Dark Water (Japan 2001)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 6/17/10
Cast: Hitomi Kuroki, Rio Kanno, Asami Mizukawa

The writer and director of "Ring" (1997) team up to tell another tale of misfortune. Times are tough for Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki). She's fighting a nasty custody battle with her ex-husband over their six year old daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno), while trying to find a job and an apartment that she can afford. Unfortunately, the room she moves into is right underneath a unit that is haunted by the ghost of a young girl who begins to take an unhealthy interest in Ikuko. As you might expect, this takes its toll on Yoshimi's already frail mental health. Is the apartment really haunted, or is Yoshimi's ex-husband playing tricks on her? Or is she actually losing her mind? In the end, she sacrifices herself to save her daughter's soul, as any brave and caring mother would.

"Dark Water" has a lot in common with "Ring" and revisits many of the same themes. Both films focus on a single mother encountering a vengeful spirit, and her desperate attempts to both save herself and protect her child. The mother/child bond is a strong and compelling theme that's universally identifiable, and Hitomi Kuroki does an excellent job of portraying a caring mother who is struggling to get by. It's very refreshing to see a single mother presented so realistically. Both she and Rio Kanno do a phenomenal job of expressing fear and frustration, and the emotions in the film are very tangible.

While dangerous supernatural forces are involved, the film is more heartbreaking than it is scary. It certainly has its scary moments, and the director is a master of building tension and suspense with long takes, spooky music, and fleeting glimpses of unsettling imagery. But it's really more of a domestic drama than it is a horror film, and that's how you have to approach it. The film also does a good job of tapping into the everyday horrors of familiar experiences like ineffective landlords, sleazy real estate agents, run down apartments, leaking ceilings, questionable school teachers, job interviews, and divorce attorneys. Overall, a really good and well made film that makes a strong emotional impact. My only criticism would be with its slow pacing, which is typical of Japanese films. "Dark Water" definitely requires patience to watch, and while I know that timing is a key element for building suspense, I often found myself glancing at my watch.