Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki
|I love that this weird Japanese poster makes it look like the box for that game Operation.|
An emotionally repressed detective named Takabe (Koji Yakusho, 13 ASSASSINS) is tracking a bizarre serial killer who seems to strike at random, carving an “X” into his victims and then disappearing without a trace. Only it’s strange, the victims seem to have done most of the work themselves, murdering each other or killing themselves seemingly at the will of the mysterious killer. Enter Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a severe amnesiac who can’t seem to even remember his own name or where he is, but who seems clearly related to these killings somehow. As Takabe comes to understand Mamiya’s strange secret, his own life begins to unravel in dangerous ways.
That’s the plot of CURE, but like most Kiyoshi “No, not that Kurosawa” Kurosawa movies, plot isn’t the main point. This one isn’t as surreal and expressionistic as my favorite of his films (and one of my favorite films ever), KAIRO, and it’s much more action and plot oriented than glacial chillers like CHARISMA, but it’s still a film which gets most of it’s mileage from tone and atmosphere rather than splatter. There is a serial killer here, and even a few nicely gruesome murder scenes, and there is an obsessed detective living with a tragic personal burden, just like there would will be in the inevitable American remake. It’s a little ambiguous, but it does have a pretty concrete story to it, a mystery which gets resolved to some degree, even a twist. You could definitely make a trailer to it that made it look like a normal movie.
But, it’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, so it’s not a normal movie. Instead, it’s a quiet, tense, dread-soaked journey into the dark. While not outright minimalistic like some of his films, there’s a very calculated sparseness to it; characters talk during plot points, but mostly they stay silent if possible. The camera moves when it has to, but mostly it stays still in long, static takes. Occasionally there are pretty images, but most of it takes place in claustrophobic, ill-lit run-down rooms with only one or two characters. It’s a serial killer story stripped down to the bare elements, but rather than making it seem diminished, this allows Kurosawa to fill in the leftover space with tenebrous trepidation that seems at once focused and intangible. It conjures the image of people standing under a lone light in the middle of a blackened room, with no visible barrier to prevent our minds form fearing the blackness around may well stretch into infinity. His brilliance is in his ability to give us just enough catalyst that our darkest fears and anxieties take over and fill in the rest.
It’s hard to describe exactly what is so deeply affecting about Kurosawa’s work without turning to vague descriptions like that. They just have a fundamentally sinister strangeness to them, the clear sense that something is deeply, deeply wrong somewhere beyond the quiet, austere surface. How do you describe something that has to be experienced? I’ve seen a bunch of K. Kurosawa films (including SEANCE this year, which I’ll be reviewing in a week or two) but I’ve only reviewed this one and the decidedly atypical SWEET HOME. And I’ve been kind of dreading this one, because writing about this kind of film is like trying to describe a frightening dream. “There were just two people sitting in a living room, kind of talking about nothing, but I knew something really bad was happening…” You know how horrifying it felt, but you feel like an idiot trying to explain it so someone who wasn’t there can understand. It’s a testament to Kurosawa’s awesome command of cinematic language that he can do this to you -- go straight for your subconscious mind and stir up uneasy feelings you can’t quite explain or put into words. I mean, the guy is a genius, but other than cataloguing his obvious technical mastery of every facet of cinema, it’s hard to describe the powerful effect his films have on me.
I’ve read a bit of analytic stuff about K. Kurosawa’s films and the symbolism and themes in them, but this is the first one I’ve seen that actually has a full length “making of” where he gets to talk about the motifs and influences and stuff. Interestingly, he sees this as a film about the fragility of identity. “Identity is in flux constantly,” he correctly notes, but I’m not quite certain if it’s a film about the dangers of believing yourself to be an unwavering single consciousness, or a film about the horror of identity loss. Or perhaps even how the false concept of identity anchors us to reality. The idea that it’s a film about identity, anyway, makes a lot of sense, in the same way that it makes sense that KAIRO is about the isolating effects of technology. But it’s also just as incidental to the way the film gets under your skin. It’s not like once you understand the metaphor, suddenly it turns scary; it didn’t occur to me at all that this might have some kind of subtext while I was watching, it’s the very experience itself which is fundamentally unnerving. In fact, in some ways I think it’s the very alienness of Kurosawa’s world that is so subtly alarming. If you could put it into words, you’d lock it down and take away a lot of it’s power. Something you can understand, you can control, and so Kurosawa’s horror is at it’s strongest when it’s at it’s most ethereal.
