No one makes films like Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Over the years he?s crafted a formula which allows him create the perfect blending of horror movie and arthouse cinema, with his films not only walking a fine line between the two genres, but blurring those lines and pulling just the right amount from each to produce a completely unique experience. Regardless of the subgenre he?s exploring, whether it?s psychological terror via serial killer (Cure) or creepy-crawly ghostly thrills (Kairo, aka Circuit and remade here in the U.S. as the teeny bopper shockfest Pulse), those distinct stylistic touches which undoubtedly make it a Kurosawa film are always present. While pacing that is often uncomfortably slow and scenes that linger on just slightly long enough to become awkward might seem like amateurish mistakes made by an unskilled director, they are quite the contrary here, and instead of detracting from his films only help to create the incredibly ominous mood which has become his trademark. That veil of dread is unquestionably present is his latest effort, Retribution, this time cast over a more mainstream J-horror plotline filled with your standard vengeful ghosts.
Homicide Detective Noboru Yoshioka is investigating what seems to be the work of a serial killer who is offing his victims by drowning them in pools of saltwater. It all seems like routine police work for a seasoned cop, until evidence starts turning up which may connect Yoshioka to one of the crimes. While he attempts to divert the implications of his involvement made by his fellow officers, he begins to question his own assurance that he is indeed innocent. Did he actually murder someone and somehow not even realize it? Along with this questioning of his sanity, he begins seeing the Woman in Red, a haunting figure who appears seemingly out of nowhere, announcing her presence with deafening shrieks. Things become further complicated as more dead bodies show up and even more suspects emerge, all seemingly unrelated, yet having murdered their victims in the exact same manner. Can Detective Yoshioka figure out the connection they have to each other and to the mysterious Woman in Red before the suspicions of his own possible guilt drive him completely mad?
Thankfully, that patented gloomy atmosphere of Kiyoshi Kurosawa films is strong enough to breathe new life into the now tired and predictable genre of J-horror. Had Retribution been helmed by some other writer/director, it would no doubt have come off as just another spooky ghost romp with a couple jump-out-and-grab-you scares strung together by an otherwise lackluster plot that would ultimately fall flat on its face. Yet Kurosawa is able to put his spin on even the most run-of-the-mill Ringu-esque storyline and create a film which stands out from the pack with its oppressive sense of impending doom.
By presenting us with his vision of a dark, dirty, depressing world, Kurosawa is able to take Retribution way beyond silly sight gags, subconsciously convincing us that not only is some lurking evil out to get the characters in the film, but that it wants the rest of us as well. While the Woman in Red does have her eerie, otherworldly moments (mostly achieved through some incredibly effective lighting and sound effects, including her banshee-like scream which reaches ear piercing proportions), she is also presented as an important character herself, interacting with the others and playing the role of more than just a faceless villain. Through this Kurosawa is able to scare us in ways other than making us jump in our seats, instead subtly opening doors to deeper fears which we can all relate to.
Those fans that are always searching for something more from their horror movies than just gross out gore or unexpected shocks should look no further than Retribution (or any of Kiyoshi Kurosawa?s other work, for that matter). It?s a horror film that may challenge you, if you?re up to it, and while it might not make your hair stand on end or your jaw hit the floor, it will plant that seed in the back of your head that might have you looking over your shoulder for weeks to come.
Retribution was screened at the New York Asian Film Festival.