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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Synesthesia
Synesthesia
ADV Films // Unrated // February 27, 2007
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by David Cornelius | posted March 20, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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On the one hand, "Synesthesia (Gimme Heaven)" is eye-rollingly stupid, the sort of mindless affair you could only find in the movies. Add in a handful of suspense thriller clich├ęs and an overlong finale that takes all the wrong turns, and you wind up spending a good portion of the film with face in palm, embarrassed by the idiocy before you.

On the other hand, it can be at times a brilliant work, well acted and quite skillfully directed. There are many scenes that, on their own, grab tightly, haunting the viewer with a quiet sense of the horror of a violent death, all while commenting on an increasing insensitivity to such things. In one scene, a key character finds himself shot in the stomach, and he spends his last remaining minutes talking to a friend on the telephone; the moment is a stark reminder of the realities of the very gruesomeness in which the people of this story deal, and the scene is one of the most mesmerizing I've seen in quite some time.

What we have, then, is a movie that works better in its separate parts than as a whole. I admire much of the film, yet wince at the parts that fail.

The movie uses the original Japanese title "Gimme Heaven" as its subtitle; it was retitled for international audiences because, frankly, the original isn't very good. (An alternate spelling has it as "Gimmy Heaven.") The problem with the rechristening is that it puts the movie's biggest flaw right up front; at least the original name was vague enough to cover the good bits, too.

Synesthesia is a condition in which wires get crossed in the brain, connecting two normally unrelated senses. This is commonly seen in people assigning colors to letters and numbers (or days of the week, or certain words), or associating numbers with spatial properties as part of a "mental map" (three would be down low and to the right, say, while fifteen would be top left). Some individuals see colors when they hear musical tones (or, in reverse, hearing music when they see certain colors and shapes), and, in rare instances, certain sounds can trigger tastes in one's mouth. The film features a narration detailing the case of one man who connected tastes with shapes - scrambled eggs were rods, over easy is triangle, etc. And many other forms also exist; the online forum Synesthesia List names close to fifty varying types.

There are two very important factors regarding synesthesia that affect this movie: most of this, while interesting, would make for extremely boring storytelling (it's difficult to make a murder mystery about a guy who finds that a tuba's B-flat sounds purple), and no two people with this condition share the same sensory links (that is, two people may by chance both see the letter "M" as red, but no two will match every single letter to the same colors).

The first problem is handled the way only the movies could: it ignores facts and thinks up something cooler. I can see the story meeting now.

Clueless producer: "Yeah, and what if when the hero looked at a spoon, he thinks it looks like a flower!"
Tired screenwriter: "Um, but sir, that's not exactly..."
Clueless producer: "Well, sure, it can be! There's all kinds!"
Tired screenwriter: "Yes, but..."
Clueless producer: "I can see it now! It's raining, and we cut to the world as the hero sees it, with flowers falling from the sky!"
Tired screenwriter: "Have you even been listening to any of what I've been saying?"
Clueless producer: "No!"


(I now add the disclaimer that it could have very well been the Tired Screenwriter's own idea to rearrange the rules of synesthesia, which would make him Clueless Screenwriter. I'm merely overlaying my own notions of intruding, dimwitted Hollywood producers onto an imaginary scenario of how this film was crafted in Japan. Surely there are clueless producers in Japan, too, no?)

The screenplay completely misunderstands the entire disorder, giving us a hero who sees things as detailed in that imaginary conversation above. Our hero is a synesthete who sees shapes as different shapes - his computer's desktop wallpaper contains three color-swirled blobs, which are revealed to be how he sees three popular cartoon characters.

As for the second problem, the script hits a major stumble. A vital plotline has our villain leaving behind a distinctive shape - something of a stylized "W," or a big set of wings, by way of a Rorschach test - at crime scenes. Go figure, it's also the same shape that our hero sees all the time, popping out of colors. Surely, our hero surmises, the villain is a synesthete, too, and those shapes have been left behind in the hopes of finding another with the same abilities. The movie's finale has the two face to face, marveling in unison at the flowers falling from the sky.

The screenplay tries to apologize for such silliness by repeatedly discussing how rare such a thing must be for two people to have the exact same crossed-sensory patterns. But even if you ignore reality and take the movie on its own terms, where it builds its own logic (and, to its credit, pretty much sticks with it throughout), this plot point payoff is a sloppy bit of storytelling desperation, a way to reconcile its characters' deep loneliness. We can see it coming from the very first time a character talks of how a synesthete must feel some instant, deep connection if he were to ever meet another; the two synesthetes sure do, but by this point, thanks to some clumsy writing, we knew they would, and the whole thing reeks of cheap gimmickry instead of profound character development.

