If I have learned anything from this year’s Shocktober, it’s how underrated Asian horror cinema is in western culture. Most of us were aware of it in the 2000s due to The Ring and other American remakes, but I don’t think enough of us, even today, appreciate what those films accomplished. Films like Ju-On: The Grudge and Ringu are some of the best horror films of the last twenty years, and they did so by basically inventing a new genre. A slow and brooding genre, filled with emotional trauma—usually based around a family tragedy— and done on shoestring budgets. These films were dependent on character relationships more than any horror films that preceded them or came afterwards. Of course, like any genre, Asian horror (specifically Japanese-Horror) has its downfalls. Some might consider these films boring, more dark dramas than horror films. Whatever the case, they remain in a league of their own. So let’s dive into another one of these trailblazers with Dark Water.
Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) is a woman going through a messy divorce. Struggling for the custody of her child Ikuko (Rio Kanno), Yoshimi moves into a rundown apartment and gets a job as a proofreader to establish some sense of normalcy for her and her daughter. Basically, this film is Kramer vs. Kramer with ghosts. Things take a turn for the odd after a mysterious leak in Yoshimi’s apartment refuses to cease. Yoshimi soon learns a little girl lived upstairs with her family until she went missing, now presumed dead. I wont spoil how the little girl ties to the water but trust me, it’s dark… water. Soon, Yoshimi notices signs of this little girl following her around. She sees shapes and figures, finds the little girl’s backpack. Fearful this little girl will endanger her child, Yoshimi struggles with her own sanity. Is there really a ghost? Is it some kind of hallucination brought on by stress? Can Yoshimi keep her daughter safe?
Dark Water isn’t a movie about ghosts as much as it’s a movie about the breakdown of the modern family. Dark Water explores the effect a divorce can have on one’s outlook and how a child can be swept aside in the drama. It’s all very tragic as most of this seems to take precedent over all the ghost stuff. As a horror buff, I would have liked to seem more build up to BOO! Moments! But in the end, I can appreciate this film as a somber character study.
You may already be familiar with the 2005 American version of Dark Water staring American’s then-sweethearts: Jennifer Connelly and John C. Reilly. No? Then let me give you some background. Dark Water was based on a 1996 short story by Koji Suzuki and directed by Hideo Nakata, which means Dark Water pairs the same author/director team as the classic Ringu, and it bears many similarities. Both films are ghost stories based around children who died after going through drama at home. Both films share a similar pacing and style as well. But while Ringu is interested in exploring its own lore and mythology, Dark Water prefers to explore the relationship between a child and a single parent. I can’t imagine watching this movie if I had parents who were bitter towards each other. This is tough subject matter.
Dark Water tackles important issues in a meaningful way, but there doesn’t seem to be enough to justify an entire film. There are no significant scares and it doesn’t delve into solving the mystery of the ghost as much as I would have liked it to. Nonetheless, it is smart and beautiful. I love the yellowish hue used in the film’s overall aesthetic. It gives the whole visual experience a nasty and stagnant feel. It feels like a dark world worth exploring.