Monday, March 14, 2011

Movie Review: HAZE (2005) Written, Directed, and Edited by Shinya Tsukamoto Starring Shinya Tsukamoto, Takahiro Murase Music by Chu Ishikawa

A man is trapped in a narrow tunnel, somewhere underground. He has no memory of how he got there. He's not even sure if he remembers who he is. He remembers a woman's face and her voice saying, "I'm sorry." He also has a vague recollection of fireworks going off, possibly a dream or an idle fantasy. The fireworks are going off by themselves, with no people around to light them. The man is frightened by his confinement. He is in pain. He discovers a wound in his stomach.

The man tries to maneuver through the tunnel. It seems to be some sort of maze, maybe an underground sewer system, long abandoned.

The man becomes frightened. He tries to tell himself that it's just a dream. If it's a dream, it can't hurt, he reasons.

Something grabs him. He goes flying down the tunnel. He has no control over his body. At one point, he is confined in some sort of chair or gurney--he can't quite tell if he's sitting or lying down. He is motionless before a strange hole in a wall. A hammer or bludgeon swings out of the hole and bashes him repeatedly on the skull. Now he has a wound in his head and in his stomach.

The man speculates further: was there a war? Am I a prisoner? Was I captured by some wealthy pervert? Was this maze constructed to key into my darkest fears?

The man is pitched forward into the dark. He lands with his teeth against a metal pipe. The man is dragged by whatever is controlling the maze with his teeth scraping against the metal pipe for an interminable length of time. His pain and fear are intense. The sound of the teeth racing against the pipe is unendurable.

And the worst is yet to come . . .

Haze is a horror film that locks its protagonist inside a nightmare world constructed solely to induce a profound state of despair and confusion. The maze is the workshop. Inside this shop are the tools of pain, confinement, disorientation, disturbing visions, and much more. The film runs about fifty minutes and offers no easy answers. That's another aspect of its horror. Most horror films are about tension and release. Tension is built as characters are stalked by some malevolent person, force, or creature. There is perverse release when the characters are butchered one by one. There is, at the end, a ritual destruction of the dreaded bugaboo, be it a lunatic in a mask, a vampire, a werewolf, some dual-jawed extraterrestrial--whatever it is, it goes up in flames, it gets a stake through the heart, a fatal trip through the airlock into the outer dark, three silver bullets in the pump, pick your poison, ye monster hunters and sally forth.

That's the usual trajectory of a horror flick. Haze takes on a more difficult challenge. Instead of some person in a mask or a guy in a rubber monster suit, it creates an inescapable maze which is haunted or cursed or maybe just constructed to practice evil. The very environment and the effects, physical, psychological, and spiritual, it causes within the anonymous man are the enemies here.

The maze seems to operate according to some bizarre, hallucinatory logic. It's purpose is to torment the man trapped in it. Perhaps the maze is being controlled by some malevolent force or being. Maybe the maze itself is alive and not very nice. Or maybe it's alive but indifferent to the pain and suffering it causes to whoever happens into it. Like the inexplicable prison in the cult classic 1997 film Cube, the maze that the anonymous man is trapped within defeats all investigations or attempts to resist its power.

The man is played by writer/director/editor/art designer Shinya Tsukamoto who is probably still most famous for his film Tetsuo the Iron Man. Tsukamoto's films often deal with the theme of radical transformation within the context of the ultramodern city of Tokyo. His heroes and heroines start out as average, salaried cubicle laborers and undergo mutations into monsters, fighters, criminals, murderers, sadomasochists, voyeurs, and sexual adventurers. Tokyo is both the incubator for such transformations and also the enemy. Its towering skyscrapers and corporate cultures of conformity exist as necessary adversaries to promote creative destruction within the protagonists' souls. Sometimes the adversary is embodied by a person, usually played by Tsukamoto himself, who torments the primary characters, and acts as a catalyst for transformation.

But just as often, the adversary is a pervasive environment, the city of Tokyo itself, or the nightmare labyrinth conjured for this film.

The production design is of central importance to this film, obviously made on a low budget. There are few special effects shots. I can only guess that they constructed sets or shot in and around existing industrial structures. Claustrophobia is the organizing idea behind the visuals, and so that limited field of vision does dual work. On the one hand, it reflects the horror of confinement, and on the other it serves to narrow the focus and jack up the intensity of the experience. There is no excess to this film. And yet, it could be argued, it is all excess, of a kind. Overall, it serves as a potent rebuke to overbudgeted torture-porn movies and tweeny vampire romances that true horror is a matter of vision, execution, and thematic substance, and not a result of 3-D gimmicks and pandering.

(Interestingly, I found a youtube clip of an interview with Tsukamoto where he reveals that the last movie he saw in a theatre was Avatar 3-D. He rather intensely liked it. He even speculated about doing a Tetsuo 3-D . . . perhaps the greatest horror is yet to come . . .)

Tsukamoto gives an effective performance as the anonymous man trapped in the maze. He brings some nuance and even a touch of ironic humor into his nightmare situation. There is also something vaguely humorous about a man grasping for real world explanations within a nightmarish reality. The notion that reality is slippery, that it is impossible to distinguish a dreaming state from a waking state, is the underlying theme. This also ties into Tsukamoto's ongoing exploration of radical transformation and monstrosity, but here it takes a bizarre and somewhat obscure turn. I won't reveal the ending. Mostly because I'm not sure I totally grasp what's going on at the end. But I have my suspicions. One of my suspicions is that this is a movie more about the journey than the destination, and so the ending, even if impenetrable, is more a formality or inevitability than the true point of this film.

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