“Ringu” director Nakata Hideo returns with “The Incite Mill”, a gripping psychological thriller that sees him continuing to explore themes of paranoia and the darker side of human nature. Pitting ten strangers against each other in a do or die game with high financial rewards, the film was based upon a novel by Yonezawa Honobu, and is similar in tone to Nakata’s recent English language outing “Chatroom”, though with added detective mystery elements that help to add a little excitement. Being billed as the 50th anniversary production for Japanese talent agency Horipro, the film is an appropriately ensemble affair, with a top cast headlined by Fujiwara Tetsuya (“Battle Royale”, “Death Note”) and Ayase Haruka (“The Magic Hour”), with support from the likes of Ishihara Satomi (“Zatoichi the Last”) and Abe Tsuyoshi (“Boys Over Flowers Final”).
The film kicks off with Fujiwara Tetsuya as a shiftless young man hanging around in a convenience store, flipping through magazines and looking for a job. Fate comes calling in the form of a beautiful woman (Ayase Haruka), who invites him to join her in applying for a part time job that seems too good to be true, paying 112,000 yen an hour for a seven day psychological experiment. Jumping at the chance, he ends up with her and 8 others in a weird underground facility, where they are soon informed that they are part of a game revolving around crime and punishment, which can be brought to a close if only 2 people are left. With a robot guard patrolling the hallway and with the participants each being given a weapon, the stage is set for an escalating cycle of mistrust.
Nakata is an expert at dealing with the essential ruthlessness and coldness humanity is capable of when pushed, and as such is a good choice for helming a paranoia piece like “The Incite Mill”. Although there have been a lot of Japanese films about last man standing style death contests, the film does have a different feel, mainly since it puts more focus on its characters and mystery, rather than simply notching up the body count. For all its trappings, at its heart the plot is basically a whodunit, a lock room murder puzzle with plenty of old school sleuthing, underlined by several Agatha Christine references, most obviously the ten little Indian figures which sit on a table and bark instructions. With the characters having access to a variety of weapons and with the action taking place in just a few rooms, the film also has an enjoyable Cluedo like feel, with the viewer being invited to work out the identity of the killer(s).
This works pretty well, with a number of well timed revelations and twists along the way to keep things fun, even if seasoned viewers will probably see the end coming some ways off. The last act does bring things together in satisfactory fashion, and whilst there are a few throwaway moments that seem to suggest that the film might have been trimmed (most notably the completely unexplored fact that the game is being viewed around the world on the internet, a subplot relegated to a handful of shots of people watching on their phones, and some obscure references to the foundation running it all), the plot does hold the interest. Although the film is a fairly straightforward commercial thriller and not quite as bleak as his earlier works, Nakata does add a fair amount of substance, exploring some difficult and challenging moral ground. The game itself is entertainingly fiendish, offering incentives for both killing and solving murders, and with the changing weapons acting as deterrents as well as murder tools. As things progress and the issue of trust becomes ever more important, the film does get tense, and the character death order is somewhat unpredictable, at least until the final few scenes.
The film also benefits from a few oddball moments, that do at times give it an almost science fiction feel, with the metallic underground complex being a strange, sinister location. Best of all is the robot guard, a clunky though marvellously cool creation that hangs from the ceiling and glides around the corridors, clacking its claws and generally acting threatening in best 1950s B-movie fashion. The scenes where it drags characters off to prison or death are amongst the film’s best, even if they do add a weird injection of campness. In-keeping with such endearing daftness, the film’s many death scenes are never particularly nasty or bloody, being mainly off-screen, and though somewhat gruesome, never push things into the realm of horror or real unpleasantness, keeping the viewer’s attention firmly on the mystery.
Though this does give the feel that with “The Incite Mill” Nakata is pulling his punches somewhat, it’s a finely crafted thriller that’s more entertaining than the po-faced “Chatroom”, Whilst perhaps inevitably not up to standards of “Ringu”, the film is certainly one of his better recent outings, and confirms that he is still very much a genre director worth watching
Hideo Nakata (director) / Honobu Yonezawa (novel), Satoshi Suzuki (screenplay)
CAST: Tatsuya Fujiwara … Yuki Satoshihisa
Haruka Ayase … Shoko Suwamei
Satomi Ishihara … Biyoru Sekimizu
Tsuyoshi Abe … Takehiro Osako
Aya Hirayama … Wakana Tachibana