Neil Young’s Film Lounge – K is for Chaos

K is for Chaos

by Neil Young

Hideo Nakata’s acclaimed psychological thriller Chaos (Kaosu) finally makes it to British cinemas this month – a full five years after its Japanese release. In these days when so many multiplex screens are gobbled up by a handful of Hollywood blockbusters, we should of course be grateful for any distributor willing to take a risk on foreign-language imports. Especially ones like Tartan whose policy – via their annual Asian Extreme programme – is to introduce relatively “offbeat” titles to major cinema chains before heading to a profitable home-viewing afterlife.

Devotees of foreign cinema, meanwhile, know all too well that it’s not unusual for a year or two to elapse between a movie’s debut on the international film-festival circuit and it obtaining UK distribution – which may consist of a couple of London screens for one or two weeks. “Better late than never” seems to be many distributor’s motto. But the half-decade we’ve had to wait for Chaos is mercifully unusual. And the story behind the delay is an intriguing one – though (thankfully) nowhere near as convoluted as the movie’s own dizzyingly complex plot: a nightmarishly tricky film to write about for uninitiated audiences, Chaos is a classic example of the less you know beforehand, the better.

But it won’t be giving too much away to reveal that the picture begins – after an enigmatic, brief shot of heavy rain pounding tarmac – in a fancy French restaurant. A middle-aged businessman (Ken Mitsuishi) is dining with a younger woman (Miki Nakatani). He wears a bandage on his hand, and she has to help him cut his meat. A short while later, the man pays the bill while the woman steps out for a cigarette. But when the man follows her into the street, she’s nowhere to be seen. The man returns to his office, where he’s identified as Mr Komiyama. He asks his secretary if his wife Saori has been in touch, as she seemed to wander off outside the restaurant. His secretary says not. Soon after, Komiyama receives a telephone call from a man who says he has kidnapped Saori, and that she’ll die unless a large ransom is paid. Komiyama immediately calls the police…

Throughout these early sequences, it’s clear that something is slightly off-kilter: most notably the odd behaviour from the young woman in the restaurant – she spends a little too much time looking into a large mirror near the entrance. So we aren’t that surprised when it soon emerges that nothing and nobody is quite what they seem: the truth only emerges slowly as the narrative unfolds backwards in time, showing us the identity of the kidnapper – a general-purpose handyman named Kuroda (Masato Hagiwara) – and also how he came to place the call to Komiyama…

Events in Chaos take increasingly dark and mysterious turns – perhaps too mysterious at some stages, where narrative opacity seems to be the primary motivation. But they never quite enter the realms of the supernatural. This would have been a surprise to many Japanese audiences back in 1999, given the fact that Nakata’s three previous pictures Don’t Look Up (Joyu-rei, aka Ghost Actress, 1996), Ring (Ringu, 1998) and Ring 2 (Ringu 2, 1999) were all, essentially, ghost-stories. The phenomenal success of Ring and its sequel – the latter of which Nakata also wrote – had immediately propelled Nakata to the superstar rank of Japanese directors, spawning a legion of imitators in what became known as the “new wave of Asian horror.”

After Ring 2, Nakata was inevitably offered to complete the trilogy with the project which became Norio Tsuruta’s prequel Ring 0 (Ring 0 – Basudei, 2000). But he preferred a change of direction. Speaking to Offscreen‘s Donato Totaro in July 2000, he said that while training to be a director at Nikkatsu Studios he “was not exactly specializing or longing for horror films. During my highschool days I can remember watching The Exorcist, and other horror films that really impressed me, but I would not say that it was my choice to work exclusively in horror.”

Nakata seems to have stumbled into the genre – as he himself put it in 2002: “It was accidental. I had to start a new project in order to obtain funding to finish a documentary film on Joseph Losey which I was making at the time, as opposed to my really wanting to make a horror movie. I actually had lots of new projects – horror was one of those. So my motivation to make horror movies is not pure.”

That said, Chaos does often tiptoe into the clammily claustrophobic zones familiar from Nakata’s Ring movies and Dark Water: there’s the disinterment of troublesome, decomposing corpse; a character seems to have returned from the dead at one point; the very last shots – which close the picture on a similarly watery note to its prologue – hint that one of the main participants might possibly have been some kind of supernatural being.

And at every stage Nakata’s poised, distanced direction is loaded with the kind of unease more familiar from the left-field psychodramas of his compatriot Kiyoshi Kurosawa – most notably Cure (Kyua, 1997) with which Kaosu shares a leading man (Hagiwara) and a cinematographer (Tokusho Kikumura, who also did 2003’s Ju-On – The Grudge). Indeed, Kaosu‘s title fits misleadingly smoothly into Kurosawa’s unofficial “K” series, alongside the spooky likes of Karisuma (1999), Korei (2000) and Kairo (2001).

But the main reference points in Hisashi Saito’s script (based on the novel The Woman Who Wanted to be Kidnapped by Shogo Utano) are non-horrific: critics have drawn comparisons with Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques and the noir-inflected novels of James M Cain. The teasingly non-linear structure reminded younger critics of Pulp Fiction and Memento, and older scribes of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1951): especially as several sequences in Chaos do seem, on closer inspection, to slightly contradict each other.

The Kurosawa connection is perhaps the most appropriate: his Seven Samurai (1954) – itself a reaction to classic US westerns – inspired George Sturges’ loose American remake The Magnificent Seven (1960) and now, four decades on and largely thanks to Nakata, American studios are raiding Japanese back-catalogues like never before. The “new wave” of Asian horror may have petered out somewhat in Asia itself, but its impact is now travelling, tsunami-like, across the world.

The first major splash was made Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of Ring, renamed The Ring, and a sufficiently profitable venture that a sequel was rapidly greenlit. Nakata himself has just finished directing Naomi Watts and Sissy Spacek in the American version of Ringu 2 for release in 2005 – an surprisingly rare example of a “name” Japanese director being invited to ply his trade in the USA. The film may face competition from an ironic source: MOR arthouse favourite Walter Salles (Central Station; The Motorcycle Diaries) is directing Jennifer Connelly in Dark Water, based on Nakata’s 2002 picture of the same name (originally entitled Honogurai mizu no soko kara).

Also due in 2005 is the long-gestating remake of Kaosu itself: Robert De Niro and Benicio Del Toro are signed up as husband and kidnapper respectively, with Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast; Birth) set to direct a script by Andrew Bovell (Strictly Ballroom; Lantana) which is reportedly very nearly completed. The presence of such high-calibre names, and Nakata’s own fast-increasing renown, are obvious triggers for Tartan’s exhumation of Kaosu.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with Hollywood’s current fascination for all things ‘Asian Extreme’ – it’s arguably harder to get a genuinely original idea off the ground than ever before (unless you’re Charlie Kaufman and/or Spike Jonze), and producers are increasingly playing it safe by picking up projects which have already established their commercial pedigree in the tough far-eastern market. But Nakata’s next big horror project is a remake of The Entity – Sidney J Furie’s paranormal thriller from 1981 starring Barbara Hershey as a woman seemingly raped by an invisible demon – which suggests that, for one director at least, the trans-Pacific traffic in ideas is by no means a one-way system.

October 31st, 2004

originally written for and published in IMPACT magazine

For the original, shorter review of Chaos click here

by Neil Young