubiquitous, which seems only natural, considering the film's central image of water.
In the Chinese belief system, yin ("shaded") energies are feminine, as opposed to the masculine yang ("sunlit"). Yin is also water and darkness, while yang is fire and light. Thus, yin is the negative part of the equation, while yang is the positive, sadly reinforcing the sexist belief of women being the weaker gender. A proper balance between these two forces is believed to be a prerequisite for the perfect life.
So perhaps it is this imbalance in Yoshimi's life that brings down the misfortune in the first place, but what Nakata ultimately does in Dark Water, consciously or otherwise, is to short-circuit the whole yin/yang balance, proving that a problem can be faced and addressed without the need of a male presence. Yoshimi is able to protect her child, her maternal love giving her the strength to pay the hefty price for Ikuko's safety.

Nakata is also able to present us with one of the hoariest scenarios in horror, the haunted house, and still make the goosebumps rise. And he doesn't even need to rely on outlandish production design, as in Jan De Bont's terrible misfire, The Haunting, to make the setting a character in its own right. All we have here is an apartment building, run-down and gloomy. A cramped, creaky elevator here, a water stain on the ceiling there, a grotty water tank on the rooftop, and presto, instant creepy haunted house.

Another nice touch in Dark Water is that, ultimately, the ghostly presence isn't truly a malignant one: it is only because of its loneliness that it reaches out to the living, unknowing (or perhaps, unmindful) of the harm it is causing in its wake. This isn't some raging spirit who sets off a spiteful curse that claims lives indiscriminately, by pure chance. This is a wraith with very specific needs and desires, paradoxically making it that much more malevolent, even if its motives aren't.
In the process of telling his story, Nakata is able to raise the issue of just how damaging to a child's psyche abandonment can be. Again, ironic given the story's resolution; as in Ringu, the mother is forced to do all she can to protect her child, though safety in Dark Water comes at a far greater cost. Here is an ending that could quite possibly be a far more cruel thorn than Ringu's cold-blooded climax, due to the element of self-sacrifice involved.

It is evident that Nakata intended Dark Water to be a horror movie with substance, and that it is, an urban ghost story whose ultimate influence is far more subtle than the obvious effects of the Ringu Cycle, though no less potent and crucial to the evolution of modern horror cinema.

(The above review began life under the title “... And Not A Drop To Drink (Diving Back into Dark Water).”)

(Honogurai mizu no soko kara DVD cover art courtesy of bloody-disgusting.com; Dark Water collection cover art courtesy of clouded-moon.blogspot.com.)

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