It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that you could throw a rock at the present Asian film industry and hit a dozen or so ghost stories either being conceived, are presently in production, or are getting ready to be released. What’s the difference between ghost stories and horror movies? Ghost stories rely on atmosphere and suspense rather than thrilling violence and a high bodycount. The Japanese ghost story “Ring” started the whole phenomenon, and since then Asian filmmakers all around Asia have been cranking out similar films by the boatload.
“Dark Water” has a good pedigree when it comes to mining the ghost story craze. It’s not only directed by Hideo Nakata, who directed “Ring,” but is adapted from a novel by Koji Suzuki, who wrote said movie and its subsequent sequels, and I believe one prequel. With those two formulas at hand, “Dark Water” must be as good as “Ring,” right? Well, to be honest I never considered the latter film to be all that good. It was a worthwhile film, but certainly not worthy of a string of sequels, TV shows, and numerous remakes, and a worldwide hype that couldn’t possibly live up to the product. If anything, I found the film and much of the franchise to be rather dull.
Once you’ve seen one an Asian horror movie, the chances are that you’ve seen them all. How can I make such a sweeping statement? Basically because the current crop of horror films are nothing more than retreads of each other, much like the Slasher subgenre in America. Those who have never seen a film in this particular genre might think they’re the best things since sliced bread. That is, until you see them again and again and again… Asia is filled with them, from the Korean movie “Nightmare” to the Japanese “Kairo” to a slew of Hong Kong imitators. Some are better than others (“Kairo”) and others (“Nightmare”) are just familiar.
“Dark Water” is yet another film that fits squarely into this genre, and as such it invariably involves a vengeful female spirit back from the dead for payback. (What exactly does this say, that only women are capable of being such vengeful bitches, that they will strike at you even from beyond the grave? I believe it’s a cultural thing.) The main character here is a young lonely woman name Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), who has just divorced her neglectful husband and is struggling to maintain custody of her young daughter Ikuku (Rio Kanno). (Hmm, I wonder if being divorced and a single mother in Asia is similar to people who believes women who are raped were “asking for it?” Is there some underlying Asian belief that if you leave your husband, then you deserve whatever foul, supernatural events befall you? Just a thought.)
In order to keep her daughter, Yoshimi gets a new job and moves into a rundown apartment building where water leaks from the ceiling and strands of hair floats through the faucets. Don’t even get me started on the drinking water. But as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers, and Yoshimi’s lack of options has forced her to a building haunted by the ghost of a young girl Ikuku’s age. The girl seems to have died a year ago, but has only chosen this moment to come out of her shell, as it were.
Being that I am too familiar with this particular subgenre, “Dark Water” had as much a chance of scaring me as Michael Jackson has of landing a real woman. There is nothing here to scare anyone, for that matter, even though director Nakata throws in all the old tricks of the subgenre. Let’s see, there’s the old standby of slowly panning the camera to reveal the ghost standing in the background; the ghost appears when you’re alone and disappears when someone else is there; and oh yes, what Asian horror can do without the ghost that stands perfectly still and stares at you through a cascade of black hair? I think that last one is mandatory in all Asan horror films now.
Lest you think I dislike everything about “Dark Water,” let me say that I did enjoy the film’s more reality-based sequences. I rooted for Yoshimi as she struggled to lead a normal life and get some measure of justice against her vengeful husband. I liked watching the slightly unstable and very neurotic Yoshimi, who had her own bad childhood, as she struggled to live up to her responsibility as a mother to Ikuku despite very obvious emotional handicaps. In fact, I might have liked “Dark Water” a lot more if it had gotten rid of its clumsy ghost elements and done a movie about a woman seeking some security and fairness in a country dominated by men in every sector of life.
Alas, “Dark Water” is too vanilla for its own good. Take the main villain — a 6-year old ghost. A 6-year old ghost? Exactly. There’s nothing scary about that, and certainly Nakata never convinces us why we should be scared of a ghost that probably couldn’t see with all that hair in her eyes, or do much to you since she only comes up to your knees. If there is one other good thing I can say about “Dark Water”, it’s this: now that everyone has gotten their fill of these copycat films, maybe they’ll stop making them. It’s time to mine another area, boys. Let’s drown this subgenre, shall we?
Hideo Nakata (director) / Koji Suzuki (novel), Hideo Nakata (screenplay)
CAST: Hitomi Kuroki … Yoshimi
Rio Kanno … Ikuku