Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Noroi: The Curse

Noroi: The Curse (2005)
Dir Kôji Shiraishi
Written by Kôji Shiraishi, Naoyuki Yokota
Starring Jin Muraki, Rio Kanno, Tomono Kuga

Here’s a pretty strange one. NOROI: THE CURSE combines a series of words which really have no business being anywhere near each other: it’s a surprisingly effective Japanese found-footage 2-hour epic. Arriving in 2005, it preceded PARANORMAL ACTIVITY’s 2007 inauguration of the current blight on cinematic culture, and undoubtedly has more in common with the few predecessors in the years since CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST introduced the form (BLAIR WITCH most prominently, of course, though wikipedia lists a dozen or so others, mostly very low-profile). Like the latter two movies, NOROI follows a group of people who are intentionally making a documentary, saving us the indignity of wondering why in god’s name some jackass with a camera phone is running towards obvious peril for an hour and a half. They’re supposed to be professionals making a documentary, so it makes sense that they keep rolling, and also it’s a good excuse to have it shot by professionals who know how to make hand-held footage look pretty comprehensible if not, you know, pretty.

The documentary in question is being made by paranormal expert/film director Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki, RETRIBUTION) --something of a Japanese Art Bell-- who thinks he’s just making a normal hacky TV mystery program. The more he investigates, though, the stranger things become, and soon it’s clear that they’ve stumbled onto something far bigger than they could have possibly imagined. The structure, then, is essentially that of a mystery documentary -- a stark difference from most modern “found footage” debacles, which typically purport to be raw, unedited footage. Like DIARY OF THE DEAD or THE BAY, the edited-documentary framework gives the film license to actually tell a fairly complete story, and not just depict a single stream-of-consciousness incident as has become increasingly common in the subgenere (lookin’ at you, VHS series). NOROI unfurls over the course of several months, and follows something like a standard (if somewhat surreal) mystery plot, pretty much the exact same movie it would have been had it not utilized the found-footage conceit. It’s got characters, a central mystery for us to unravel, conflict, and resolution. As I think Shakespeare originally put it, “the whole she’boigle.”

Ordinarily, then, this is the part where I’d sarcastically ask, “so why bother with found footage if it just makes everything uglier and less artful, and you’re planning on telling a normal story anyway?” But this is a rare case where I’m prepared to say it legitimately works, and actually brings something decidedly unusual to a tale which would otherwise be a bit more exotic than usual, but still replete with all the expected elements of J-horror. In editing, performance and cinematography, there’s something surprisingly convincing and grounded about the workaday ugliness of the production. This is actually the way real hand-held news footage shot with real cameras in the real world looks, and this is clearly the real world we’re seeing, in all its scruffy, unadorned glory. The banality and the casual familiarity of the medium combine with the creepy, otherworldly demonic plot in a way which creates a surprising and upsetting tension.

In a more traditionally shot genre movie, you get the comforting predictability of genre; we know when the music gets ominous and the angles get canted that something spooky is coming up. With this particular found-footage approach, our reassuring assumptions about the language and structure of cinema are shaken away. The surreal can unexpectedly superimpose itself onto the mundane; something as simple as a convincingly frivolous Japanese TV talk show can erupt into chaos and violence at a moment’s notice. Everything feels natural and ordinary, but weird tendrils of something deeply bizarre keep disrupting the calm waters of normalcy. It helps that the film’s imagery eschews a lot of the traditional horror beats in favor of something more surreal, and in doing so neatly avoids a lot of expectations about how found footage manipulates us, allowing a queasy sense of genuine strangeness to seep through. And the fact that the film’s premise requires our ostensible protagonists actively pursue a mystery --rather than just film things which passively happen to them-- confers the galvanizing impression of peering into a hidden world which lurks, unseen, just underneath the everyday trappings of modernity.

It’s altogether an engrossing and unique use of the medium, certainly among the best and most worthy uses of the found-footage conceit I’ve seen, and markedly different in both its intent and its execution from most of its found-footage descendants. In the few genuinely good found footage films out there --[REC], THE SACRAMENT, the Evans/Tjahjanto segment of VHS 2 -- the idea of found footage has mostly been used to effectively insert the audience into an immersive, unrelenting experience. As I talked about in my reviews of VHS and THE BAY, if found footage has any logical use, it’s to craft something like a subjective, first-person perspective, a way of trapping an audience in with the participants in a story and denying them the comforting omniscience and detachment of traditional editing. It seems tailor-made, then, to document grueling, stream-of-consciousness situations and indulge in uncomfortably long sequences where the audience is stuck with the protagonist in the thick of the action; think CHILDREN OF MEN from a subjective POV. Though NOROI does indeed include a few harrowing sequences --particularly the climax-- which utilize the form in exactly this way, the meat of the film uses it quite differently. Rather than creating unrelenting intensity, it’s used to generate intimacy, inserting the audience naturally into the minutiae of a burgeoning and open-ended investigation -- a story which contains several very successful immersive incidents, but also works as a complete narrative.

The plot itself is surprisingly intricate, gradually drawing together numerous characters and strange incidents into a gossamer web of weird conspiracy. It centers around a reclusive mother and her strange son, who seem to spell disaster for anyone who pokes around in their business (eventually including, we learn from the prologue, Kobayashi himself). Strange behavior and mysterious occurrences seem to point to some sort of demonic boondoggle from antiquity, but to figure out what in god’s name is going on, they need to employ the assistance of not one, not two, but three colorful psychics, at least one of whom wears a tinfoil hat and coat at all times.

