Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean (2005) Movie Review

The filmmakers behind “Lorelei” should give out Japanese flags with each copy of the DVD for all the subtlety the film manages. As strictly a movie, and not the jingoistic propaganda it obviously is, “Lorelei” is a lumbering and not entirely coherent piece of filmmaking punctured by the occasional Submarine Movie cliché that you’ve seen in every movie ever made about people in submarines. In fact, I feel terribly put upon, having thought the film was also a supernatural horror film ala David Twohy’s “Below”, which it is assuredly not. If anything, “Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean” is a “What if?” World War II film with some sci-fi mixed in for good measure.

Koji Yakusho (“Doppelganger”) leads the large cast as Masami, an officer denied participation in the Japanese war effort because he refuses to sanction kamikaze as a viable battle strategy. In the waning days of the war, and with Hiroshima having already been reduced to ashes by the first Atomic bomb, Masami gets a second chance at command when the mysterious Asakura (Shin’ichi Tsutsumi) offers him the Captain’s chair of an experimental German sub that possesses a secret weapon called the Lorelei System. As it turns out, that “system” is actually just a girl named Paula (Yu Kashii), who has psychic powers that allows her to “see” the ocean and create a sort of psychic CGI “map” for the crew to maneuver by. A sort of girl-powered high-tech sonar, if you will.

Masami is given orders by Asakura to stop another Atomic bomb from dropping on Japan, but of course things aren’t that simple. The script adds a second major plot to the film — a coup de tat within the Japanese military led by, as it turns out, Asakura, who has also hidden armed men onboard Masami’s sub, waiting for the right time to seize command. Which begs the question: if Asakura wants the sub for his own agenda, why did he hand it over to Masami in the first place? One would assume keeping the sub and staffing it with his own crew would be much easier than giving it to an outsider, and then seize it once the sub is in the water. But perhaps I’m trying to make too much sense of a nonsensical movie…

Confounding plot holes aside, there’s not a whole lot to “Lorelei” that qualifies as a 2-hour war movie. The sub action underwater is old hat, and once you’ve seen a dozen American war movie set in a sub, or even the granddaddy of them all, German Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot”, there’s really no originality left to be found in the sub genre. And perhaps the filmmakers know this, which may explain why they try much too hard to cram in a lot of one-personality background characters and a forced romance between enthusiastic kamikaze pilot Yukito (Satoshi Tsumabuki, “Dragon Head”) and the Lorelei “system” girl. Of course it doesn’t help that the two young leads are Godawful actors.

At over 2 hours, “Lorelei” is much too long, resulting in a lot of obvious padding. The script would have been better spent exploring Paula’s powers and how exactly her stint at a German lab resulted in the ability to “sonar” with her mind. Instead, we get an overlong and unconvincing romance between Paula and Yukito, who proves to be just as lame as a romantic interest as he is at following orders. The way this kid bucks every order given to him should have gotten him shot by an officer years ago, especially within the Japanese military hierarchy, where insubordination was not met with good humor.

Fortunately, “Lorelei” isn’t a complete loss. There are some nice sub versus destroyer moments, such as when Masami bounces the pursuing U.S. destroyers around as if they were pieces in a pinball machine. The film also gets credit for not resorting to demonizing the Americans, who are simply (and correctly) portrayed as following orders to sink the sub, and nothing more. There’s even a throwaway American sailor who the film tries to use as an “American perspective”. Although this angle is done very poorly, the film should nevertheless get brownie points for at least trying. Curiously, “Lorelei’s” touching on the subject of lab experimentation by the Nazis is a bit amusing, especially since it’s been well-documented that the Japanese were quite evil in their own experimentations on Chinese civilians and POWs during WWII.

The film relies heavily on CGI for its ship models, and most likely exterior shot of a ship or sub you see onscreen were created — sometimes nicely, other times not so much — on someone’s computer screen. For a big-budget production, you’d think they could make some models to replace the CGI whenever the computer stuff wasn’t up to snuff. And yes, for those of you who’ve ever wondered what street corners Asian filmmakers grab up their Western “actors”, “Lorelei” actually boasts decent Westerners that you could justifiably call actors. Surely, this must be a breakthrough of monumental importance in the world of Asian cinema?

Originally a “What if” novel adapted for the screen, “Lorelei” is said to be part of a “trilogy” of Japanese naval adventures by novelist Harutoshi Fukui. Another film in the trilogy, “Aegis”, has already garnered some criticism for its heavily jingoistic slant, and the third offering, “Sengoku jieitai 1549” is slated for a 2006 surfacing. As a standalone film, “Lorelei” is much too muddled and confusing for its own good. In particular, everything to do with the Asakura character is nearly incomprehensible, and the film might have done well to discard that useless subplot entirely and just focus on Masami’s mission to save Japan from another Atomic bomb attack.

Shinji Higuchi (director) / Harutoshi Fukui (screenplay)
CAST: Koji Yakusho …. Masami Shin’ichi
Satoshi Tsumabuki …. Yukito Origasa
Toshiro Yanagiba …. Kizaki Toshiro
Yu Kashii …. Paula Atsuko Ebner
Shin’ichi Tsutsumi …. Asakura Ryokitsu

Buy Lorelei: The Witch of the Pacific Ocean on DVD