Fantasia 2015 Review: FATAL FRAME Has No Shortage Of Beautiful Images
From your heyday in the late 1990s -- Ringu, Dark Water, Ju-On and Pulse -- to Sono Sion putting a very sharp fork into you in the mid-aughts with Exte: Hair Extensions, you were the black-haired angel of contemporary genre filmmaking. But remakes, an endless stream of terrible sequels, and subsumption into seemingly every facet of the horror genre diluted your vibrancy and all but rendered the style irrelevant. No small irony that the sucking the life out of things mirrored the very curses you seemed to embody In your characters.
So colour me surprised when female director Asato Mari, as rare a thing in Japanese genre film as in every other part of the world, audaciously recalls the power and effect of the genre with Fatal Frame. Colour me even more surprised when perusing her previous filmography, which consists of several of the ill-conceived sequels that neutered the genre in the past decade. A case of omelette and eggs, perhaps?
A Catholic boarding school outside of Tokyo is the full-time home to many young girls, all of them at the ripening age of hormonal overdrive; all burgeoning sexuality and romantic fantasies of what love actually means. Shakespeare's Ophelia seems to be the patron saint of the school; an evocative oil canvas of her drowned body with daisies adorns the mother superior's office. The traditional graduation ceremony involves the class singing a haunting Japanese rendition of Ophelia's suicide singsong soliloquy.
That nobody would ever allow this sort of thing in real life is, of course, beside the point, especially considering the school has a history of its students dying by drowning. The dream-state in which things are rendered here, often moving across time and space with meticulous edits, are positively unsettling in themselves. It's not the usual 'waking up from a nightmare' sort of thing, although there is some of that. It's more like temporary states of somnambulism brought about by teenage horniness. And teen horniness is not a crime.
I am in no way familiar with the video game series, nor the novel adaptation/inspiration from said series, that the movie is based on. If I was not told that was the origin of the project, to the film's credit, I would never have known. This is a great, if familiar, story, first and foremost. It is in no way a fan-service, nor crass commercial cash grab, as one might suspect.
Fatal Frame is a time-honoured and gorgeously filmed ghost story that stands out as completely its own thing. It certainly makes use of nearly every trope in the J-Horror playbook, and yet, an exceptional eye behind the camera, and sharp experimentalism in the editing strategies and storytelling, combined with a confident hint of self-deprecation -- that only once or twice derails the mood -- adds up to a great experience in classic horror.
Peter Weir's poetic Picnic At Hanging Rock is the clear visual and thematic influence, as the film follows the rhythms of heightened female sexuality with no outlet but each other. However, eschewing that films' Zamphir panflute score for a tinkle-tinkle piano rendition of Goblin, it recalls Italy's Giallo pictures of the 1970s, and is just as effective.
Fatal Frame skewers Japanese mores in the process, taking on a satirical sub-text of how such a conservative country creates extremism with its values. The iconic scene of girls punishing one of their own for mysteriously leaving the group and equally mysteriously returning is recreated from Picnic in a unique Japanese fashion. This film is not quite in the league of Weir's all time classic of cinema, but it boldly aspires to be and damn well nearly gets there.
The school is a womb of warm wood, from floor to ceiling, where school uniform pumps go clack-clack as girls move from one hallowed chamber to another. The outside world is cold stone and metal and water, which underscores the radical difference of being in the bubble versus drowning without.
When the girls step out too far, kissing the photo of what they think is one of their classmates, they drown. A conga-line of corpses floating down the river, with daisies surrounding them, is one of the great images of the mass hysteria occupied by the school. Another involves a choir falling one-by-one in a pile as a ghost descends into their midst, albeit visually and mentally, into their 'mist.' There are few more evocative images in the cinema of innocence lost.
Photography, the technology component which is often at the heart of the best J-Horror has offered in the past, is at most a red herring here. This might come to the chagrin of the gamer fans who are curious about the film. On the plus side, using the convention of a mother and son taking photos of the ghosts and students serves to capture the innocence (and lies) of clearly not-quite-formed women at the height of their own confused and shy narcissism.
It is the religious institution, and its insularity -- a metaphor for all of Japan? -- that is affected by a curse that manifests itself only in girls. It's the petite-mort rite of passage, whereupon one girl sexually kisses another girl in the darkened chapel before midnight. The film subtly rails against societal judgments about lesbian homosexuality and the fever-dream fatality that results when you judge very self-conscious, half-formed youth. Parts of them, personality-wise and physically-speaking, are sacrificed to move forward into adulthood.
If there is any kind of misstep in Fatal Frame, it is that it has the curse of a few too many endings and twists. Asato Mari, I have no doubt, is cognizant of this issues, it is perfectly in line of the rumour mill that fuels the school, and drives the Nancy Drew pursuits of the leads, Michi and Aya. She even addresses it with a character saying, "Get a grip" to the hyperbolic flights of fancy that these endings take.
It sounds like what the film is about, but the atmosphere is so thick and rich a broth that anything that calls attention to the artifice, thematically or not, is somewhat unwelcome, almost too idiosyncratic contrasted with the tone of the rest of the film. But as with the foibles of any society, as cruel as things might be, it is best to have a sense of humour about such things. And horrible moments in history seem to make the best art, as evidenced by the all the pretty girls singing about their own deaths on display here.