The performances are uniformly quite solid; in keeping with the rest of the production, the whole cast seems entirely believable as normal people with normal lives, suddenly swept up into this Cronenbergian weirdness. I’m not a native Japanese speaker, so maybe the line deliveries would feel phony to someone who was,* but at least with subtitles it comes across as very close to completely naturalistic. From the requisite psychic child (Rio Kanno, DARK WATER) to the bemused TV actress who gets embroiled in the investigation (Marika Matsumoto, voice actress in Final Fantasy X and Pokemon, playing herself in a weird bit of apparently unironic postmodernism) to the raving, mentally disturbed medium (Satoru Jitsunashi, JU-ON 2), they’re an unusually colorful lot for a Japanese film, but with a strong sense of earthy reality, which makes the bizarre mystery they encounter exponentially more jarring and unsettling. Combined with the stripped-down filmmaking, the characters come across as unusually vulnerable and relatable in the context of this strange situation. Realism isn’t something I typically look for in the exaggerated, illogical world of horror movies, but in this case it works rather beautifully, casting the divide between the prosaic and the phantasmagoric into stark relief but insidiously weaving them together. There are sequences ostensibly taken from different Japanese TV shows which I would have no trouble at all believing were real TV footage inserted into a horror plot; they’re so utterly believable in their humdrum normalcy in every respect (from acting to format), and yet they mesh so disconcertingly seamlessly with the intruding nightmares. It imparts the extremely disquieting sense of not knowing where reality begins and ends, throwing us firmly off-balance and expertly undermining our reassuring assumptions about the form.

At just five minutes shy of two hours, it seems that the big complaint about this one is that it’s overlong. It’s certainly shaggy, full of strange, ominous sidetracks which can be mildly disorienting and disruptive before they gradually dovetail into the story proper. I’d guess a full 30 minutes and a half-dozen minor characters could be excised with only minor changes to the basic narrative, which would unquestionably streamline the experience somewhat. On the other hand, I found it completely absorbing all the way through; its tangential ramblings add to its surprising sense of an epic journey into the unknown, creating a winding trail through a bizarre mystery that probably relies more on dream logic than good detective work. It could be condensed, sure, but since the whole point is to soak in the off-kilter weirdness of this enigmatic mystery, why rush things? I like the attention paid to the details here, and if the movie lingers to smell the demonic roses, so much the better.

Besides, the details are full of creepy iconography and esoteric characters. I particularly love Jitsunashi as the raving psychic with a penchant for tinfoil, who’s possibly the only one with the tools to grasp just how fucked up things are going to get, but who’s too erratic and incoherent to adequately communicate what he knows. I’m a sucker for intense depictions of fear so wrenching it renders the sufferer a incomprehensible, gibbering mess, and this is something of a tour de force, an actor bravely going mega (even for a Japanese movie) to convey to you, on a emotional, nonverbal level, just how worried you ought to be. But there’s plenty more to like; ominous pigeons, creepy masks, bizarre rituals from ageless antiquity, and even (SPOILERS) a swarm of harvested ghost fetuses crawling over a child (END SPOILERS). Now that’s something you don’t see everyday. It’s little touches like that, and the rather ingenious juxtaposition of morbid imagination with intentionally stark realism, that puts this one a cut above the rest.

*I once drunkenly managed to watch Roland Emmerich's 10,000 BC dubbed in German with English subtitles; I thought it was fucking awesome. Inherently silly, of course, but in a agreeably bombastic way. When I later tried to show it to some friends in the original English, I died a little inside every time someone opened their mouth; with the original English line readings, it was less earnest bombast than it was shameless camp. Ever since then, I’ve been leery of over-praising any actor speaking in a language I am not fluent in.

Play it Again, Samhain

  • TAGLINE: Everybody DIES! gushes the American poster.
  • SEQUEL: None, though director Shiraishi went on to several other found-footage horror movies.
  • REMAKE: No, but you know that fuckin' Hollywood version is coming.
  • FOUND-FOOTAGE CLUSTERFUCK: Yes, though a good one.
  • BOOBIES: None
  • MULLETS: None
  • HAUNTED HOUSE: Not as such. The haunting, as it were, is more generalized
  • MONSTER: Demon, though we don't get to see it.
  • THE UNDEAD: Ghosts
  • PSYCHO KILLERS (Non-slasher variety): No
  • EVIL CULT: Turns out this is all the fault of some small-town demon cult in rural Japan who have a whole ritual for it.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS: None, though the mask looks sort of doll-like
  • VOYEURISM: While there's a certain level of voyeurism to any found-footage approach, this one doesn't focus on it or get pervy or anything.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Pretty high; no official American release as far as I can determine.
  • MORAL OF THE STORY: Sometimes, ancient supernatural powers give you some pretty clear and consistent signs that you should fuck off, and when they do, consider following that advice.
  • TITLE ACCURACY: There's definitely some sort of curse. They probably added the "Noroi" to distinguish this from the 1987 Wil Wheaton-starring THE CURSE. "Noroi" (呪い) is "curse" in Japanese.

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