Director Hideo Nakata is best known for 1998’s Ringu (The Ring), the film that kicked off a wave of international interest in J-horror at the turn of the century. In a lot of ways he’s still been living in the shadow of that film, which is a bit unfair to him given that it’s such a high-water mark in J-horror.
The Complex seemed like a potential return to form with its moodiness, especially after 2010’s Chatroom. It’s a ghost story, it’s a psychological thriller, and somewhere these two strands meet. The strands also get in the way of each other and then get away from each other. Mostly I realized I have a certain distaste for certain tricks in the plot.
[For the next few weeks, we will be covering the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival and the 2013 Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF 2013 coverage, click here. For Japan Cuts 2013 coverage, click here.]
The Complex (Kuroyuri danchi | クロユリ団地)
Director: Hideo Nakata
Release Date: May 18, 2013 (Japan)
Asuka (Atsuko Maeda) has just moved into a new apartment complex with her family. We see her get up in the morning and go through her daily routine with mom, dad, and her little brother. There’s already something a bit off about the world of the movie, and it’s an intentional play with the imagery that’s quite clever. Nakata is already planting ideas of perception in this introductory scene. The extended steadycam shot dips in and out of Asuka’s point of view as she walks around the apartment. The camera is behind her and then creeps over her shoulder to assume her POV, and then she dips back into frame and the camera is behind her again.
Asuka wanders the apartment complex and meets a shy little boy playing on his own, and here the pace and the imagery present a different mood. If breakfast was about family and togetherness, this is a scene of isolation. When she plays with the little boy a bit later in the film, the kid reveals that one of his friends lives next door to Asuka. He simply calls him “Gramps.” Asuka’s already heard evidence of Gramps’s presence — an alarm clock that goes off before dawn, an eerie scraping noise that seeps through her wall.
Something’s not right. And of course, Asuka’s parents don’t seem to notice.
The Complex tends to be more successful when it plays with mood and tone than when it doles out its actual answers. Asuka inevitably goes to find out about Gramps, and in proper “dumb horror movie character fashion” she does it alone at night. It’s a great scene, though at times overpowered by the score. Still, here’s a well-staged ratcheting up of menace after a deliberately paced beginning to the film.
Why doesn’t she go at the day? Why doesn’t she go with her parents? Don’t ask. There’ll be plenty of other questions because the movie won’t really add up. At a certain point, there were reveals that didn’t pass the smell test either.
I think the reason The Complex never quite gelled for me is Asuka herself. The facts surrounding her character wind up undoing at lot of the story even if there are tantalizing possibilities about what may be going on. The title is a smart play on two meanings of “complex” — the apartment building and a complex in the psychological sense — and the film explores the effects of depression as well as its supernatural mythology. Madea’s okay as Asuka for the most part, though most of her acting involves four things: screaming, simpering, hysterics, and catatonia. It gets annoying after a while. Asuka winds up becoming a character with no agency of her own. She gets in the way of the story even though she is the story.
Asuka’s character doesn’t have a life outside of the film. She only exists within the runtime and the events of the movie. There’s no workable or logical past beyond that. It’s the moment you realize you’re dealing with a movie more interested in its plot twists, and yet The Complex wants to be a character-driven film.
In a lot of ways this was the same issue I had with Double Xposure, though I’m giving The Complex more slack. In Double Xposure I understood what that reveal was attempting to do, but that twist in the plot unveiled the clunky, faulty, poorly thought out machinery that was behind the film all along. It felt like a trick rather than a story, and a cheat. In The Complex, the things we learn about Asuka feel more like a draft or a partially realized idea. If you’re doing character-driven stories, it seems like the characters should be treated as centers from which the plot unfolds, not movable pieces that are a function of the plot.
By the midway point of the film it’s the concern of other characters that push Asuka toward discovery. There’s a kind cleaning crew guy who befriends her for some reason (just go with it) who is friends with a professional exorcist (ditto). When the exorcist meets with Asuka, she delivers one of the best lines of the film, “Places aren’t haunted, minds are.” That character then tries to perform an exorcism on the apartment. So much for that. I admit I found myself moved more by the schlocky finale than most of the half-baked psychodrama that came before. That’s when the movie seemed most comfortable.