Kokkuri (Japan 1997)

Rating: **(*)
Review Date: 9/11/99

Definitely not something to watch before going to sleep. This is a creepy coming of age schoolgirl horror film about a group of three girls who start playing with a Ouija board of sorts and summon the spirit of Kokkuri. The lack of subtitles is a severe hindrance in this case because so much of the film is dialog driven, and the dramatic narrative is further broken apart by dream-like visuals. Something bad happens during the seance, which puts a strain on the girls' relationships with each other, and one of them (Hiroko) attempts suicide. The main character (Mio) manages to save her, and a brief spark of lesbian anxiety gets thrown into the mix. Nicely done, I might add. Mio is also plagued with terrifying visions (memories?) of the beach, a little girl (herself?), and the girl's mother who drowned. These flashbacks show up at random times and with more frequency towards the end of the film, which makes us question Mio's psychological stability. The final twenty minutes is just too bizarre and confusing to even try and contemplate, but I think somehow the third girl (Masami) died. Did Hiroko murder her? Then there's a huge struggle between Hiroko and Mio in a mucky old water basin of some kind. Very odd. The film then ends on a somber note as the two girls commit suicide together.

As with many Japanese films, the pacing is challenging, but it serves the dramatic tension well. The cinematography is thoughtful and the film looks great. After seeing so much Japanese crap recently, it was really nice to see something shot on film for a change! The audio is very barren, and is often just dialog without any ambient sound or background music. All of the audio deadness really adds to the creepy factor, and when a rare musical cue does show up, its impact is intense. Normally, I don't like this approach to filmmaking, but it works well in this case. The girls do a great job presenting their melancholic characters, drifting aimlessly through the film and desperately trying to cope with their awkward adolescent angst.

I'm sure I would consider this a three star film, but the complexity of the material coupled with my extremely weak understanding of Japanese reduced my overall enjoyment of it. Fortunately, there are always cute girls to watch. It's anyone's guess why I relate so well to the sad and lonely lives of Japanese schoolgirls - I just find them fascinating to watch. American films seldom portray teenage girls with as much sincerity and understanding as the Japanese do. (I don't know what's creepier - the film, or me talking about teenage girls...)