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Sunday 26 April 2009

Cure (1997)

Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Stars: Koji Yakusho and Masato Hagiwara

Once upon a time, we begin, a man and his daughter lived in the forest and a king turned up in a golden carriage, asking for the young lady to be his wife. The man was hardly going to say no, and apparently was delighted with the whole concept, even though the king had a blue beard. The young lady reading this story to her psychiatrist stops reading but tells him that she knows the ending: the girl kills the king. Whether this is an indication of the mental problems of this patient or the inevitability of human destruction is completely open to question and remains unanswered as the film comes to a close.

Our film would appear to be about killing too, but it's no simple murder story. In fact it's no simple anything. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who also wrote the screenplay from his own novel, throws out a few different threads for our consideration, all cryptic and deceptively simple, and then gradually ties them all together, but only to give us questions rather than answers. This first thread, dealing with this young lady and her therapy, is the most obscure as it doesn't seem to have much to do with anything. However it turns out that the young lady is the wife of the detective at the heart of the other two threads and the reason why he can identify with the real protagonist.

He's Det Kenichi Takabe and he's investigating a string of bizarre murders. What makes them most bizarre is that they would appear to be a set of connected killings, but there isn't one murder, there isn't one murderer and there isn't even one modus operandi. Each of the killers is caught, quickly and easily, after their crimes. They seem to be normal people, apparently totally aware of their actions, which they see as normal at the time but regret later in candid confessions. Kurosawa brings us in during the third in the series: a man who pulls a piece of pipe out of a tunnel on the way to an appointment with a prostitute, who he bashes to death. He then hides in a cubbyhole in the corridor, utterly stunned by what he did, to be found by the police.

There are two things that these killers have in common. The first, which is obvious from moment one and the reason the cops are seeing the murders as connected, is the fact that each murderer, after killing their respective victims, carves a large X across their throats, reminiscent of Microsoft's XBox logo which would make an awesome reason for this to never be remade by Hollywood. The second constant only becomes apparent after some time, and that's the presence shortly before each murder of a man named Hunihiko Mamiya. We meet Mamiya before the fourth murder, wandering aimlessly around Shirasato Beach in Chiba without any clue who he is, where he is or apparently anything else about anything.

An elementary school teacher called Toru Hanaoka happens to be on the beach at the time, and unfortunately for him and his wife, he tries to help the man. Not long afterwards Hanaoka kills his wife and leaps out of the upstairs window in an attempt to kill himself at the horror of what he's done. He survives though to enter custody, as does the next killer. He's a cop called Oida who tries to help Mamiya after seeing him on the roof of a building, only to continue the trend himself, shooting his partner of three years. What's strangest here is that once in custody, he repeats his X cuts on a guard in his interrogation cell, but he has no knife at the time.

And so it continues, but now there's a trail for Takabe to follow. Before becoming killer number five, Oida had left Mamiya in the custody of Dr Miyajima at Shiomicho Hospital, who promptly becomes killer number six. It doesn't take long before he's in custody and being interrogated by Det Takabe. However this is far from the end of our story, in fact it's really the beginning as Takabe, the husband of a woman with memory problems, gets to interrogate a man who apparently has no memory, even a short term memory. It's a rare example of a film where we're given everything but still don't have a clue where it's going.

We know it's about Takabe, Mamiya and the power of mesmerism, but we don't know the how or why of it. Early on there are a few discussions about why these unlikely killers would do such a thing and whether the devil made them do it. The obvious initial question for us is whether Mamiya is the devil and we're watching a quirky religious horror movie. Then as Takabe discovers who this amnesiac really is, a student of psychology, and sees his apartment and working environment, we realise that it's nothing religious but has to do with mesmerism and hypnotic suggestion. Then gradually we realise that these two approaches are more consistent that we would have expected, as in Japan mesmerism was suppressed as a heresy known as soul conjuring, akin to witchcraft.

And the questions remain even when we reach the end of the film. How much of this is reality and how much the hallucinations of the characters we're watching? Certainly a good deal is the latter but how much of it is open to question. Why does Mamiya do what he does; what drives him? Is there something or someone sinister at work here, such as a traditional protagonist to catch and stop, or is this an entirely internal problem, making any attempt to fathom it using traditional methods useless? That's Takabe's problem here and one that he transfers to us, the viewers.

Kurosawa seems to have seen any traditional answers as a lesser concern to the bigger question of what drives us as human beings. Mamiya is a fascinating character because he's so vague yet he's the pivot for our entire film. He is absolutely a question rather than an answer, providing it verbally through the repeated line of 'Who are you?', reminiscent of 'What's your function in life?', the core question of Survive Style 5+. We as viewers have to provide the answer ourselves: who are we and would we fit in a horror movie too?

So as a story, it's intriguing but unfulfilling, at least initially. Maybe another viewing, where I know how things are going to end up, will help to flesh that out. Often when I think about needing extra viewings, the film is probably deficient. In this instance, I'm not too sure. I think it's a film that merely needs to make us realise that it isn't going to answer our questions and thus warrant a further run through outside of our usual stance as disassociated viewers. On one viewing, it's no classic, but further viewings may well move it up the ratings to something closer to the accolades I'm reading that many viewers are prompted to shower over it.

Beyond the story, it's a visual film, powerfully shot in long and carefully framed shots rather than the more standard closeups. As Det Takabe, Koji Yakusho is an able lead, though he really shares that role with Masato Hagiwara as Mamiya. Moreover nobody plays the star here, this being one of those rare films comprised entirely of character actors playing characters. No relation to his more famous countryman, Akira Kurosawa, Kiyoshi Kurosawa nonetheless has carved out something of a name for himself in modern Japanese cinema. I see his name mentioned a lot, though I've not been bowled over by him yet. This is my third of his films, after Pulse and Bright Future, and each has been similarly intriguing yet unfulfilling. Maybe I should track down the rest and immerse myself. And then watch them all again.

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