Sunday, August 14, 2011


aka The Sylvian Experiments

Since she, her husband and her two little daughters caught a glimpse of what she and hubbie interpreted as the afterlife while watching old film reels of cruel brain experiments during World War II, neuroscientist Etsuko (Nagisa Katahira) has been obsessed with finding a way to take these experiments of stimulating the Sylvian area of the brain with electricity directly applied to the brain tissue even further. This obsession costs her the life of her husband and the love of her two daughters.

After years of research, the mad scientist has formed a conspiracy out of various younger members of the medical profession who think they owe her enough to take part in insane, highly illegal experiments. The group sets up a fake suicide club and kidnaps its four members to continue their fascist predecessors' nasty little experiments. As luck (or is it planning?) will have it, one of Etsuko's victims is her own daughter Miyuki (Yuri Nakamura).

Miyuki and the other girl among Etsuko's four victims react all too well to the treatment. A bubble of nightmarish feelings begins to surround the girls as if the membrane between this world and somewhere else were growing thin all around them. Eventually the girls just disappear from their cell.

While all this has been going on, Etsuko's other daughter Kaori (Mina Fujii) has been trying to find the kidnapped Miyuki. Thanks to her psychological connection to her sister, Kaori too starts suffering from strange visions and a growing feeling of dread, and is inexorably drawn into her mother's secret experiment.

Kyofu, directed by Hiroshi Takahashi, who was as a writer responsible for the scripts to Hideo Nakata's wonderful Ringu trilogy, is the sort of Japanese horror film I would not have dared to hope for in these times when even Takashi Shimizu's talent is slowly dissolving in front of our eyes. It's slow, carefully and cautiously directed and written, philosophically dark and either very cryptic or very ambiguous.

My synopsis really doesn't do the experience of watching Kyofu justice. While the above might sound relatively straightforward and clear, the film's actual execution is anything but. The film's beginning half hour does not tell its tale in linear, chronological fashion, but seems to circle around the story it is telling, compelling the audience to share the feeling of falling and confused unreality its characters are experiencing. Once the set-up's done, the film's structure grows calmer and more direct, Miyuki becoming the story's protagonist.

Yet even then, Takahashi keeps up his pressure on the audience's expectations of what is real and what not, never making clear how real the things Miyuki sees and experiences actually are, what exactly is dream, what vision, and what reality. The director mostly achieves this effect through stylistic decisions that might just kill Kyofu for the impatient. Primarily, Takahashi keeps everything that happens on screen slow. Every camera movement, every edit seems to happen with a calmness and distance to the proceedings so deliberate and cold that a viewer will either slowly begin to share the character's dread and their feelings of stepping into somewhere else, or just feel bored by it. Depending on a viewer's tastes, one of these effects will be further strengthened by the movie's acting style. Takahashi has clearly convinced his actors to underplay their roles heavily, quite in contrast to the favoured Japanese acting style of the hour that sometimes seems to be based on constant mugging. Hardly a facial muscle is moved, bodily movements are slow and ponderous, and everyone's enunciation seems - at least as far as I understand it - too precise and unnaturally deliberate.

Most of the actors are giving surprisingly effective performances with this technique, giving the impression of people caught somewhere between sleepwalking and facing a dread so far outside their ability to verbalize it that they can hardly function as human beings anymore, if, in fact, they ever could.

I'm not as convinced by the dialogue, which does at times sound rather silly. Though I'm - for example - sure "please wipe away the smell of my sister's blood" is an invitation to hot sexy times somewhere, I'm quite positive it's not on our planet. How much of this problem (and it's a minor one to me), is caused by the fansubs I saw the film with is quite another question entirely. I'm pretty hopeful that Lionsgate's official English language release will do a bit better in that respect.

Another definite weakness are the film's special effects. It's the type of CG effects that I can appreciate on a conceptual level, but whose realization is hardly anything to be proud of or be impressed by.

On the positive side, haters of dark-haired ghosts (something I never understood, by the way - you don't go into a zombie movie complaining it's about zombies either, or do you?), will not have to dirty their pure, pure eyes with even a single one of them. Instead, Kyofu's horrors are more of the mostly unseen, often formless type I can't help but take as a Lovecraftian influence. This is, after all, a movie stating that there's nothing for us waiting on the other side, but that nothing will still eat us. Which is a concept that I find much creepier than a normal (even be-tentacled!) monster would be.

All this - the good and the bad - does of course lead to a film that will clearly just not work at all for some of its viewers. I'm pretty happy with just going with a very slow and deliberate film, and just stepping into the world of idea's Takahashi is building on screen, but even I can see that this will not be true for anyone. For me, Kyofu's mood of dread and dire expectation just works, its flaws and peculiar directorial decisions come together into a fascinating artefact, but films based on mood and ideas alone are always in danger of only working for people who can consciously decide to get into them.

I could, and so I'm all too happy to recommend it.



Pauline said...

As always, you are the best thing at three in the morning.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Ha, thanks, Pauline.

Allan MacInnis said...

Just catching up with this film now, and am finding it quite compelling. Paused the film out of a burning curiosity to see what Kyofu actually translates into... do you know? (The title appears as a girl is puking up a bit of bun she's eaten...).

My first visit to your site, but I think I like the mind at work here... will be reading more. Cheers.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Thanks for the kind words. Hope you'll like some of my other stuff too.

Now, I don't speak or read Japanese, but as far as my research brought me, kyofu in this context translates as "(the) fear", which isn't very original, but it's not as if it weren't fitting.