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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Noroi: The Curse, or: Dam Demons

In a month all about expanding our film horizons on the Collab, we watched…a bunch of horror. We did at least focus on watching horror from Japan & Korea, countries well-versed in making chilling classics in the genre. This week’s pick is a horrifying true story…of made-up events. That REALLY happened.

The Film:

Noroi: The Curse

The Premise:

While making a documentary about his latest investigation, a paranormal researcher vanishes under suspicious circumstances.

The Ramble:

Be cautioned, all who decide to watch this film: it has been deemed too disturbing for the general public to view. So we are warned, anyway. Our film really commits to its setup as a found footage documentary, never once dropping the pretense.

Kobayashi, a middle-aged Japanese man, faces the camera as he stands on an empty neighborhood street. He holds a hand-drawn map and wears a frustrated expression as he says "This isn't it."

We follow Kobayashi, a researcher who has been investigating paranormal activity for decades through the medium of documentary film-making. His (presumably) last project has ended on a rather dark note; ultimately, his wife died in a mysterious fire in the family home, and Kobayashi himself has been missing since. Not to worry–this is all relatively low spoiler-y, as all of this knowledge drops within the first 10 minutes or so of our film.

Before things all went horribly wrong, Kobayashi was busy being a one-man X-Files stop shop, investigating a woman’s report that she and her young son hear the sounds of crying babies haunting their home. Genuinely awful. Soon after, the neighbor and her daughter die in a suspicious car accident.

Meanwhile, Kobayashi is intrigued by the disappearance of Kana, a girl with psychic abilities, which he observes on…some sort of psychic reality competition? I didn’t 100% understand what was happening in this section honestly, and not because psychic powers were needed to digest it. Probably.

Two of the makers of a television show stand over the desk of a young student, Kana. She is seated, looking hesitant as a microphone is held to her face.

Before her disappearance, tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist Hori visited Kana. Naturally, he has a theory about her absence: she was taken by ectoplasmic worms. The need to straightfacedly respond to statements like this has cut my budding career as a documentary filmmaker tragically short.

To add yet another red thread to the already convoluted investigation board, actress Marika begins behaving oddly after visiting a supposedly haunted shrine and having a minor (major) freakout. Concerned that she’s exhibiting strange behavior at night, Marika agrees to Kobayashi setting up a camera to film her activities. This leads to a major clue when Marika is recorded saying the word “Kagutaba,” which turns out to be a demon imprisoned beneath a village. Every year, the villagers would perform a ritual to appease the demon…that is, until the village was destroyed to make way for the construction of a dam. All of this thrilling to the local historian who only ever gets asked to scan obituaries so people can do their boring genealogy research.

Kobayashi talks to a local historian, an older man with white hair and glasses. They are looking at old documents, and the historian says "They developed a type of sorcery called 'Shimokage's Way.'"

This comes full circle when Kobayashi suspects one of the people he’s already encountered is none other than the daughter of the priest who performed the last appeasement ritual, seemingly becoming possessed by the demon. And yes–things get even more convoluted from here on out, with the bonus of creepy children, fetus embryos, and some seriously shaky camera work. But, you know, intentionally shaky camera work.

The Rating:

3/5 Pink Panther Heads

Supposedly people either think this is the scariest film ever made or boring AF. Guess which camp I fall into. Maybe because we’re watching this after found footage becoming such a trope in horror films, or because I’m tired and my uncultured American eyes didn’t feel like reading subtitles. Whatever the reason, I didn’t get the feeling of dread the film is clearly creating as it builds to events that unfold only in the last 30 minutes or so. I found some of the found footage techniques to be a bit silly and melodramatic, to be honest.

What I do find interesting about this one is that it does capture the research and investigation process in a way that feels organic. At first, the pieces don’t seem to fit together at all as Kobayashi follows whatever leads he can–and it’s not until it’s too late that he understands what’s happening. There are some genuinely chilling scenes and revelations, brought to life by the cast and the jarring film techniques.

