Dark Water (2002)

[First published on BlogCritics]

In my ongoing search for a truly scary horror film, the latest flick is another one of those great Japanese films which end up getting the mediocre Hollywood remake. Dark Water, or Honogurai No Mizu Soko Kara (仄暗いの水底から), literally ”something dark out of the bottom of the water”, the 2002 original, is a brainchild of the director Hideo Nakata, known for Ring and Ring 2.

The setting of the film is a family crisis. Yoshimi and Ikuto Matsubara, a mother and a child of six, move into a run-down high-rise. Yoshimi is in the middle of a divorce and is striving to secure Ikuto’s custodianship over her bastardly ex-husband. As soon as they have settled in their new home, a wet patch appears in the ceiling and water drips into the bedroom, but the superintendent isn’t inclined to do anything about it. Soon, Yoshimi learns about a little girl who went missing two years before and, somehow, it seems to connect with the strange goings-on in the building. Something is out to get her and Ikuto.

At a first glance, little details and flashbacks from Yoshimi’s life seem nothing but a poor attempt to grow substance on the protagonist. One is equally inclined to dismiss the similarities between her life, Ikuto’s life, and that of Mitsuko, the missing girl, as nothing more but cheap mythology. But if for some reason you were rather taken with the film, as I was, you might afford the story another look.

Water is the theme of the film, and the story is very much like that, too – it is transparent, intangible with some murky bits, and it moves around in circles. Water is the symbol of death and birth, and in a roundabout way, the story connects water, life, and motherhood. Yoshimi’s own life has been deeply impacted by her irresponsible mother. The film works the age-old ‘wronged ghost’ formula into the story; Yoshimi repeats the cycle of abandonment until she is forced to make good in order to save her daughter’s life.

Yoshimi Matsubara seems like a typical character of the genre: weak, scared and spineless (probably pretty close to a real person, if you think about it). In cultural context, she is a very typical Japanese woman who has had a career until she got married, and she lands on nothing when the marriage goes awry. The story also hints that Yoshimi was fairly successful before getting married, and has no problem securing a job in a small publishing company.

The psychological problems in her past seem to have been brought out in random – as if there has to be a token mental patient to make a horror film. As a storytelling tool, it is old and over-used. The idea is to make the viewer doubt the protagonist’s sanity and suspect that she is imagining everything. No doubt it looked good on paper, but the story simply does not add up for such psychological feat.

By Western standards the characters in the story are immaterial and true to Japanese storytelling stereotypes. Knowing the genre and the culture, it isn’t necessarily an entirely negative thing, as this way we are conveyed everything we really need to know about the characters: the building superintendent is old, disinterested and a little slow; the agent is eager to please and quick to sell; the lawyer is the voice of reason; the husband is the bad guy; etc. In general, I believe there are essentially two kinds of horror films: those focusing on the character, and those telling a story. A horror film with both qualities – Green Mile, Sixth Sense? – seems to lose in horror what it gains in storytelling.

The visuals of the film are nothing to celebrate, nothing to berate. The yellow raincoat and the recurring red bag (by the way, see if you can spot anything else in the film with such intensive colours) are powerful tools to hook they eye of the viewer. Making it an element of fear adds another layer to the horror. You end up being more scared because little girls in bright clothes are supposed to be adorable, or at worst annoying – not terrifying.

Unlike most Western horror films, and, I suppose, rather uncharacteristically for an Asian story, Dark Water closes the story with an epilogue of a grown-up Ikuto, who makes good with her own mother. There isn’t really much of a crack left to wedge a sequel in. Nice.

In conclusion: somehow I liked this film despite of its shortcomings. But my quest for a film to scare me out of my skin yet continues: Dark Water failed with all other horror films I’ve tackled on my mission. I wasn’t scared.

More suggestions welcome.


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June 2011
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