Dark Water (April 26/03)
A few years ago, Hideo Nakata had the great fortune to direct a little film called Ringu. It went on to become one of the biggest hits in Japanese history and spawned a successful American remake. Dark Water marks Nakata's return to the horror genre, and while it's a bit too derivitive of the original Ringu (both films are based on books by the same author), the movie remains somewhat compelling due mostly to his inventive direction.
As the film opens, Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) has just separated from her husband and has begun the process of filing for divorce. The only contentious issue between the two seems to be custody of their five-year-old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno), who is to live with her mother for the time being. Since her husband is presumably keeping the house, Yoshimi moves into a cheap apartment with Ikuko. For a while, everything seems fine - Yoshimi finds a job she likes and Ikuko is fitting in well at her new school. But the apartment above theirs seems to be constantly leaking, and Yoshimi keeps seeing images of a young girl that supposedly disappeared two years earlier.
The most effective aspect of Dark Water is the ominous mood created by Nakata. From the clinical look of Yoshimi's office to the apartment's dank and dreary ambience, Nakata's strongest suit is clearly his ability to establish a tone that's both creepy and off-putting; there's not a single location in the film that's particularly inviting. It's exactly the kind of atmosphere that a good horror film needs - even though it's not terribly scary, Dark Water is always interesting to look at and succeeds in making the viewer feel anxious.
But Nakata takes too long in setting up the story. Building tension and creating a palpable sense of dread is one thing, but the film eventually feels like it's all setup and no payoff. The real problem is that there's just not enough story here to fill a 100-minute movie; this is the sort of thing that would've been far more effective as a short. Perhaps if the film had been scarier, it would've been easy to overlook the deliberate pace (putting in nicely). But too many elements in Dark Water were put to better effect in Ringu, including the whole water motif and the use of a little girl with long hair as an object of terror. And while Dark Water isn't a complete wash (no pun intended), watched side-by-side with Ringu, it ultimately comes off as a pale successor.
Still, despite the lack of scares in Dark Water and the incredibly slow pace, the film's never boring. Aside from a bizarre 15-minute denouement that feels tacked on (it seems to exist only to explain what happened to one of the major characters - an explanation that's not entirely necessary), Dark Water is a suitably creepy ghost story - best enjoyed on a dreary rainy night.