Directed by Hideo Nakata, Japan, 2000, 110 min. starring Masato Hagiwara, Miki Nakatani, Ken Mitsuishi, Jun Kunimura
I admit my breadth of knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited to horror, and the occasional action, sci-fi, mystery, and of course, all things extreme. I just haven't seen that many Japanese films outside of the cult box. I'm sure they make excellent comedies, dramas, love stories, and the like - I just haven't seen them. So imagine my surprise to come across a Japanese film noir. Yes, you heard me right - film noir. And one directed by (I'm guessing) soon to be prolific director Hideo Nakata.
For those unfamiliar with the genre, film noir is, simply put, black (that is, in fact its literal translation): everything about the movie, from tone to lighting, is dark, usually dealing with subjects of greed, money, murder, sex, a film where the lines of villain and hero are blurred to the extreme. The Europeans make great films noirs. As did the Americans in the 40s and 50s, usually with Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart or James Cagney, each of them a legend. The question is though - can the Japanese do it?
There are certain rules to keep when making a film noir. Plot twists are a must. Betrayal is another. A sexy female lead that entices the men around her to do deplorable deeds is a given. Then there's the inevitable reversal of fortune that happens numerous times throughout the movie. Chaos has all that. And yet, it leaves you wondering what's wrong with it.
It's very difficult to write a synopsis of a film noir - especially this one, since most of the plot moves with numerous plot twists and flashbacks. Basically it's about the kidnapping of a beautiful young woman, the bride of a rich, much older businessman. A ransom is demanded, and while the police try to find out where the woman is, the kidnapper continues to play the game until his ransom is met. That's pretty much all I can tell you, because right after this 15 minute establishing storyline, the movie (and timeline) starts jumping about all over the place with implausible twist following baffling twist.
Here's a hint though - the rest of the movie evolves around subplots, false identities, extortion, rape, murder, deal-making, and revelations upon revelations upon twists. It involves the wife, her husband, her kidnapper, the husband's sister, the wife's nephew, actresses, models, haircuts, black dresses, phone calls (both false and real), escapes, chases, and of course, possible love.
That's pretty much all I can tell you without giving too much away.
But is it worth the ride? Well, yes, and no. What's interesting about Chaos is that it does try to hold your interest - there's no typical linear storytelling signposting where things will go. The problem with the film though is that it's so caught up in its own cleverness that it sometimes forgets the basic rules of plot progression. It shifts without telling you why - or even explaining why. It confuses you unnecessarily. Then, when the end comes and practically everything is explained, there's just got to be one last twist to leave you wondering what the hell it was all about again. Isn't the point of any thriller to leave you satisfied at the end? The problem with Chaos is, while it thrills to an extent, it also baffles. It's over-confident. Nakata is playing a game with his audience but ultimately ends up alienating and irritating you because, criminally, you feel left out of an in-joke.
Hideo Nakata has still crafted it well, though. The storyline constantly shifts from time frame to time frame, leaving the viewer disoriented at first. You really need to pay attention while watching this or you'll definitely get lost. Certain scenes and twists are key, and if you miss them, you'll be left scratching your head even more than if you'd caught them.
What I don't get is why I didn't feel satisfied after seeing it. I mean, it's got all the elements a good film noir should have. Perhaps it's the way it was presented. It's like it was trying to get somewhere, but failed to get there. I mean, there's hardly any violence in it. There's no sex, no nudity. Even the sexual tension, which should feel palpable in this type of film, seems absent. I'm not saying sex, nudity, and violence is a must for this type of film, but I really believe in this particular story, those elements could've made it more - what's the word - convincing. It's like the movie completely misses the point. OK, so Nakata's not a visual director, favouring atmosphere over visuals, but here he drops the ball quite spectacularly, the movie having no style and little substance.
A few things can be said about the actors as well. Miki Nakatani, beautiful as she is, just doesn't cut it as the seductive and manipulative lead. An actor in a role such as this should at least be able to strike a balance between victim and criminal, but she plays the part with an inert sweetness that's completely wrong for the role. She uses her carefully powdered pout almost like an acting tool - a very distracting one at that. Masato Hagiwara, on the other hand is effective as the kidnapper who builds an enormous tissue of lies (and a thin one at that) before it threatens to dissolve around him. He has this perpetually confused look on his face that can shift from kindness to malevolence in a heartbeat - much like he did in the remarkable Cure.
I suppose in the end it's difficult to reconcile this genre with Japanese filmmaking; however, that said, there are a great number of finer noirs in the Asian catalogue. Chaos's slow pace is there for a reason. It lacks a steady plot or an air of malevolence, and it feels as if the actors just weren't inspired with the material they were working with. And yet for all I've said here, I can't bring myself to call Chaos outright bad. Its intentions are noble - it's just the end result I'm having a little difficulty with.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 5/10
Miki Nakatani: about as good at plumbing as she is acting
Bath or shower? Take the shower, there's something nasty in the bathtub and I don't think Jif is going to shift those stubborn stains
Films in a Similar Style: Wild Life, Bullet Ballet, Another Lonely Hitman
*** Weak ***
This film is being released by Tartan Video in the UK in 2005.
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.tartanvideo.com/ht_title_template.asp?TITID=499 - Tartan are releasing the movie in the UK
http://www.asiaextreme.co.uk/chaos/ - Tartan mini-site on the film, with trailers etc.
http://www.bizarreingredients.co.uk/japan/a/chaos/chaos.html - an alternative point of view from Bazz at Bizarre Ingredients
http://www.sexgoremutants.f9.co.uk/chaos.html - another positive review
http://www.theringworld.com/nakata.php - J Lopez of Ringworld interviews Nakata