It's a J-horror film by the director of Ringu
about a divorced mother, her six-year-old daughter and an awful lot of water. It's good, but don't expect to be knocked on your arse.
It's dangerous to over-hype J-horror. The first Japanese movies I ever saw were some horror films I bought because of all the reviews, but I couldn't see what was supposed to be so amazing. They were realistic to the point of being drab. There are exceptions, of course (e.g. Ju-on
), but I think I'd appreciate a lot of them better now I'm more used to the understated gentleness of much Japanese cinema. Like The Blair Witch Project, we're talking about modest, unflashy productions that have got under lots of people's skins but might just as easily leave you cold.
Hideo Nakata is a great example of this. He took the world by storm with Ringu
because he played it soberly and without histrionics. It's such a matter-of-fact film. (Compare with the CGI pantomime of Sadako 3D
and shudder.) Dark Water is more of the same.
We start with Hitomi Kuroki and her legal battle with her ex-husband (Fumiyo Kohinata) for custody of their daughter (Rio Kanno). While she's doing that, Kanno is waiting in the rain for Kuroki to come and pick her up. There's a lot of rain in this film and a lot of children waiting for their parents. They explore the possibilities of both. Your child might be picked up by someone else, or they might decide to walk home by themselves. Anyway, Kuroki eventually collects Kanno and the two of them go apartment-hunting. Kuroki clearly doesn't have much money, because the place she eventually chooses has water damage. It's coming through the ceiling. Now admittedly it's raining cats and dogs outside, but they're not even on the top floor. Anyone with any choice whatsoever would have run away at top speed, but Kuroki is either desperate, stupid or gullible because she takes it.
(The "gullible" is because the guy who's showing them around is promising that everything will be fixed next week. Even in Japan, that's horse manure. Sure enough, the building's caretaker is useless and doesn't even check the apartment above when Kuroki discovers that water keeps coming even when the rain's stopped. He just writes it down.)
That dingy building is practically another character in the film, but it's realistic. You'd hate to live there, but you could also imagine doing so. It's indistinguishable from a million Japanese apartment blocks. It's normal. It's just that it's also oppressive, with those concrete walkways, unsanitary-looking water leaks and sub-standard lighting that occasionally looks as if it's underwater.
Similarly the plot is slow. There's a ghost, but it hardly actually does anything. It's just that it appears to feel an attraction for Kuroki and/or Kanno and there are certain phenomena that may or may not be associated with its presence. These include water and a red school bag. No one knows what's happening with that bag, but it's impossible to get rid of it. We don't know what the ghost wants or even whether or not it's malevolent, but the movie's tone suggests that this isn't going to end well.
As an aside, I have a fascination with ghost stories. What intrigues me about them is that they're the ultimate in "sizzle but no steak". Ghosts don't traditionally do much. They're dead. You might occasionally glimpse them or hear a noise or two, but they're basically that shadow in the corner of your eye. How do you build a story around that? It's a monster story where the monster can't do any monstering. There are various ways around this, obviously, but I keep coming back to that paradox and I have a special love for stories which show me a new angle on it. Dark Water is a good example. Technically, not a lot happens... but apparently this film can get cinema audiences screaming. I can understand that. It's about the atmosphere and the fact that even if you don't know what's going on, you definitely wouldn't want it happening to you.
However if you're not in the mood, it might do nothing for you. Possible downsides include:
(a) Less escalation than there might have been. Ringu
had killings and a ticking clock, but Dark Water's plot structure is more of a slow accumulation.
(b) A script that's not reflecting the realism of Hideo Nakata's production. The renting angle is underplayed. Kuroki walks into the apartment and hardly even comments on it having water damage, let alone try to give the agent a hard time about it. We have to infer that she's taken the place because she's hard up, instead of having a scene about it. She mentions her leaking ceiling only once to the maintenance people, then accepts it when they tell her to put down buckets and doesn't make any more fuss. (You'd think she was only ever planning to be here for a month or two, except that it seems to have been a sales point that it's near Kanno's school.)
Owning or renting an apartment like that would be scary in itself. It's not a ghost or a vampire, but I'd be filling my trousers if that water stain appeared on my bathroom ceiling. Damp can be a nightmare to sort out, if indeed it's possible at all. I'd sooner be forced to repaint all the walls and replace the double glazing. The film doesn't do much with that side of things, instead simply having Kuroki endure it. We know she's short of money and wouldn't be able to afford a palace even if she moved out, but even so that's more than a missed opportunity. It's denying us a realistic angle on the situation.
(c) An Annoying Protagonist moment towards the end. Why's she moving like a sleepwalker? Faster, faster! (With hindsight I can see that it might have caused other story problems had she run in at top speed and slammed open the door, but that's no excuse for idiot plotting.) And then why not turn off the flipping tap?
It's such a delicate, understated narrative that your reaction will be entirely subjective. This might have you screaming, but if you're disengaged then it'll probably just annoy you. However in fairness, there's a moment of greatness coming up in the finale and then an odd "ten years later" epilogue that gives another perspective on it.
The acting's good. Kuroki had played Sada Abe four years ago, badly (in the Nobuhiko Obayashi film
with no nudity) and was also in the Ring: The Final Chapter TV series. Meanwhile Kanno is likeable when she's having fun, while also having an Alien Stare mode she can switch to. She's completely solid and you'll forget you're watching a child actor. She stayed in the business, by the way, and is still doing films and TV today.
There's also an American remake with Jennifer Connelly.
I think it's an effective film, but one that's best approached with your defences down instead of bringing an "impress me" attitude. It makes water unpleasant rather than scary, but I think that's deliberate and there's something disturbing about what Nakata does with it. Water damages buildings, books and living things. You drink it. Things can hide in it, especially when it's so gunky and scummy that you can't even see a few centimetres into it. I also like that the ghost story ties everything together thematically, even if the film doesn't give its ghost a voice and instead forces you to make the connections yourself. I like the things it does with security cameras and I really like its take on parenthood, bad divorce and a little girl's need for a mother.
It also does seem to have freaked out a lot of people, some of whom I know personally. I could name a hardcore horror nerd who's still spooked by it today. It's insidious.