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Dark Water (2002)
Director: Hideo Nakata

review by Tom Matic

The latest supernatural thriller from Hideo Nakata director of the Ring trilogy, Dark Water (aka: Honogurai mizu no soko kara) had a particular resonance for me. I watched it not long after I moved into a new flat, and got off to a less than auspicious start with my downstairs neighbour by flooding his kitchen with a poorly plumbed-in washing machine. Dark Water attempts to do for water pipes what Ring did for VCRs.
   I felt a twinge of familiarity as the over-eager estate agent shows her client round the dingy apartment, distracting her attention from the damp patch on the ceiling. You want to shout, 'don't take the flat!' And, later, you want to scream 'ring a plumber!' Maybe that's why Dark Water didn't leave me a gibbering wreck the way Ring and, for that matter, Don't Look Now (the acknowledged influence on Dark Water) did. Of course, the apparent death wish of the characters is a commonplace of horror movies, including Ring itself. But Ring played a clever game with that convention: of course, the audience and the protagonist both know they shouldn't watch the lethal video, but there's an equally strong compulsion to do just that - the basic transgressive dynamic of the horror film itself, in fact!
   Of course, the forces driving Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) to rent the apartment from hell are rather more mundane, if no less compelling. A divorcee locked in an acrimonious custody battle over her six-year-old daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno), Yoshimi cannot afford to be too choosy about where she lives. Like the female protagonist of Ring, Yoshimi is an embattled single-parent struggling to protect her child - in this case not against malevolent videotape, but against the ghost of a missing schoolgirl. When Ikuko takes to wandering off to the top of the apartment block, it seems that this unquiet spirit is attempting to take possession of her, a supernatural 'tug-of-love' that parodies the legal one between Yoshimi and Ikuko's father.
   As the pressures on Yoshimi mount up, the damp leaking patch on her bedroom ceiling grows to monstrous proportions. The pots and pans she has placed to catch the drips are no longer enough, and the water is threatening to inundate the bed. It's at this point that you start to think, 'get a grip, girl! Complain properly, instead of letting the caretaker fob you off!' However, when she resolves to take pack her bags and go, her one ally, a sympathetic lawyer, points out that this could further jeopardise her claim to custody. The weird goings-on in her apartment are not doing her sanity any favours, and her ex-husband has leapt on this with glee, citing a history of mental illness.
   The trouble with Dark Water is that, with its notions of 'fit' and 'unfit' mothers, the film takes on a moralising tone that is contradicted by the narrative itself. The missing girl died because her mother failed to take proper care of her. Yoshimi's aunt compliments her on Ikuko's development, and contrasts Yoshimi with her sister, who was 'too selfish' to look after Yoshimi properly. However Yoshimi's climactic act of self-sacrifice ends up leaving her daughter motherless, although the apparent alternative would have been her daughter's death. Within this harsh moral framework - and the impossibly high standards it sets for motherhood - failing to pick up your child from school on time is the ultimate crime, but social and economic factors force you to fail in this duty.
   Many of Dark Water's most chilling images derive from Ring: the figure, half-glimpsed on a grainy video-screen (in this case, the CCTV scanner in the lobby of the apartment block), the female ghost whose face is partially obscured by a curtain of sodden hair. Dark Water's homage to Don't Look Now, replacing the drowned girl's red raincoat with a yellow one, has also been noted here and elsewhere. However, Dark Water can boast some macabre effects of its own, such as the drowned girl's hair that materialises in the drinking water in the apartment block, the little red bag that keeps turning up after being repeatedly thrown away and the cat 'n' mouse games in the lift. But it lacks the impact and sense of sheer malevolence that made both Ring and Don't Look Now so memorable, perhaps because the ghost's motivation (the desire for a substitute mother) turns out to be relatively sympathetic, even if the means it employs to achieve this are murderously ruthless.
   Perhaps the really unsettling thing about the film is the portrait it paints of contemporary Japanese society, of which the seedy apartment block is a microcosm. When she runs down to the reception to ask the caretaker if he's seen her daughter, he and the two old women standing in the lobby are offhand and flippant about her plight, and make no attempt to assist her search. We are told that that Yoshimi's mental health problems date back to a period proofreading for a large publishing house that compelled her to read violent passages of fiction repeatedly. Her straitened circumstances force her to return to this work that so traumatised her before, and also makes her late to pick up Ikuko from school, echoing the parental neglect that led to the death of the girl.
   In keeping with the aqueous nature of the menace, the opening shots of the film show streets drenched with torrential rain, making the mother and daughter seem the more vulnerable cowering beneath their umbrellas. Even in the daytime, this bleak urban landscape of a Japan in economic stagnation seems sunken into a kind of greyish-yellow permanent twilight. By the end of the film, the viewer is left feeling like a drowned rat, and the downbeat progress of the film's narrative will ensure that, unlike Ring, Dark Water is unlikely to be remade in Hollywood without a major rewrite.
Dark Water

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