Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Hideo Nakata made the film that started J-horror (no, not the first Japanese horror movie, the first J-horror which is a subset). He also made one of the last. From Ringu to Dark Water, his influence over what a contemporary horror film should look like not only changed the game in the rest of Asian cinema but effectively pulverised the tiresome self-reflexivity that had been looping in the US since Scream. If there were teenagers in the frame they weren't aware of the frame.
Whether it was heart rending tales of incised family bonds (any of Nakata's horrors), apocalypses of loneliness (Kairo), nightmare satires of teen hive mindedness (Uzumaki, Suicide Circle), or troublingly weird extra depth blown into a ghost house (Juon) the icy fingers spread and stretched over the genre worldwide and scratched its name with the nails. Mostly this was terrible (every single US remake) but sometimes when the effect was of influence rather than copying there was something lasting. When I began that sentence I intended ending it with an example of the latter but by the end of this one cannot find one in my memory. If one occurs I'll shout it out before the end of this review.
Nakata, having moved this mountain, climbed down from it and pretty much disgraced himself with two Americanisations, the Pang brothers' The Eye and his own Ring 2. I suspect he liked the idea of working with the huge budgets and effects workshops and getting paid a lot more than he was used to for that. Perhaps he thought he might make his way in the US job market. If either or both are the case then it pains me to report that he did not become a new Guillermo del Toro.
Wha? Who? Well, what are you reading this blog for if you don't know who Guillermo Del - Ok. Mexican filmmaker whose debut Cronos showed more than just a heightened talent with cinema but an imagination that could take a tired genre and make it fresh and at the same time feel like a time honoured fable. Del Toro has since happily thrown himself into popcorn movies like Species 2 or Hellboy which have success enough to allow him to make more personally compelled fare like The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth. He now is very active in assisting the first steps of promising cinefactors through the Mirada Studios. Short version: if it's in English it'll be enjoyable but you'll forget it the next day; if it is in Spanish you will emerge from the experience moved and a little stronger than before.
Nakata hasn't stopped making movies, we just don't know that much about them without looking. This is a pity because he very likely has more to give. This is a blessing because when he makes something out of water like Chatroom you don't know it's him until you look and if you know the name you will see this as a film by someone who has travelled beyond the need for proof on the international stage.
Well, there's an intro to a blu-ray review. Must be a doozy of a movie, huh? Alright, don't take this the wrong way but rather than a good film, this is an intriguing one. I would often choose the latter over the former as there are many directors who make good films that I don't care about but very few whose work can fascinate me. This does that.
A young man swaggers through a busy urban enivronment and into what looks like an old boarding house decorated by Julien Temple, gaudy pinks and greens and rectangles of incandescent bulbs blazing. Our lad finds a door and stencils CHELSEA TEENS on it, freehanding an exclamation mark for the personal touch. He strides in and waits. In a very short time others find their way in. Inserted into this odd situation are visual bites of the people in the room at their laptops in other settings. With extreme efficiency we now know we are in a chatroom made physical.
Before I liked this I liked the casting of Aaron Johnson (who now hyphenates his surname with a Taylor). A magnetic presence, he carried the undersung Nowhere Boy into fineness as the teenage John Lennon. Then, as Kickass, fought valiantly against the extraordinary Chloe Moretz (who now adds her middle name Grace) whose tweeny guttermouth Hitgirl might have sqaushed all screen competition. Here, his dynamic energy and devil's smile whips the crew of disaffected teens from their intimidated reticence into action. William (Johnson) limits the group to five and they soon fall in with the trust that youth makes necessary. There is a very funny moment heightened by its creepiness when a middle aged man attempts to enter in the guise of a teenage girl. After that the security is tight. Everyone is safe.
The world outside the room is, if anything, more oppresive and threatening than confessed by the five. (It is also several tints greyer than the hi-tone splendour in the room.) Mo seems as sprightly as William but harbours something he finds cripplingly shameful but compulsive. Eva's upper middle class moulding is smothering. Emily, who got the ball rolling by demanding everyone talk about something they hate, is young, privileged and beautiful but crushed by the high competition of her peer group of supermodels in waiting. Jim has been on anti-depressants for years and has trouble grasping even at the life that comes to him. And William whose uplifting force is so infectious has issues of his own which translate to plans of his own. A'ter that be spoilers.
The first thing to note about this film, given that setup, is that its setting is British, not American. This shatters preconceptions immediately. It's not just the accents. The dialogue is different, tougher and not reliant on off-the-rack sarcasm or unrealistic worldliness. The social situations have more subtle class structure context to them; the sense of privilege to all these higher-stratum Londoners doesn't need to be reinforced with palatial decor in their homes. Also, there is a dour resistance to play the plot as the thriller it threatens to become and a colder slowburn is preferred which will be familiar to any fan of Ringu or Dark Water (the grey sky Tokyo in the latter resembles the overcast London in this one). The British setting is simply more familiar to Nakata than his American efforts and this is to the advantage of the film.
The other chatrooms shown also have a creepiness to them even when the humour of the girls-only lolly coloured disco that William effortlessly penetrates. The ghostly auto-councillor room is gently terrifying. And there is the bully room where William lurks in front of a pair of dark William Blake angel wings as a fragile boy is pushed towards suicide by a crowd of harrying testosteronic teens. Lurking is a term from the older internet, the one I began with which included the now old school chatrooms and newsgroups. To lurk simply meant to hang around without contributing. William takes the more sinister tones of the term into the new web when he watches a girl's suicide in a distanced scene that brings Sion Sonno's nail-hard satire Suicide Circle and Kyoshi Kurosawa's brainstem-deep chiller Kairo. William's fascination at the video is icy with learning.
These aspects are transported from the source play and carry the warning to parents it intended. Nakata, however, is clearly far more fascinated with character and its dynamics. This gets him into trouble with potential audiences as they might be expecting more narrative pyrotechnics appropriate to a thriller but instead get a steady gaze on the birth of psychopathy or something like it.
There are subplot threads that seem to fall away and this is a common complaint I've read in responses online to the film. However, the only fault I'd assign is that they get so much screen time in the first place. A series of smaller-scaled Fight Club style vignettes would have sufficed but then they might have felt too trivial. When the field clears between William and his real quarry the continued grind will upset some for its slowness but it is depth rather than speed that is of the essence here and Nakata revels in it.The rapid sewing-up that happens at the end does feel too neat but the zinger at the very end allows it.
The packaging of this film is misleading and already has resulted in disappointment both at it not being the promised high paced thriller or transported J-horror that the marketeers pounded. It is a risky mix of solid interplay of characters, emotional fragility and a slowly welling sadness that is definitely not for everyone. Can you dispense with the hype on the cover? Then it might be for you.