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Review by Peter Vidito
August 3-16 at the Screening Room

The bodies pile up, the gumshoe falls apart, the gap between hunter and hunted narrows...director Kiyoshi Kurosawa gathers up all these hallmarks of the contemporary psychological thriller and runs them through a somnambulistic and elliptical stylistic mill. Playing in the same shadowy corners of the Id seen recently in hits like Seven and Silence of the Lambs, 1997's Cure presents a bleak passion play between a Nietzchean badass and an agent dispatched by the society that seeks to contain him. As with those two blockbusters, Kurosawa (no relation to cinematic master Akira Kurosawa) has created a disturbing meditation on banal evil, a psychodrama hinged on a superman who wraps up his unfettered will in ribbons of florid aesthetics and ontology and bestows them onto an unsuspecting world. Cure is singular, however, in that it subverts the psycho-thriller genre itself by removing its key element, the monster, and replacing it instead with a mirror. Kurosawa, either an impassioned humanist or a raging misanthrope, holds us regular Joes accountable for the unspeakable mayhem unfolding before our eyes. But more on that in a second.

Corpses are popping up throughout Tokyo -- each victim mutilated the same ghastly way -- but perps are found and confessions extracted in each case. Detective Takabe, played by the stellar Gary Cooper-ish Koji Yakusho (The Eel, Eureka), is baffled by the parallels: Why would a nondescript salaryman decide to slash an enormous "X" in a prostitute from jugular to sternum? And how is that incident connected to the gentle schoolteacher who independently repeated the act on his own wife a few days later? Not a serial killer...perhaps...copycatting? The mystery is on! Acting on a hunch with the help of his clinical psychologist colleague, Takabe eventually uncovers a link: Mamiya, a wandering amnesiac who can be placed near each murder site. With some old fashioned deduction (and, perhaps, just a smidgen of deus ex machina), Takabe stumbles upon a terrible realization; driven insane from an obsession with 19th-century mystic Anton Mesmer's theories of autosuggestion, Mamiya has embarked on a personal crusade to unleash mankind's darkest desires onto itself, apparently for no other reason than to "turn what is inside, outside."

Mamiya is a wraithlike, self-abnegated shell of a man who, like Leonard in the similarly disorienting neo-noir Memento, not only fails to recall his past and identity ("The inside of me is empty") but even the slightest piece of temporal linearity. He is a vagrant-magus who roams Tokyo's lonely recesses in a stupor, gently querying each he encounters with a simple request for self-definition ("Who are you?") which invariably reveals nothing more than a muddled individual unable to provide him (and themselves) with a satisfactory answer. With disarming charisma and preternatural understanding, Mamiya ingratiates himself to his prey, mesmerizes them and then proceeds to leach out gallons of their deepest emotional muck. Since the identity of the film's "murderer" is quickly revealed to Takabe, the film becomes more of a howdunit than whodunit: Instead of offering the audience the intellectual thrill of solving the puzzle, Kurosawa uses the classic Hitchcock ruse of revealing the source of mayhem early on in the game. We know who is responsible and (ostensibly) why, so the experience of watching Cure is more an engrossing piece of clinical study rather than thrills-a-minute rollercoaster ride.

Film theory types will tell you that serial killer/horror flicks usually work by setting us up with some kind of monstrous other -- a Freddy Krueger, for instance -- which is in turn defeated by an audience-identified hero; removal of the threat provides satisfaction and release by confirming the innate humanity of the hero and, thus, ourselves. Cure decimates this generic approach, however, because Mamiya isn't a murderer at all but rather a neutral figure who uses a warped psychoanalysis to bring out the hidden evil in others; he innocuously enters into a conversation with a patsy and, with a few suggestive prods, lets their own subconscious do all the heavy lifting. While his clean, Lecter-esque insanity is undeniable, Mamiya himself does no killing, nor does he compel his prey with any direct (or even indirect) order to do so. Instead of giving us a strawman ogre, ready to be knocked down by reason and rule of law, Cure has at its center a cipher, a wandering shaman who simply uses Freud's own "talking cure" to unlock the occult desires and phobias of regular folks, people just like you and me. Starting from that premise, the film becomes increasingly complex and engaging as Takabe, distracted by his own wife slowly succumbing to mental illness, meshes with Mamiya and becomes a self-aware reflection of the sickness that surrounds everything.

But this is a thriller, dammit; whom are we to root against? If Mamiya is merely an enigma who serves to initiate change, where is the bad guy who gets to receive all of our delicious animosity? Even the murderers themselves are each shown to be empathetic, foibled characters who have acted in a fit of madness, not evil sadism; the elementary school teacher, completely devastated after realizing his crime, remarks under questioning that gutting his wife seemed like the most natural thing in the world to do. Cure's terrifying theme is that we have nothing but our own collective subconscious -- the long-repressed fantasy world buried deep beneath cultural roles, relationships and institutions -- to blame for the horrors of this world. There is no external bogeyman to serve as scapegoat, because the monster is us: a loving husband, an educated physician, a well-meaning civil servant.
As in Terry Gilliam's similarly claustrophobic Brazil, Cure creates a vision of a ground-down society built exclusively out of decaying institutions (squalid hospitals and police stations), dark recesses (flickering bulbs and dim holding cells) and broken industry (rattling washing machines and chthonic foundries). The blur of fantasy and reality becomes increasingly smeared as the movie progresses, culminating with one of the most ambiguous (and unsettling) closers in recent memory, an image that lingers on as the question mark to punctuate an already cryptic story. Emphasizing atmosphere, suggestion and mood without sacrificing concrete plot development, Cure positively exudes eerieness by means of its nonexistent score, minimal audio (save the occasional burst of Lynchian industrial background noise), realistic lighting and long static shots which allow stark horror -- and there's plenty of it -- to unfold slowly. Disturbing and disorienting images pop up regularly, and the occasional use of quick disassociative edits impart an overwhelming feeling throughout the film of reality and fantasy melting into one another, the vanishing point of the liminal mind ebbing far away from shore.

Echoing the brutal Weekend by acknowledged influence Jean-Luc Godard, Kiyoshi Kurosawa has created a pre-millennial dystopia that remains deliberately detached and hallucinatory. An allegory of traditional cultural repression, a comment on the loss of identity in a postmodern world or a warning against a rising tide of violence in Japanese society (or perhaps all three), Cure is a chilling and unforgettable vision of psychic apocalypse.

Cure will be shown August 3-16 at The Screening Room


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