Dark Water



Honogurai Mizuno Sokokara : Japan 2002 : Hideo Nakata : 101 mins

From the director of the superb Ring comes another adaptation of a novel by ‘the Japanese Stephen King’, Koji Suzuki. And, once again, the story pivots on a youngish mother bringing up a small child on her own, plagued by visions of a ghostly presence of a drowned girl (face hidden by long black hair) which seem to strip away the reassuring surfaces of modern-day Japan to reveal an alternative world of fear and superstition. But while Ring‘s horror involved a widening circle of connections spreading out through society, Dark Water‘s geographical focus is tighter: the haunting is restricted to a single block of flats, into which the recently-divorced Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) moves with her 6-year-old daughter Ikuku (Rio Kanno). Theirs isn’t the most welcoming of flats – there’s a nasty damp patch on the ceiling – and it isn’t long before the clammy atmosphere starts unsettling Yoshimi’s already fragile mental balance.

When we’re told, early on, that Yoshimi has previously suffered psychiatric problems after taking a job proofreading ‘extremely graphic and sadistic’ horror novels, we brace ourselves for a full-on Takeshi Miike-style onslaught of gut-wrenching visuals. These never arrive, and instead Nakata concentrates on building up an almost palpable sense of dread, coming up with the muddiest visuals seen on screen since Sokurov’s pea-souper Taurus. The first hour is a relentlessly rain-soaked asphalt-grey-blue exercise in grimy, doomy stylistics, as well as being quite a nimble satire on the state of the Japanese property market: even without the supernatural stuff, this would count as a real apartment-block from hell, that ceiling stain expanding all the while as Nakata ratchets up the stygian chills with a literal ‘drip drip’ effect. We’re never quite sure whether what we’re watching is going to be a horror film at all – perhaps it’s all in Yoshimi’s head. Perhaps she‘s the malevolent presence – or perhaps her shadowy ex-husband is trying to ‘Diabolique’ her out of her mind so she can win custody of Ikuku.

As long as it maintains this ambiguity, Dark Water is an absorbing, rewarding kind of chiller, exploring the primal bereavement/abandonment fears of Yoshimi and Ikuku – young Kanno earns her fee and then some, bearing up remarkably well to what looks like a series of harsh drenchings. But when push comes to shove, the tension dries up – Nakata’s attempt at a Ring-style thunderous crescendo of horror (as Yoshimi investigates a rooftop watertank), is disappointingly short on genuine shocks and scares. The last 20 minutes are, in fact, much the weakest part of the picture, especially a baffling ’10 years later’ dream-like coda showing Ikuku as a schoolgirl (Asami Mizukawa) experiencing what may or may not be yet another haunting. Ring ended on an inspired note of endlessly spiralling horror – with Dark Water, it’s more a case of ever-decreasing circles.

12th March, 2002
(seen 8th February, Cinemaxx Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

by Neil Young