Note: This was published in the July 25th issue of TIME OUT
NY, but I've posted it myself until I can figure out when it will be available
on their website.
The devil inside: Kiyoshi Kurosawa delivers thrills
and chills while exploring the dark face
A few years ago, prolific Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation
to Akira Kurosawa) began making a name for himself on the festival circuit-in
1999 alone, he managed the remarkable hat trick of landing three different
movies in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. Using very low budgets (and sometimes
even working on direct-to-video projects), Kurosawa has been free to experiment
within the constraints of genres such as the horror film, the gangster
movie and the crime thriller, all with the growing praise of critics. But,
apart from the 1999 New York Film Festival's screening of his family drama
LICENSE TO LIVE, New Yorkers have had no opportunities to see this work-until
now. Starting Friday 27, the Screening Room presents a weeklong retrospective
of his more recent work from the past five years (including the Internet
ghost story PULSE, which debuted in Cannes last May), followed by the release
on August 3 of his 1997 masterpiece CURE, arguably one of the best horror
films of the '90s.
It's no accident that this
retrospective begins with the 1998 yakuza film SERPENT'S PATH, made just
after CURE, a riveting thriller about a serial killer who hypnotizes people
and compels them to murder for him. By Kurosawa's own admission, it took
him years to figure out how to use genre tropes to his advantage. He has
pretty much disowned all the films he made before CURE. When told that
a prominent gray-market video mail-order
outlet was selling his 1989 SWEET HOME under the name of his producer,
Juzo Itami, he acts nonplussed. "I don't know whether to feel angry or
overjoyed, since I had very little control over it," he says. "I'm credited
as the director, but Itami held the power on the set."
Kurosawa's fully realized
style synthesizes the mystical portent of '70s films like Peter Weir's
THE LAST WAVE and Nicolas Roeg's DON'T LOOK NOW with the icy chill of David
Cronenberg's DEAD RINGERS and CRASH. He tends to combine art-film techniques-such
as elliptical narratives and relatively few close-ups-with story lines
playing off the conventions of serial-killer thrillers or vigilante dramas.
"Basically, I'm of the generation that grew up watching early-'70s American
films," says the director. "Specifically, I like the work from that period
of directors who began working earlier: Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Sam
Fuller, John Huston, Richard Fleischer." While he scoffs at the idea of
trying to copy American films, Kurosawa says his eclectic combination of
influences has made it easier for his films to be appreciated by worldwide
This double-barreled approach
has been a constant in his work, but he doesn't think he got it right until
CURE. "I'd been attempting something along the lines of an American genre
film even with my 8mm student films, but I never felt that I had succeeded,"
says Kurosawa. "In CURE, I attempted an experiment, and for the first time,
it worked. I kept the bones of the horror movie intact and tried to see
if I could still insert my own approach and keep it compelling."
In addition to his visual
style, the sound design of Kurosawa's films leaves a mark, particularly
since he resents the emotional power of movie music. "In film, music is
extremely potent," he says. "No matter how ambiguous the messages contained
in the visuals are, music can turn them into something very clear and direct.
Even if you close your eyes, the music at certain points can tell you if
a scene is funny and scary." CURE doesn't have any music except in the
opening and closing credit sequences; the abrasiveness of the film's background
drone, no matter how mundane, creates its own ominous atmosphere. "I wanted
to represent not only what was heard on-screen, but what was going on behind
and beyond that world," says the director. "At several points, although
I showed a particular room, I represented the sounds coming from the room
next door." Rarely have washing machines sounded so sinister.
His work constantly raises
larger philosophical questions: ecological issues in the bizarre CHARISMA
(an apocalyptic thriller about a
tree), and the fragility of modern life in LICENSE TO LIVE and CURE
(which never explicitly refers to the Aum Shinrikyo subway gas attack but
feels like a response to it). The hypnotist in CURE keeps asking "Who are
you?"-and no one in the film can answer with any certainty. Kurosawa thinks
this is a particularly pressing issue for urban Japanese. "The question
of how to balance this onslaught of information from all over the world
with the vestiges of traditional values inside each individual is becoming
very difficult," he says. And the director's interest in his subject matter
is never scientific; he admits to knowing little about botany while making
CHARISMA and didn't study psychology for CURE. "I did an alarmingly small
amount of research," he says. "Each film starts with a mental inspiration.
After that, I plot out the overall structure and tone. Once I've figured
that out, only then do I do whatever research is necessary to fill in areas
I can't on my own."
Not surprisingly, Kurosawa
is reluctant to spell out his films' enigmatic plots and themes. When asked
what specifically happens at the end of CHARISMA, he answers in generalities.
"The hero has decided to destroy and abandon all former values and start
over from zero," he says, which makes a certain amount of sense but doesn't
quite explain the plot. As for what the word "cure" means to him, he also
demurs. "The English word is actually the Japanese title," he says. "I'm
not sure what that word evokes for Americans or even whether it's the correct
title." At times, Kurosawa's films can feel frustratingly obscure; but
more often than not, particularly in the case of CURE and CHARISMA, they
are among the most consistently intricate psychological and emotional puzzles
being made today.
"The Films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa" opens Friday 27 at the Screening Room.
opens August 3.