Unlocking the Underworld

Here's a wild theory: Maybe Memoirs of a Geisha didn't do so well because we've been conditioned to think that Asian women painted white, far from being erotic fantasies, are actually the scariest freakin' evil spirits in the universe. Think about it: Ringu, The Grudge, A Tale of Two Sisters and Pulse all terrify you with images of white-painted Asian women, often walking with very stylized moves. (Could this be a variation on clown fear?) In Marebito (The Stranger From Afar), a Japanese horror movie shot in less than two weeks between directing Grudge sequels, Takashi Shimizu once again spins a yarn about a very pale Asian woman who's kinda scary. But she isn't a drowning victim, nor does she have long hair that covers her face. Thank heaven for new ideas.

Yes, Shimizu has done what compatriots such as Hideo Nakata have not yet managed to do: make a contemporary Japanese horror movie that has some new ideas in it (though, before we praise him too much for originality, it should be noted that next up for Shimizu are a sequel to the U.S. version of The Grudge and a second sequel to the Japanese Ju-On: The Grudge). In an interesting and subject-appropriate casting choice, the lead actor in Marebito is Shinya Tsukamoto, best known as the director of the 1988 cult cyberpunk favorite Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Tsukamoto plays Masuoka, a freelance videographer obsessed with the notion of fear. He believes that experiencing true terror will heighten the senses and allow him to see things others cannot, yet he can't seem to find the thing that will frighten him sufficiently.

Even footage he has taken of a man (Kazuhiro Nakahara) knifing himself in the eyeball doesn't do it. At least, not at first. Meticulously studying the tape frame by frame, Masuoka notices that even as the man dies, he's looking at something out of the corner of his eye that clearly terrifies him. Masuoka returns to the scene of the death when no one else is around, and he soon discovers that the subway tunnels under Tokyo lead into a netherworld -- the Mountains of Madness referenced in the works of H.P. Lovecraft, with a heaping helping of the 1940s sci-fi stories of Richard Shaver, whose DEROs, or "detrimental robots," make appearances here as hairless quadrupeds who drink blood.



While down in the depths, Masuoka finds a naked woman (Tomomi Miyashita) chained to a wall, and he naturally decides to take her home. Well, why not? What could possibly go wrong there? He names her "F," but it's not short for what you might think; Masuoka has no apparent sexual intentions toward her, wishing instead to treat her like a pet. Since she doesn't talk and pads around on all fours, this seems amusing at first. But she won't eat or drink. Not regular food, anyway. As soon as you see her fangs, you can probably guess where Shimizu's going with this.

Or not. Yes, F is a vampire -- but it's not the monsters who do the horrific deeds in this tale. Things are not as they appear to be. We'll say no more of plot details but offer praise to Shimizu and screenwriter Chiaki Konaka (a regular writer-director on Digimon, of all things) for the fact that everything ultimately makes sense. This isn't like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, where you only get vague, hinted-at answers that seem to contradict each other. Some might even complain that Marebito is too simple, and perhaps so, but once you accept it as a disturbing character study rather than a conventional horror movie, it's easier to appreciate. Fans of David Cronenberg or Michael Haneke are probably on the right wavelength.

For a movie with as short a production window as Marebito had, it's all the more impressive; compared to a Takashi Miike movie made equally quickly, for example, it's ultra-slick. Much of it is shot on video, as seen through the lens of the camera wielded by its lead character, and you might initially think that this was purely a stylistic device to save time and money. But it's more than that: Shimizu is doing here what Joe Berlinger attempted to do (with less aesthetic success) in the Blair Witch sequel, by setting up a dichotomy between what is seen on video and what is seen on film. Can we trust the movies? Does video tell the truth? Ah, but that would be spoiling.


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