Perhaps in this day and age of blog and forum discussion, the word Auteur is thrown around a little too lightly. Nevertheless, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work of the 1990s and early 2000s has lifted the prolific filmmaker into auteur territory by the benchmark that you can simply tell you are watching one of his films by viewing only a few frames. It is fair to consider his latest work, the J-Horror police procedural whodunit Retribution, both a primer for and a culmination of his work.
A woman in a red dress is drowned in a puddle on a dilapidated and non-descript landfill site. Kôji Yakusho, a very familiar face in Kurosawa films, is the competent, if rundown, police detective Yoshioka who is brought in to work the case. A button found in the water near the crime scene catches his eye. It is familiar enough looking to cause him to go through his own closets. One of his own coats is missing an identical button. Soon the ghost of the woman in red visits upon him some (highly effective) waking hallucinations. Although the ghost is indeed creepy, perhaps more unsettling is the distant relationship with his girlfriend who often walks away seemingly in mid-conversation. Yoshioka is close enough to the edge of depression that he begins to suspect that he himself is the murderer. Things get more complicated when another body shows up, with an obvious suspect (not Yoshioka), but also with the same salt-water drowning MO.
There is (literal, if the subtitles are to be trusted) name checking of other iconic entries into the genre such as Ju-On (as well as his own Kairo (Pulse) - look for a decidedly different take on the classic ‘jump’ from that film) but the film is also infused with a canny sense of humour. Jô Odagiri has a small role where the nature of his character is the source of more than one instance of dead-pan humour. This is strangely at home in the grungy, non-descript interior and exterior locales. Japan here seems to be changing much for the worse into abandoned industrial sites and half-completed landfills riddled with puddles; stand-ins for tears for the criminal carelessness of planning. The fact that earthquakes punctuate many of the key scenes signaling the entrance of calamity further underscores the decay present, puddles rippling in anguish.
Following Kurosawas themes of identity crisis, self worth, aimless youth, violent – yet curiously detached – crimes, and pending apocalypse - familiar enough in Cure, Bright Future, Doppelgänger - things here are mixed up, inexplicable and evocative in a way that cannot help but conjure a Lynchian echo or two. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is elliptical and surreal at the best of times, but even more-so here. Simply put, Retribution is the Mulholland Drive of his particular brand of horror. Accepting the fact that this is not a retread of his earlier films, despite the many similarities and visual nods contained within, is tantamount of being able to suspend disbelief and not write the film off as the product of a writer looking back (or dumbing down via producer Takashige Ichise). This is clearly a forward thinking experiment.
Make no mistake though, the scares in the film are of the long, chilling variety. Kurosawa has a well developed ability to hold a scene much longer than anyone (including Takashi Shimizu) and make it play (paradoxically) high in tension and coolly remote. Destined to be misunderstood in the same way that Hayao Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle was, I believe Retribution is to be enjoyed as an ambitiously different take on familiar sights.
The new DVD release comes from Hong Kong's AVP, a relatively young company that seems to specialize in bringing quality Asian films from outside Hong Kong into the territory. This release follows the same pattern that they have established so far, namely extras are minimal - non-existent, in this case - and the menu system basic in the extreme, but the film itself is treated to an excellent, anamorphic transfer with high quality english subtitles. Basically it appears that AVP aim to keep their costs down by cutting out the frills so that they can focus on treating the films themselves properly and as long as they keep sourcing such quality stuff and keeping the core content at a high level, that's fine with me.