Leaks can be murder
As I’ve said in previous letters nearly all my favourite horror films are Japanese in origin.
I think this has to do with several elements, the fact that I watch these films subtitled (which I find much more immersive and a less passive way of watching a movie), the stores they choose to tell and the fact that I am not naive to Japan, which means I only see the imports and usually money won’t be spent importing a film unless there’s a market for it and it’s reasonably good.
One of my favourite horror movies is Dark Water and it is that film that I want to talk to you about today. Keep in mind I will be discussing the 2002 story and not the 2005 remake with Jennifer Connelly.
Dark water was directed by Hideo Nakata and released in 2003 in the UK.
Summary (Here Be Spoilers)
Dark Water is based on the story by Koji Suzuki, wherein a divorced mother moves into a rundown apartment with her daughter and is haunted by visions, all of which seem to be connected to an impossible leak.
The story begins with Yoshimi moving into a run-down apartment building with her daughter Ikiko. Their new apartment isn’t in great condition but the worst of it seems to be a leak from the apartment above that worsens each day. Yoshimi naturally complaints to the caretaker about the leak but it remains unfixed. She tries to speak with the people in the apartment above but gets no answer. As she is leaving the upper apartment, she catches sight of a long-haired little girl, who quickly disappears.
There’s a whole mess of general creepy shenanigans going on, such as hair in the water (gross), the mystery girl popping up in glimpses and immediately vanishing again and a little red bag that is determined to stay with Yoshimi no matter how she tries to get rid of it. The stress starts to get to Yoshimi and her soon to be ex-husband makes a bid to take Ikiko into his care as Yoshimi is showing signs of an impending breakdown. This triggers Yoshimi’s memories of a time she herself was abandoned as a little girl. Ikiko has a run-in with the mysterious disappearing girl, which causes her to become very ill.
Yoshimi discovers that the mystery girl disappeared about a year ago via a flyer for missing people. Yoshimi figures out that the upstairs apartment is where the missing girl lived. Ikiko goes missing and is found in the upstairs apartment, which is flooded.
Yoshimi tries to move but is advised not to by her lawyer as she needs to show that she can provide a stable environment for her daughter. The lawyer gets the caretaker into the flooding apartment and shows him the state of things. Once the repairs are done things improve for a time, but the peace is short-lived as the red bag turns up yet again.
Yoshimi heads to the roof and goes to the water tank, figures out that mystery girl is a ghost and her body is in the tank, having fallen in when she tried to retrieve her little red bag. But while Yoshimi is having this revelation the mystery girl attempts to drown Ikiko. Yoshimi returns and manages to revive Ikiko, but as they attempt to flee the building they are thwarted by mystery girl. There’s a dramatic escape attempt, but in the end, Yoshimi sacrifices herself to save her daughter, allowing herself to be drowned to stay as ghost girls new mother.
There’s a heart-breaking epilogue where an older Ikiko returns to the apartment and has a conversation with her mothers’ spirit.
What I liked
My favourite part of this story was the slow burn.
The tension builds throughout the movie, and the genuine creepy aspects are interlaced so well with Yoshimi’s own mental state so there are times when you’re trying to figure out if it’s really happening or if she’s losing her mind.
The film really presses on the oppressiveness every chance it gets, The location is always dark, always dreary looking, run-down, leaking, dirty. The score is always reinforcing the oppressive feel. The real-world stressors and the supernatural ones hit constantly, one after the other until you can almost feel the weight bearing down on Yoshimi.
The tension levels of this film are handled perfectly, with rises and dips in tension. The rises in tension are not all the same, so you’re always second-guessing how worried you need to be. It is perfectly crafted.
The stakes throughout the film are handled well, with the overriding stakes being the safety of Yoshimi and Ikiko, but also they’re relationship and ability to stay together. There’s so much going on at any one time that it is impossible not to feel threatened even when the threat isn’t physical.
The tragic element of the mysterious ghost girl is also wonderfully done, she’s a lost child which naturally makes her sympathetic but she’s also trying to kill people which subverts the expectation. You can see her logic though; she is lonely, she misses her mum and wants a mum or a friend. It’s hard, if not impossible to hate her, despite the fact that she’s the main villain of the story.
Also, side note, creepy kids are usually an effective tool for horror due to the subversion element, but this one is extra good due to the moral ambiguity, the brilliant acting, the filmography, and soundtrack all merge together to make mysterious ghost girl super creepy and intimidating despite being a wee little girl.
Lastly, the final act of the film was fantastic, not only do we get a satisfying pay off for all the tension raised through the film, but the pay off is drawn out and twisted in a direction I certainly didn’t expect.
When Yoshimi figures out the ghost girls deal this moment in the story is when the audience starts to relax, the mystery is solved, the mystery girl was identified, and her fate revealed. In a lot of stories, this is usually where things would resolve happily. However, the twist that discovering the girl’s location was not her motivation was fantastic.
I’ve spoken before about character motivations and how to do them right, it’s not impossible to change or reveal the motivations were different to what the audience thought but it has to be handled well in order to work. This film handled them well. The girl’s motivations were never spelt out, the audience assumes it’s all about finding her and this assumption is fuelled by things like the missing person poster etc. But in reality, the ghost girl’s motivations are to not be lonely anymore which is foreshadowed in how she tries to keep Ikiko and how she keeps coming to people, we assume it’s to be found but it’s actually just to be with people.
Overall a great film, one I would strongly recommend watching, though maybe not alone. Also, if you have any plumbing issues, get them fixed first.