Ewwwwwwww. Kimochi warui. That was pure horror. It's not that it's frightening, but rather that your skin will slither right off your body. Not nice. It's hospital horror, with almost everything that implies. Needles. Bodily fluids. Unspeakably vile infectious diseases.
Mind you, I did say "almost everything". A hospital this run-down in any other country would have been a filthy cockroach-ridden hovel, but of course this is Japan. The place isn't dirty, even if you'd sooner gnaw off your own foot than be treated there. The heating doesn't work. Medical supplies are running out. The staff are overworked, stressed, mentally unstable, incompetent and not even being paid. They're turning away patients.
Furthermore that's only at the beginning, before things get really bad.
The problem is that this film doesn't feel like a story. There's no protagonist, but merely a slow slide into hell. The only memorable character is arguably the hospital itself. No one's remotely likeable, although it says a lot that I don't know if I'd even call that a problem. A feature, perhaps. They're rats in a trap, caught up in the system and obviously doomed to be devoured by it. Nevertheless this is one of those films that would have been greatly improved by having a real movie star or two, someone with the charisma to grab the film by the scruff of its neck and keep you watching. I wouldn't go so far as to call this film boring, but it's definitely an endurance test.
I'll be keeping an eye on next year's Hollywood remake. They only ever think in terms of conventional narrative, which might just do this film some good.
The cast give solid, professional performances that make a creepy ensemble, but the main thing I remember about them is how good-looking the nurses were. Yes, I'm a bad person. Similarly Koichi Sato's fine as Dr Akiba, but I wouldn't call him memorable. He's got "victim" stamped on his forehead, just like everyone else, and his performance never really overcomes that.
No, this is a film about being in a place where no sane person would want to be. We start with the brokenest foot I've ever seen and soon proceed to some of the other delights, such as a mask-wearing boy, a man with 70% burns and a creepy senile happy hallucinating old lady. She's apparently based on a real patient from a documentary Masayuki Ochiai once worked on. All these patients are unpleasant, but oddly there aren't very many of them. We see more hospital staff, despite claims in dialogue that resources and understaffing is so bad that everyone's at breaking point. Nine nurses have quit in the last fortnight. Well, maybe most patients don't stay overnight in a Japanese hospital and so we don't see them here because they're all at home.
Things go from bad to worse when there's an idiotic but lethal medical mistake and the staff then compound their error by arguing about falsifying their report. What should they do with the body? This is a fairly terrifying crew, with even the best of them capable of making a medical decision for all the wrong reasons. There are also two incompetent lunatics, plus a bully. I do mean "lunatic", by the way. Not "wacky" or "eccentric". We're talking full-blown clinical psychosis here. Then there's Dr Akai, who's so emotionless that I honestly suspected him of being an alien.
Note: we haven't even got to the gross stuff yet. There's a reason this film is called "infection". Gyaaaaah. IT'S GREEN! IT'S GREEN!
If you can watch this film without wanting a shower, you're a better man than me. The finale is a typical J-horror mess of subjective reality and hallucination that's basically bollocks but is still doing clever stuff with apples, mirrors and colours. I liked their use of red and green. However what does all it mean? What was going on with the swings that swung by themselves? Buggered if I know. Maybe it's trying to demonstrate that there was some kind of objective reality rather than everything being mere hallucination? Alternatively maybe it's hinting that we're seeing things too? Fundamentally it doesn't really matter, which is another thing I'm sure will get sorted out in the American version.
Incidentally this film was released as the first of a six-film series called J-Horror Theater. It came out as a double bill with Tsuruta Norio's Premonition, then fifteen months later came Takashi Shimizu's Reincarnation. There the experiment ended. Two more of the planned films have since reached cinemas, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Retribution and Hideo Nakata's Kaidan, but without any umbrella title. Hiroshi Takahashi still hasn't released his sixth instalment. I mention this because I bought the three J-Horror Theater films partly because knowing they made a series, I'd been curious as to how these unrelated films might be connected. Answer: they're not. It was just a marketing gimmick.
This film is unquestionably horror, albeit in the sense of "horrifying" rather than "scary". Sometimes it's a bit slow. Sometimes it's merely unpleasant. Then at other times it's deeply and revoltingly messed up. It's absolutely not a party movie, unless perhaps you hate your guests and want them all to go home, but it's certainly an experience.