"Who are you?
- Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) in Cure
Cult Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa has an eclectic film resume that includes the gangster comedy Yakuza Taxi, film circuit (and bootleg) favorite The Guard from Underground and the supernatural horror hit Pulse. Though he has never received the recognition in the US as many of his contemporaries (including Hideo Nakata and Takashi Miike), his status abroad is that of a true visionary. Watching HVE's release of his critically acclaimed Cure, it's difficult to debate his reputation as an underappreciated auteur. This elegant, deliberately paced horror thriller harkens back to the languid European film style made popular in the late 60's and early 70's when filmmakers weren't afraid to let their shots "breathe." In Cure, Kurosawa's subtle yet complex compositions (and unhurried transitions) are just as important as his story. Unfairly compared on the DVD copy to such American fare as Silence of the Lambs and Seven, Cure is much more than the typical serial-killer-baits-detective opus.
In Tokyo, a series of seemingly random murders has detective Kenichi Takabe (the brooding Koji Yakusho from Pulse) and his team baffled. Though the crimes are committed by different people (usually found not far from the scene), each victim has been cut with a cross mark through the chest. Each of the killers - normal people all - have no idea why they committed the crime and seem deeply regretful immediately after. The only link turns out to be a mysterious amnesiac (Masato Hagiwara) who comes into contact with the perpetrators shortly before each murder. On the surface the first half plays out like a big budget variation of Larry Cohen's underrated classic God Told Me To (a.k.a. Demon). However, comparisons to other American thrillers are purely superficial as Cure is decidedly Japanese and refreshingly free from ham-fisted genre cliché. A subplot involving the detective's unstable wife Fumie (the beautiful Anna Nakagawa) is the film's strongest link to Hollywood convention, but it cleverly plays out against expectation and paints an extra dimension upon Kurosawa's rich canvas. Through his relationship with Fumie we learn that he has two very different personas at home and at work. An aspect that comes back to haunt him in the course of the investigation. Fumie's malady is intentionally left ambiguous, but her short-term memory and isolation from her husband are key themes inherent throughout Cure. "Who are you?" the mysterious Hagiwara asks each innocent he meets in a rambling, seemingly passive interrogation - just before they carve up an acquaintance. Even when it is revealed that our boogeyman may be using hypnotic suggestion to induce murderous tendencies, the question remains. 'Who are we, really?' Kurosawa seems to be asking his audience. Does every human being posses within them a darker side? Do we really know who we are, let alone those who are supposedly closest to us? Though the pacing begins to lag toward the end (of an already languid film), Cure does manage to maintain a sense of dread throughout. It also has one of the most subtle, yet disturbing, endings in recent memory. For fans of Asian horror (especially Miike's similarly paced Audition) this film is a must.
Much of the credit for the success of Cure must go to cinematographer Tokusyo Kikumura, who imagines a work-a-day Tokyo haunted by sunlight. Like Bernard Rose's Candyman, Kikumura brings much of the horror out into the naked day; making it impossible to escape. He also creates a great amount of tension in ordinary, mundane spaces through composition and lighting. Public urinals and sparse hospital rooms take on ominous qualities - predominantly in the sunlight - through his lens. The sets also have a nice realistic feel to them, unencumbered by busy "design" choices. Whereas American directors in the suspense genre tend to overindulge in the set design (David Fincher immediately comes to mind), Cure's world feels like the genuine article, albeit a bit skewed. Another unsettling aspect of the film is the lack of music, especially during key scenes of violence. The use of ambient sound as we glimpse the climax of a grisly murder or a body suddenly breaking through a window is twice as unsettling without a music cue for guidance. Ironically, the very aspects that make this film so unique are the ones that have inevitably kept it from getting a larger audience in America. It's far too subtle and "European" for the die-hard horror crowd and too unconventional and violent for the art house crowd.
Which is why this DVD release from HVE is so impressive. Though far from an all-out special edition, it's a nicely produced package for such an obscure title. The beautiful 16X9 digital transfer is quite striking. The colors in Kikumura's cinematography are richly nuanced, far more so than a traditional theatrical viewing would allow. The film is presented in Japanese with (optional) English subtitles which were very clear and easy to read. (Not always the case with foreign films.) The 2.0 stereo sound mix was crystal clear with no apparent distortion - making the ambient soundtrack all the more effective. Included is a well-cut theatrical trailer that emphasizes the amazing cinematography, A Kurosawa filmography and, best of all, a very informative interview with the director about the film. HVE also went to the trouble of creating liner notes, always a nice bonus for an obscure title. Tom Mes from MidnightEye.com contributes a short, revealing thesis on the director and the film.
Cure is a surprising, assured little thriller that manages to be both haunting and complex. It's also an absorbing mediation on the definition of self. And when was the last time you watched an American horror film that was a meditation on anything but violence?