You know how some movies reaffirm your faith in human nature and fill you with love for your fellow man? This is not one of those movies.
This will be a short review, because I can't discuss the plot. It starts surprising you early and then basically keeps it up throughout the movie. Even the most careful attempt at an introduction will give away more information than you'd want to know. Suffice to say that there's cold-blooded criminal activity, a complicated plot and a theme of "you can't trust anyone".
It's based on a novel, which I suspect is quite a good one. The tricky bit would be making you care about what happens to the characters. They're not lovable. However the film sort of gets away with that, taking its extreme situations seriously and making us understand the dangers that are being risked. There are also plot twists. Finally there's the finale. The downside of "you can't trust anyone" is that you can't trust anyone, which leads to a brittle kind of self-destruction.
It's not the easiest film to follow. I wasn't always sure if a given person was the same actor we'd seen before or not, although in some cases that's part of the story. Furthermore they jump around in time and don't give you any warning that they're doing it. You've simply got to be paying attention. Personally though I liked that. It adds a jigsaw puzzle aspect and makes it more intellectually satisfying. For example, the first thing we see is a man (Ken Mitsuishi) who's got something wrong with his hand, because he's letting his dining companion (Miki Nakatani) cut his meat for him and saying he's glad they didn't choose a Chinese restaurant because he'd have had trouble with the chopsticks. You don't often hear that in Japan. "What's the story there?" I wondered. The movie soon starts going places more dramatic than an injured hand, but even something small like this won't be forgotten. Eventually we learn how Mitsuishi got that way.
The actors are good, with the most interesting for me being Miki Nakatani. She's got the most complicated role, while just as importantly she's an award-winning actress who was also the title character in Memories of Matsuko. Wow. Now there a contrast. I hadn't even recognised her! She was also in Ringu 2, the other 1999 Hideo Nakata film, so he thought she was good too. Incidentally Nakata's a noteworthy name in his own right. He was popular with Hollywood for a while. They not only remade Ringu, but hired him to make The Ring 2. They remade Dark Water. Around the same time there was going to be a U.S. remake of this film too, involving Robert De Niro and Benicio Del Toro, although it eventually didn't happen. However on the downside he was also the perpetrator of the Death Note spin-off film, L: Change the World, so let's not get too excited here.
Random quibble... the tropical fish wouldn't die just from being left unfed for a few days, surely? Fish are tough like that. It's a strong character moment, though.
This isn't a feel-good film. It's cold. Like the similarly time-hopping Memento, you could call it a modern film noir. To give you a bit of its flavour, my notes include these phrases: "Hmm. He's a bit too good at this." "Sexual tension involving being tied up." "You complete bastard." As for the ending, at first it seemed a little off-putting, but I now like it. It's a novelist's conclusion. Overall this is a comparatively small, controlled film, but it's also very clear on what it's doing and within its chosen bounds, really quite good.