When the film works, it’s largely because I enjoy the characters of Marika and Hori so much. Marika is a caring person determined to find out the truth of what’s happening to her; it’s impossible not to hope she will succeed, although the tone of the film suggests otherwise. Hori, our tinfoil hat conspiracy theorist, is a character who would annoy me in reality (as conspiracy theorists frequently do) but who is fun onscreen, giving us just a dash of quirkiness needed to liven things up.

I can appreciate the approach, but I wasn’t particularly feeling this one.

Would my blog wife steal creepy fetus embryos for this one or burn it all down? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

A Tale of Two Sisters, or: I Saw Something Nasty in the Wardrobe

We could pretend this month is about exploring a lot of different film genres…and it still could be. However, since there are so many excellent Korean horror films (and television) in the world, it seems a shame not to highlight one or two on the Collab. As with so many other months of this year, horror seems to be the only thing that makes sense at the moment.

The Film:

A Tale of Two Sisters

The Premise:

Though happily reunited, sisters returning to their family home must contend with their stepmother’s schemes and the feeling that something supernatural is roaming the halls at night…

The Ramble:

After a stay in a psychiatric hospital for murky reasons, young Su-mi is happy to be reunited with her sister Su-yeon in the family’s beautiful but extremely Gothic estate in the country. Even if the cost of the girls’ return home is time spent with their stepmother, the icy Eun-joo.

Su-mi, a teenager in a dress and bucket hat, lies on the edge of a short pier in a pond, feet dangling in the water. Her sister Su-yeon sits on the edge of the pier, looking up towards the sun.

Though Su-yeon is transparently terrified of their stepmother, Su-mi is watching out for her timid sister, calling out all kinds of problematic gaslight behavior. Eun-joo herself seems rather troubled as she is constantly taking medication and feeling like an outsider in the home she shares with the girls’ father Moo-hyeon.

The sisters aren’t home for long at all before creepy happenings begin to unfold. Su-yeon is terrified when she notices a presence in her room at night that could be her stepmother or a ghostly figure. While Su-mi comforts her and promises to look out for her little sister, both siblings are fairly on edge.

Su-mi lies in her bed with arms wrapped around Su-yeon, comforting her little sister.

A major source of tension in the household is Eun-joo’s role as caretaker for the girls’ mother when she was terminally ill; during her time with the family, Eun-joo began having an affair with Moo-hyeon. Seeing their stepmother’s face everywhere in old photos, the girls tear her image away and blot out her face with ink.

A seated Eun-joo, a woman wearing a high-collared shirt and a neat bob, looks tensely across the table, holding a teapot mid-pour. She is making eye contact with Su-mi, who stands looking down angrily at the woman.

After finding bruises on Su-yeon’s arms, Su-mi angrily confronts their stepmother. The two get into a fight, escalated by the gruesome murder of Eun-joo’s pet bird. Eun-joo goes so far as to lock Su-yeon in a wardrobe until she receives a satisfactory apology, and things get cranked up to 11 fairly quickly from there. Shocking revelation follows shocking revelation, and you know the battle of wills between Eun-joo and Su-mi can only end with a gruesome outcome.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I’m never going to regret watching a film that uses the gorgeous but empty manor house as a focal point, drawing attention to literal and figurative haunted family dynamics. The beautiful vintage feel of the house is perfect for the disturbing dark fairy tale we’re told, from the wicked stepmother to mysterious doors and drawers that shouldn’t be opened. Beyond the characters themselves, the house has secrets, and they work to create an ominous tone in the film.

That being said, there are some pacing issues, and the last quarter or so of the film is incredibly confusing. In this section of the story, the filmmakers seem more concerned with creating twist after twist to make the finale extremely dramatic. I don’t love this technique, and rather than a satisfying revelation, the film’s conclusion is a bit of a letdown as there’s too much going on.

Visually, though, I love this film and its commitment to telling a dark, Gothic ghost story where the mere mortals are significantly scarier than anything else that may lurk in the darkness.

Would my blog wife take some charming family photos with this one or lock it in a wardrobe? Find out in her review!

Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Pulse, or: Connection Error

CW: suicide

I’m not sure what November is for this year beyond crossing off subtitled films from the watchlist, with a special focus on Japan and Korea. Though, like most rules on the Blog Collab, this one feels destined to be broken. If, coincidentally, we happen to be extending Horror Month at the same time, so be it.

The Film:

Pulse (2001)

The Premise:

Following the discovery of a mysterious disk, a young woman in Tokyo tries to understand the strange behavior and disappearances of those around her.

The Ramble:

When she doesn’t hear from coworker Taguchi for over a week, caring Michi begins to worry. Taguchi has been working on a disk for…work reasons? You’ll appreciate my confusion as their employer is a house plant shop, though things like providing detail and making sense aren’t necessarily the top priorities of this film.

Michi, a young woman in a rooftop plant store, leans against a table as she talks to her seated coworker, another young woman.

After Michi finds Taguchi at home in his apartment, she breathes a small sight of relief, only to watch in horror as her coworker hangs himself abruptly. Apparently the disk is extremely important, as Michi, despite her trauma, makes sure coworker Yabe receives it. As they investigate the disk’s contents with their fellow plant shop employee Junco, something doesn’t seem right, and the images are downright creepy and confusing.

Meanwhile, computer science student Ryosuke is using a disk to install the internet, but encounters some unexpected errors. As part of the install experience, Ryosuke sees footage of ghostly figures who seem to watch him from the other side of the screen. Ostensibly asking for a friend, he asks grad student Harue how one would theoretically capture images on a computer that may be haunted. Armed with his newly acquired knowledge of the print screen key, Ryosuke prepares to return to the cyber world.

Ryosuke, a young man with shaggy hair, sits cross-legged on a bed. He has a desk and computer pulled up to the side of the bed, and he looks in confusion at the blank computer screen.

Around the same time, Yabe receives a call from a robotic voice asking for help, then disappears. When he returns to work, Yabe is acting all kinds of odd, insisting that he’s seen a horrible face. Michi tries to help her friend despite some dissuasion from her boss, but all she manages to do is learn that Yabe has gone into the forbidden room…an experience he does not recommend.

Harue, a young woman browsing the shelves in an academic library, stands facing away from Ryosuke, who is leaning against the shelves reading.

As Michi encounters increasingly harrowing events, Ryosuke works with Harue to investigate her theory that ghosts cross back to our realm through technology. Those who know attempt to seal off haunted portals with red tape, but these barriers can easily be overcome. It seems Michi and Ryosuke’s paths must eventually cross, but not before quite a lot of ghostly encounters, existential crises, and reflections on the futility of seeking connection. You know…your typical horror fare.

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

There are a lot of elements of this film that don’t make much sense to me, but I will say it’s highly effective in terms of creep factor. Things can shift quite abruptly from an ominous feeling of dread to terrifying scenes. Credit to whoever decided blocking out sound except for an awful whisper was the way to go in a few of the film’s scenes, as these really get under my skin.

I do appreciate that the film has a message here, focusing on themes that perceptively relate to technology and isolation, as well as the haunted history of Japan in WWII. In the film, characters who become victims of the ghostly figures disappear entirely, only their shadows remaining. To me, these themes are linked, as the erasure of the past is a necessary consequence of technology taking control of the future and separating people from each other and their shared experiences.

That being said, at certain points I lost the thread. The film is concerned with ideas, which makes it right at home on the Collab. However, the commitment to theme over plot detail is at times a drawback, and the last half hour or so feels a bit rushed and disjointed to me. It takes quite a long time for the two distinct story lines to merge, and this isn’t the most effective approach in my opinion. Though it’s not really the point of our story, I don’t think we get a satisfactory explanation for why any of the events unfold as they do, or how the ghostly figures are connected to the characters’ deaths. Are we meant to accept that ghosts are there to freak people out and make them think of death…because they’re ghosts?

At the end of the day, I will applaud this one for being extremely unsettling and creepy–exactly as a ghost story should be.

Would my blog wife install this one on her early 2000s computer or smash the disk into tiny pieces? Read her review to find out!