by Ben Beard
The abyss gazes back.
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This strange hybrid thriller cum horror film follows an unorthodox psychiatrist who beings to crack when working a serial killer case. Alternating between the swarming cities and the chipped, dark, desolate places in the earth, Japanese director Sogo Ishii seems to find population pressures ruining our cities, and the thanatos syndrome tainting everything else. Cities are dreary yet dangerous. Nature is beautiful but deadly. Using Nietzsche as his guidebook, Sogo’s decided that nothing exists beyond pain, obscenity and suffering. We have two options: protracted insanity or the abyss.
Setsuko Suma, a beautiful young investigator, is assigned to a team of detectives to help solve the riddle of a murderer who kills a new young girl on the subway every Monday evening at 6 p.m. The killer’s method: a syringe of poison emptied into the bloodstream while riding on the trains during rush hour. The crime is public yet unseen by anyone. The victims are unrelated. The conundrum of why begins to tug at the seams of Suma’s personal life.
Suma’s marriage to a hippie horticulturist (or some other emasculated profession) seems as ordered and happy as the face of the orderly Japanese society in which she lives.
But maggots burrow and fester beneath the clean healthy façade. And just as Mount Fuji looms in the distance reminding of the always-present specter of death, so does an ominous presence hang over everything.
As Suma begins to project herself into the killer, the investigation leads her to an old lover, one-time psychiatrist now owner and operator of a re-brainwashing center that eliminates the beliefs of cult members, Rei Aku. Aku cuts a dashing figure, debonair yet menacing with a low sultry voice and abstract lines. Suma begins to believe Aku’s re-brainwashing techniques are involved in the murders, and the cat and mouse battle of the sexes begins. All to the backdrop of an overpopulated homogenous society obstructed from nature by the endless clutter of sprawling urban consumerism.
What starts as a run of the mill procedural quickly falls into odd territory, alluding to finer thematic points but never quite going anywhere beyond the living room psychiatrist, and then only to return to the predictable ending of the thriller genre. In the hands of another director, Angel Dust would titillate, shock, scare, maybe repulse but ultimately satisfy our need for catharsis, our attraction to the dark. Instead, it frustrates and manipulates and leaves the audience reeling with silly unanswerable questions. Fine if this is the point, but the astute viewer finds no real meaning here, only fear and loathing. The perverse manipulation from the director, who enjoys torturing both his characters and the audience, leaves a sick taste in the mouth. Everyday occurrences drip with dangerous foreboding. The obsessive attention to detail reveals a sick mind at work.
Perhaps there is a vision in this mean little movie, but the narrative hi-jinks of overlapping dreams with reality undermines anything he would like to say. The pristine visuals capturing great moods of shifting light and the on location filming of Japanese city-life looks great but reinforces nothing. And Freud would have a field day. The gaping holes, roses, crevices, and portals only match the piercing tunnels and trains that slide through the damp earth. The movie’s sexual tone is hidden but there; the dark sexuality it offers—the sick and twisted canny manipulations, the utter cruelty that plagues human interaction, the inability for humans to be happy—once glimpsed will chill you to the bone.
There’s something stern and sterile in many Japanese films, one of the reasons they make such creepy, alienating movies. Here the tension rises to good effect, but the end result makes you work too hard for too little. Sogo’s grotesque little drama tries to mete out terror and serenity with equal measure but like a zen koan disappears into non-meaning almost immediately. The great pieces are absorbed by the disappointing whole. It is precisely Sogo’s talent with the camera that makes this failure, and failure it is, so pronounced.
Still, it’s at times scary as hell, and that’s something.
Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.
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