Dark Water (Blu-ray)

From the creators of Ringu

I doubt Hideo Nakata spends much time lamenting his career. He’s made almost a film a year, on average, for the 20 years he’s been directing feature films. But his future didn’t always look so assured. His first film, Don’t Look Up, wasn’t a hit and all might have been lost right there. But he followed it up with the mega-hot Ringu, and basically jump-started the love-affair that American audiences (and Hollywood) had with Japanese horror films. Though Japanese horror has a long and proud tradition, it was reduced for a few years to creepy tales of technology run amok, children in places they didn’t belong, and one-word titles. Nakata toiled in the trenches of J-horror, producing Ringu 2, and the American re-make The Ring 2. But he was destined for other things as well. Dark Water is evidence that Nakata was willing to strain against the bounds of the genre that made him famous, and it’s a potent blend of drama and horror.

Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki, Like Asura) is going through a divorce, and she’s afraid that a prior mental breakdown will allow her husband to get full custody of their young daughter. Yoshimi, hoping to prove her stability, rents an apartment to create a nurturing environment for her and her daughter. But the ceiling in one of the rooms has a water stain that seems to be spreading, and someone keeps leaving a child’s bag where Yoshimi can find it. Something isn’t right, and maybe the apartment is haunted.

I’ve never been a huge fan of J-horror. Ghosts aren’t my monster of choice, and the sense of justice that seems to drive so many narratives doesn’t really work for me as an engine for horror. I find the distrust of technology to be goofy, and the supposedly creepy imagery and shocking jump cuts are usually pretty hokey. Some of it is certainly the distance created by the language barrier – it’s more difficult to get invested in the already-hokey horrors when you’re reading subtitles. But then again, when they got remade in America, it only made things worse.

In some ways, Dark Water is a typical J-horror film. We’ve got the requisite creepy atmosphere provided by Yoshimi’s run-down apartment. There’s creepy girls aplenty – Yoshimi’s upstairs neighbor may or may not be a little girl abandoned by her mother a year ago. There’s even the same emphasis on water we saw in Ringu, with the well in that film leading to the spreading-water imagery of this film. The overall ambience and general weirdness (where does that bag come from?) help keep the film’s horror vibe strong. There are a few jump-scares to be had as well, but they are less frequent and overwhelming than other films in the genre.

Dark Water, however, distinguishes itself from other J-horror films by focusing as much on the drama of its situation as the horror elements. Whereas most J-horror films took the spooky elements from Ringu and expanded them in different contexts, Dark Water instead takes the more traditional, almost melodramatic elements and expands on them. This isn’t too much of a shock, since Dark Water is based on a story by the writer who also wrote the Ringu novel. It’s not a huge deal in some ways, but Ringu gets some tension from the fact that the heroine has to enlist the help of her ex-husband to uncover the secrets of the tape. In Dark Water, the divorce is even more significant. Yoshimi gets involved in the whole situation because of her divorce, and the crumbling of her social world is mirrored in the crumbling of the “haunted” apartment she has to live in. Obviously the film doesn’t forego the supernatural elements, but the fact that so much of the film’s tension and tumult stems from a real-life problem gives the horror elements a weight they lack in other J-horror films.

Dark Water, therefore, leans a bit more heavily on drama an atmosphere than the typical horror film (J- or otherwise). In that, Nakata excels. The world of the film looks sodden, soaked through and melancholy. When things start to get weird, the melancholy atmosphere heightens the oddity of Yoshimi’s experiences, which then feed into the backstory we learn about the occupants upstairs.

The film’s Blu-ray is largely excellent. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is likely to be a source of debate. On the one hand, the film isn’t meant to be a crystal-clear, glossy product. The whole thing is supposed to look grey and dingy uninviting. This transfer accomplishes that easily, offering muddy tones and a soft appearance. This is, at least in part, intentional and fine. Where people might object, however, is in the handling of grain and fine detail. Sure, it’s not supposed to be glossy, but the film’s heavy grain isn’t always rendered well, which means we get a flat, blocky image in a number of places. Black levels are also less black than grey in a lot of places, though that might be intentional as well. It’s a definite improvement over the SD release, but it’s not the slam-dunk fans could hope for. In contrast, the film’s DTS-HD 5.1 audio track is pretty much everything fans could want. The film relies on its atmosphere to sell the creep-factor, and this track is impressively immersive. There’s lots of detail in the sounds of water, without overwhelming the film’s dialogue. It’s a really great track that helps the film tremendously.

The big attraction for this release is the extras. Things kick off with a new interview with Hideo Nakata. It’s 26 minutes long and goes pretty in depth on this thoughts about Dark Water and its place in his body of work. We also get an interview with the author who wrote the short story Dark Water is based on (and the Ringu novel). The film’s cinematographer (Junichiro Hayashi) is also on-hand for a new interview. There are also archival interviews with actresses Hitomi Kuroki and Asami Mizukawa, and composer Shikao Suga. A nice EPK-style featurette serves as a making-of, and we get some promo material (teaser, trailer, and TV spot) as well. The included booklet features information on the film’s transfer, as well as a pair of essays on the film (by David Kalat and Michael Gingold). A DVD copy is included as well.

Dark Water isn’t for everyone. It’s a bit heavy on atmosphere and lacking some of the more recognizable horror elements of its J-horror brethren. But as a creepy drama it holds interest, and fans will want to upgrade to this Blu-ray release for the improved audiovisual experience and new extras.

Watery, but not guilty.


Tech Specs

Dark Water: 2 Disc Special Edition (Blu-ray)
Arrow, 101 minutes, R (2002)
VIDEO: 1.85:1 (1080p) AUDIO:  DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Japanese) SUBTITLES: English SDH
EXTRAS: Interviews,  Featurette, Trailer, TV Spot, Booklet, DVD Copy ACCOMPLICES: IMDB

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