Sometimes I wonder if that alienness is the result of me missing out on some lost-in-translation Japanese subtext; Kurosawa points out that the Japanese don’t have a word for “identity” (not sure what word he’s using in his description, then) but if that’s true, shouldn’t a Japanese director be less horrified by the consequences of an unfixed personal identity? I’m not sure. I long suspected I just didn’t understand the nuance of Japanese cinema, but a few knowledgeable people have convinced me lately that it’s not that I don’t understand, it’s just that Japanese artists and audiences have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and strangeness than Westerners generally do. I feel like that’s the case here; Kurosawa may be playing with notions of identity, but he’s more interested in creating something disorienting and uncanny. Which is just fine, because he does that better than pretty much anyone.
Beyond the movie itself, Kurosawa talks in this documentary about his chief influences, who turn out to be pre-JAWs 70’s American directors like Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Richard Fleischer. I guess that makes sense, given his serious tone, rock solid (but rarely flashy) technical chops and deliberate pace married with somewhat shocking ideas and images. His films actually have quite a few visual elements in common with that era, which probably explains part of why I like them so much. But he goes on to make an interesting point: all those guys were old school Hollywood decades before they made their classic 70’s films. They were solid craftsmen who had solidified their experience as journeymen, workaday shepherds of safe studio projects, honing their craft but lacking really meaty material to play with. And suddenly in the 70’s they found themselves cut loose to marry their technical prowess with challenging and darker ideas as the studio system imploded. That’s a pretty damn smart explanation for the embarrassing overabundance of great films by these directors, especially since it was not a cadre that ever precisely became celebrity auteurs. OK, Peckinpah had a pretty recognizable style, but Siegel, Fleischer, Aldrich? What they had in common is that they made great fuckin’ movies during this period. I think the subtext may be that Kurosawa appreciates unflashy craftsmanship by genuine pros who don’t have anything to prove, and hence avoid messing up a good thing with a bunch of attention-grabbing look-at-me style.
As much as he might admire their work and reflect it in his own films, I don’t know if Kurosawa quite fits that description, since he has one of the strongest authorial voices of any director working today*. Remember how shocked I was when SWEET HOME was just a regular horror movie, and didn’t seem like his usual work at all? His style may not be overtly ostentatious, but it’s immediately recognizable for its austere discipline and rigid refusal to overexplain. I love Siegel’s films, but there’s no way he’d be able to resist using a crashing scary audio sting during the murders, as Kurosawa does here. One of the most memorable moments in the film is the murder of a cop standing out on the street in golden daylight, and Kurosawa just plants his camera across the street and watches the whole thing, silently. For all the stylized, expressionistic and exaggerated horror scenes I watched during Chainsawnukah, there’s something about the chilling straightforwardness and the abrupt collision of naturalism and perversity in this scene that puts it on another level. Just another example of his refusal to force information on the audience, and his total confidence that if he can plant a good suggestion in your head, you’ll do the rest yourself much better than he could. CURE isn’t his most ambitious film, but I think it among his best.** The unusually grounded plot provides the perfect foundation for his unique vision of horror to sneak up on you, and the result is a powerful and precisely crafted journey to the darkest parts of your subconscious mind.
*Although, of course, he too went through a long period of studio work before he made CURE in 1997, most of which isn't commercially available for me to evaluate (often at his own request: this interview finds him saying, "There are an enormous number of films that I never want to see again in my life [because] I’m too ashamed of them...The advantage is that if my early films are shown to the public, the public will realise that it’s the work of a young madman who was searching for himself through mediocre films, but that over the course of the years and work, he progressively delivered more successful films.") Perhaps this is why he feels a certain kinship with that group of directors, and why he has so much respect for reliable journeymen who only got to make passion projects much later in their careers.
**Bong Joon-Ho, director of THE HOST and MEMORIES OF MURDER, goes one step further, calling it one of the best films ever made. I don't think that's Tarantino-style hyperbole, either, I think he really feels that way, and may well be justified in doing so.