Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Maggie 2010: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Part II

#114. Seance

I entered the world of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's films seeking a deeper understanding of the most striking motifs in Asian horror -- the designer labels, as it were, that trickle down into the off-the-racks imagery of Ringu, Ju-On, and Dark Water. My first stab at Kurosawa's canon, Cure, gave me confidence in his strength as a director, but did little to quench my curiosity about Asian horror mythology itself. Seance, on the other hand, was nigh on perfect in that regard.

However, I should stress first that Seance is not (for me) a perfect film in and of itself. This is because I put a lot of stock into the ease with which any one film allows me to suspend belief in its causality--namely, to accept the rules of the distinct world I'm occupying for an hour and a half. But with Seance, these mechanics seemed to change without clear justification around the halfway mark, and while I understood by the end of the film what Kurosawa wanted us to see as an inevitable series of events, that inevitability was not as clearly wrought throughout as it could have been.

For some context to that last paragraph, the film's premise is fairly simple: Junko and Sato are a modest couple--Sato (Koji Yakusho), working in sound production for a TV station; his wife (Jun Fubuki), a genuine psychic with few opportunities to exploit her abilities. While reluctant to help a researcher interested in her gift, Junko leaps (passively, almost imperceptibly) on an opportunity to lift the burden of household finances from her husband when a missing person's case comes her way. When the missing child conveniently escapes from her kidnapper only to end up in Sato's sound equipment, Junko sees this, too, as an opportunity to establish herself and start the money train rolling. Fortune does not, however, favour her daring or her cunning--and least of all the poor, wayward child.

This is the playing field into which some truly marvellous deconstructions of Asian horror archetype emerge--everything from the spooky crawling form of a child (is it alive? is it dead?) up a flight of stairs, to spirits haunting the living on a deeply personal level (are they real, or are they just manifestations of guilt?), to the staple "face obscured by hair" shot that's pretty much iconic in Asian horror. Kurosawa even goes so far as to directly address a central conceit of many Asian horror films, in a dialogue between husband and wife where both agree that their desire to deviate from the norm, the social expectation of living a mundane and unremarkable life, is what has led them to utter ruin.

But while all these archaeological details are a sheer delight, and themselves wholly merit viewing the film, I still find such a lack of clear causal relationships in Seance, especially on the part of the wife, as makes it impossible to get fully behind this film. I recognize that many of these difficulties are cultural (I disliked Ringu for the sheer passivity of the female lead, but absolutely cede the point that the widespread expectation of a passive female in that context was meant to make her rare proactive moments even more striking to viewers), but a few incongruities also seem to surpass common sense.

Why, for instance, did it take so long for husband and wife to realize they'd need to hide their identities from the child for their plan to work? What signs did viewers get that the husband was so burdened by his work it had become utterly, immediately imperative that his wife strive to free him from his day job? And let's just say it: Why the hell didn't the little girl call attention to her presence in Sato's box when he moved it to his trunk? ("Fear of men after just being kidnapped" doesn't work: she got into the box knowing full well it belonged to a man. Hell, to that end, why didn't she just say "Mister! Mister! My kidnapper's chasing me!" when she spied Sato at work in the woods? Because that would have made for a very short movie, of course.)

That said, Kurosawa has an impeccably measured style, and many of his shots are extremely thought-provoking. From what I could see in Seance, his use of horror archetype is quite serious and mature, and in this sense a real treat. Yes, I have reservations about the consistency of his characters' moral engines, but no question exists in my mind regarding Kurosawa's talent as a maker of fine, suspenseful films.

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