OK, so that's where the movie keeps going wrong. What about the stuff that's quite right? There is, despite all those complaints, an impressive amount of solid thrills and curiously effective asides. The plot: Two twentysomething guys run a series of voyeur websites. From one of their cameras they discover a teen girl passed out in a tunnel; they take her in. She turns out to be the adopted daughter of a recently murdered millionaire, a murder scene which contains our villain's trademark symbol. Our hero is familiar with the symbol, as he's seen it online before, and soon he gets tangled in the investigation while crossing the villain via computer.

We also get stuff about the yakuza, an internet game that hypnotizes players into killing themselves, the girl's attempts to remain hidden from those looking for her, and a criminal mastermind who made a fortune showing snuff videos online. There is far more story than a movie like this needs, yet it all manages to tie together in a fairly seamless fashion, thanks to sharp direction from newcomer Toru Matsuura, who knows how to properly pace a story like this - when to pour on the thrills, when to slow things down for small character moments. His control of the camera and what (and when) it shows us is quite masterful, leaving us with a film that's constantly captivating. Matsuura is a filmmaker with a confident approach to his material. I'm anxious to see him tackle a script that's a bit more solid.

As previously stated, "Synesthesia" works best in its individual moments. Most powerful are the scenes like the aforementioned slow death; the long, dreadful scene that precedes it, in which the character pleads for his life, desperate to live; a caught-on-webcam suicide, complete with the horror of nonchalant comments popping up from those watching at home, unconvinced of its realism; the quiet moments between our hero (played with notable calm by Yosuke Eguchi) and his girlfriend, in which she laments not being able to share his experiences; our first scene with the villain, whose lone emotion seems to be unyielding ennui.

Then comes the ending, which rambles on in an unsuccessful attempt to explain everything. The unconvincing, unsatisfying finale leaves us pondering all those plot holes, and we start grumbling. The detectives' banter added nothing to the story! The yakuza subplot never fully formed! What's this junk about raining flowers?!

The DVD

ADV Films brings "Synesthesia (Gimme Heaven)" to DVD as a two-disc package with a double-wide keep case.

Video & Audio

The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) is as sharp as one would expect from a relatively new movie, and the vibrant cinematography comes across quite well. Some scenes play a bit soft, although this seems intentional.

Choose between the original Japanese soundtrack in Dolby 4.0 or a Dolby 2.0 English dub. I prefer the original track, not only because it's a bit richer, but because the dub doesn't quite pick up all the nuances of the performances. (Still, it's a decent track that will go well with fans who prefer dubbing.) The disc's default setting is to play the English track. Two optional English subtitle tracks are included: one with dialogue and translations of key on-screen text, another that just translates the text.

Extras

Disc One contains "Clinical Synesthesia," a brief text essay on the movie's titular subject matter, as well as a set of previews for other ADV releases and a DVD credits page.

Disc Two carries over most (but not all) of the features from the Japanese special edition. We open with "The Making of Synesthesia" (36:58), which fills a bit too much of its running time with clips from the film. (The first seven minutes is nothing but movie footage.) Once we get to the interviews, they're a mix of generic plot/character recap, actors' commentary on their favorite scenes, and light discussions on the nature of synesthesia. Occasionally, a worthwhile comment will manage to sneak in. (The text from the essay on Disc One also appears here in Japanese, as, in a bit of visual overload, a split screen is used to show text, interviews, and on-set footage all at once.)

"Synesthesia Sneak Preview Party" (11:01) and "Synesthesia Opening Night" (9:55) are a set of Q&A sessions with the cast and crew at various screenings. The first was done before the audience saw the film, leaving the interviewees unwilling to give away too much of the story in their answers (and leaving the questions very bland).

"Interview with Toru Matsuura & Shinji Takeda" (35:14) finds the film's director and musical director sitting down for a lengthy talk about the movie's long history, the use of music in the film, and their previous collaborations. Despite some draggy spots, it's mostly decent stuff, especially toward the end, when talks turn to the meaning of the title.

The disc wraps up with the original Japanese trailer (1:44) and TV spots (5:33), plus a second set of DVD credits.

All bonus material is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, with movie footage properly letterboxed. All extras on Disc Two are in Japanese with optional English subtitles.

Final Thoughts

"Synesthesia (Gimme Heaven)" is frustrating as a story, yet there's enough here that clicks on individual terms to make it worth the frustration. And while some of the extras (the making-of and the screening Q&As, specifically) are too fluffy, the overall presentation is still impressive. Despite its flaws, I'll say this one's Recommended to those interested in character-driven thrillers and high-concept mysteries.
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