Dark Water (2002)

Dark Water (2002)
Director: Hideo Nakata - Writers: Koji Suzuki & Takashige Ichise - Starring: Hitomi Kuroki, Mirei Oguchi, Asami Mizukawa, Fumiyo Kohinata, Yu Tokui & Rio Kanno.
Updated: 02-26-2006

Dead kids are still scary -- when they're done right.

With the rash of recent Asian horror film remakes, it's understandable that most people won't be keen to see the original version of a film that inspired a mediocre American copy. However, in the case of Hideo (Ringu) Nakata's Dark Water, that would be a shame. While the American remake has generally been lumped in with such tediously mediocre films as The Grudge, the original Japanese film (made only a few years earlier) is a tight and tense ghost story that frightens with a mounting atmosphere of dread rather than cheap jump tactics.

Perhaps some Western copycat directors could learn a valuable lesson from Nakata, about why things that happen in a horror movie are scarier when you actually have an emotional investment in the characters. But he's got another trick up his sleeve as well, one that is often overlooked when fabricating an overzealous remake for mass U.S. distribution. It's called subtlety.

Visually, Nakata doesn't really do anything different with his ghostly images than the hundred directors out there who follow him. But while most of them go for the Jump-and-Boo approach, he uses a combination of moody atmosphere and haunting score to make the overly familiar images of a ghostly child with dark hair in front of her face something that is genuinely unnerving.

The dramatic cornerstone of Dark Water is the mother-daughter bond between Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) and her adorable kindergarten-aged daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). Yoshimi is in the middle of a bitter divorce with her spiteful ex-husband Kunio (Fumiyo Kohinata), who was barely around while Ikuko grew up, but now refuses to grant his estranged wife full custody of her.

While receiving representation and emotional support from her kindly lawyer, Mr. Kishida (Shigemitsu Ogi), Yoshimi spends her days looking for an apartment for Ikuko and herself. She finds a likely candidate in a crumbling and gloomy apartment building that is close to Ikuko's school. Despite the facts that the place is eerily quiet and seemingly devoid of neighbors, and that it leaks like a sieve on a rainy day, she decides to move in.

No sooner have they settled in, however, than a spreading water stain in the ceiling foreshadows a slew of eerie events. While Yoshimi begins to see a ghostly child with a blurred face in the empty corridors, and keeps finding the same child's lost school bag after repeatedly throwing it away, Ikuko seems to have a new imaginary friend named Mitsuko. When Yoshimi spots a long-forgotten "Lost Child" flyer on a wall outside their building, describing a missing little girl with the same name, she begins to fear for her daughter's safety.

Granted, using the "child in danger" formula is an easy way to tug at audiences' heartstrings, but in this case, it works. The love between Yoshimi and Ikuko is a palpable thing, and both actresses make that bond heartfelt without yielding to excessive sentimentality.

Dark Water takes its time, building a taut horror atmosphere combined with an effective family drama while never letting one thread of the narrative overpower the other. Those looking for a happy ending (or a fake happy ending followed by a last second scare to set up a sequel) will be advised to look elsewhere, as Dark Water maintains a consistently grim tone leading up to a tragic denouement, with the bright spots between Yoshimi and Ikuko offering the only real moments of relief. Dark Water deserves a spot on any J-Horror fan's must-see list for its effective use of atmosphere and suspense.

Latest User Comments: