Sunday, December 1, 2013

Review: THE COMPLEX: J-Horror revisited

Asuka and her family move into the apartment complex of the title on a Tokyo so brightly overcast that this must be a Hideo Nakata film. Yup, eleven years after hitting the peak of the genre he pretty much invented the Hid is back in the J-horror neighbourhood. So how is the ol' place?

Well the first impressions are good if you're wanting the hits and memories. The block of flats is a very slight step up from the mouldy and crumbling building in Dark Water and the family life for once seems harmonious. Asuka is starting nursing school and seems grateful for the happy start to the day that even involves a gift from mum, a watch that Asuka thinks is a little below her age but she accepts it happily.

While outside, she says hi to a little boy busy making an odd looking mound in a sandpit. The boy doesn't respond. Asuka walks on.

But there's more. Her parents end their conversation over breakfast the same way every morning. Her alarm clock seems to go off at 5:30 every morning except it always turns out to be one in the next flat. There are sounds of furniture being shifted around at night. She has already gone to the flat to introduce herself as a new neighbour but the door opened and closed. Plagued by the noise at night and her own curiosity following a case study read out in class, she ventures into the flat by herself with a fragile confidence only likely in horror movies and finds a huge mess and the corpse of an old man whose fingernails have been worn down trying to scratch at the wall for attention.

When the police and cleaners arrive one of the latter captures her attention as he seems to be familiar with the logic of ghosts and hauntings. This is actually done quite mundanely and so is saved from falling into self ridicule. From this point Asuka enters into a world of very strange danger starting with her coming home to find that her entire family has vanished from the flat. More than that and we step on spoilers.

Hideo Nakata has done two things here, one good and one bad. The good is that the subtlety he brought to the Japanese reconstruction of the horror genre in the 90s and 00s has led him to more adventurous representations of macabre plots. Asuka's predicament is initially so fascinating that I enjoyed being denied concrete guesses as to what she was going through or if she was on the right side of the dead/living divide, even though the evidence pushed one over the other her established imagination might have been doing some serious voodoo with her perceptions. When this is allowed to flex the film feels as fresh as Ringu on first viewing.

The bad is that so much of the world beyond this setup and its tantalising development is by the numbers j-horror, a kind of self-cover version. There being no arch wink at the audience with this we are left with the assumption that this plummet back into conventionality is there because it was too hard to think through the strong perception warp of the middle act.

I have no time for reviews that complain about what things aren't. I read an utterly pointless piece on Gravity recently that pretty much damned the straightforward action movie for not being more like Solaris. The Complex has a problem of there being too much of something that if trimmed could neaten the tale and heighten its tension. If one character's role had been stripped back to the information conduit it began being the climactic confrontation would not feel so compromised and drained of energy (and would have removed a needless series of ritual scenes that achieve nothing but screen time).

This has been bugging me ever since I saw the film. When I first saw Dark Water I thought for a while that he was just repeating Ringu until the pieces of the third act fell into place and the even more tragic and terrible conclusion stormed into being. There can be no storm here as the pressure is allowed to dissipate to effectively.

The complex is attached to a tv series which Nakata is partly helming. This feels right. The feature film keeps shy of the promise of its frequent masterful unease and the denouement has the feel of an old X-Files episode rather than the wrenching opera of the height of Dark Water. Maybe I'm just looking through the wrong context.

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