For little Ikuko, her parents' separation has been very tough. Her mother, Yoshimi, is a mess. She's attempting to keep a roof over their head and hope in her heart, despite her husband's best efforts to undermine her resolve. What once was a front of love and honor has become a battle with accusations blazing, emotions raw and sudden shifts in subversive strategies. The move to a new home has been hard on both of them – but especially for her mother. She is on her own again after years of being subservient to her husband's needs. She needs to find a job, get Ikuko settled, and fight for the right to raise her child. And now, a new threat has emerged. Like the cloud of confusion that comes when families fail and fathers fight mothers for a sense of parental superiority, a palpable supernatural presence has stepped into Yoshimi and Ikuko's lives. And with it comes deception, anger and disgusting, brackish Dark Water.
When the spot on the ceiling starts to grow and drip water, Yoshimi goes to the floor above to investigate. There she sees a little girl in a raincoat – or does she? Indeed, as the stain grows larger, and the flow of liquid increases, Yoshimi begins to think there is a connection between the lost child, her daughter, the gloomy new apartment complex they live in and the dingy liquid that seems to be permeating everything. If she can put all the pieces of the puzzle together, she may be able to save them from the paranormal presence that hounds their every move, and the Dark Water that threatens to swallow them up whole.
Dark Water is a horror movie about sacrifice. Actually this is not really a full blown movie macabre. Instead, it's a domestic drama peppered by sequences of the supernatural. As he did with his classic creep-out Ringu, filmmaker Hideo Nakata is back to bring chaos into order, applying the messy, mesmerizing world of ghosts, demons and evil spirits to the calm, cold world of contemporary Japan. Honogurai mizu no soko kara, which actually translates as "from the gloomy waters" is not really that frightening. It is actually more eerie than terrifying, using its unique approach to imagery to sell an occasionally excellent psychological story. That it doesn't deliver the shivers from beginning to end it understandable. But it may not give fans frantic for more manga-style menace the jitters and jolts they're looking for.
Thematically, this movie has more in common with 70s horror films than any modern sinister sensibility. It's languid and logical in its approach, carefully placing every piece of the mystery into place with deliberateness and focus. There is only one major 'gotcha' moment. The rest of the film flows on a wave of wounded melancholy, the ambiguity of the ghost child's identity never as important as her manner of demise, or the havoc her ethereal anger produces. The sharper sticks in the audience will decipher this puzzle rather quickly, since the clues are never really hidden. Combine water, a child's purse, a neglectful family dynamic and a constant hinting about the building's rooftop, and the solution is rather simple. But that's just a small part of Nakata's plan. He wants to say something about the parent/child connection with his imagery. And for the most part, he succeeds sensationally.
The notion of the dead coming back to haunt the living - to use the residents of a dwelling or the innocence of a child as a conduit for revenge or retribution - is really nothing new. But Nakata hopes that, by mixing the domesticity with the dread, contemporary audiences will identify with his characters. Like William Friedkin's The Exorcist (probably the most potent allegory about the generation gap ever crafted) Nakata pits maternal instincts against supernatural forces to see just who is stronger in the real/unreal world. With the divorce motif at the center, the message is mighty clear – any breakup in the motherly/fatherly bonds leads to devastating, even demonic consequences. When family is favored over personal and/or selfish motivations, balance is preserved and the wickedness that walks the earth can rest in a hopeless, Hellish sleep.
The two elements American movie audiences will have the most trouble with here, besides the obvious language and customs barriers, are the lead character, Yoshimi (played by Hitomi Kuroki) and the additional 'ending'. In modern motion pictures, we are just not used to gutless, mousy women. Call it a pro-PC position, or a desire to give our name stars a tantamount tour de force they can really melo-dramatize, but Western mindsets don't usually support weak, subservient women. Yoshimi is consistently seen as spineless, cowardly and complaining. Even her compassionate lawyer yells at her to gain strength and defend her child and her rights. But what we get instead is more whining and crying, more demonstrations of fear and abandonment. It's a safe bet that Jennifer Connelly (who is essaying the mother role in the 2005 US remake) won't play this miserable matriarch so mild mannered, or mundane. Why Nakata has chosen to do so here is more out of cultural than character concerns.
Nakata may be thinking that such an approach toward Yoshimi makes the finale of the film that much more potent. But instead, it comes out of a near loony left field. Granted, since we have been wading through a lot of symbolism, suggestion and spirituality to get to the ending, we want something that tries to tie up all the loose ends. And the ORIGINAL ending, the one that pits mother against monster for the life of her child, is very well done. In fact, it literally saves the movie for those expecting a wall-to-wall spook-a-thon. But there is a second sequence, one arriving after the ominous words "10 Years Later" flash across the screen, that seems to confuse the issues again. For 90 minutes, the movie has played fair, providing a slow, suspenseful setup leading directly to an eerie, enigmatic climax. But then we advance a decade and everything gets fuzzy again. These scenes throw a wrench of weirdness into what we thought we've seen previously, and opens up a whole area of interpretation that, frankly, Nakata hasn't prepared us for.
Without giving much away, we come away from the film's last moments feeling that, perhaps, this has all been a dream, a child's way of dealing with her family's divorce and her issues of rejection. On one side, there is the ghostly presence – the separation/break-up of the family - that wants to drag little Ikuko into an underworld where childhood freezes, the pain of parental desertion offering up a feeling reminiscent of disappearing without a trace. On the other is the ineffectual mother, a woman who promised to protect you, but failed at almost every instance. Hovering between the two is the father, able to play the system to his advantage by tweaking both the demonic and the desperate. Eventually, as the years progress, the child comes to realize that what she saw as weakness was actually a lack of social power, and the reasons for eventual relocation to the father had nothing to do with spirits stealing your life away, and more to do with evidence, testimony and judgments.
Had Nakata tried for such a syllogism from the beginning, had he – like Friedkin before him – seen the social story as clearly as the supernatural one, Dark Water would be far more effective. By keeping the links clear and the iconography clean, we'd have been horrified and enlightened at the same time. But since he's working in that by-now classic Japanese style of barely show and never tell, utilizing the same elements that made Ringu resonate with visual power (the dark haired horror, the unexplained natural elements intertwining with the urban environment) Nakata gets lost in his own format. He wants to scare...and he wants to say something insightful about family as well. Unfortunately, he is only partly successful with either ideal. The divorce angle is quickly dropped to deal with the poltergeist problem. But once the ghost is gone, we're back to the notions of parental betrayal and abandonment. Had he merged them better, Dark Water would have been a classic.
As it stands, the movie we have here is reminiscent of Wendigo, another narrative that endeavored to channel parental discord and issues surrounding divorce and custody into an angst-filled adolescent monster movie parable. The problem with that film was that its director was so mesmerized by his own filmic flare that he forgot to keep the story straight. Here, Nakata doesn't have that problem. Instead, he's simply being too ambitious. How divorce effects the members of a household can and does occasionally make for interesting, eerie entertainment. And for most of its running time, Dark Water is a cool, imaginative creepfest. But it could have been so much more, and requires too much audience inference and interpretation to achieve its perceived greatness. Fans of the current wave of Asian horror will gladly jump on this film's frightening bandwagon. But others may see it as an opportunity for magnificence missed.