Essentials #5: CURE (1997)

Horror. Hypnotism. Urban Terrorism. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s enigmatic masterpiece set in industrial Tokyo is quite possibly, the creepiest film I have ever seen.

But first, an excerpt from a review by another master filmmaker, Martin Scorsese:

“There are startling images and moments in this picture that will haunt you for a long time to come, and I suppose I should say that it’s not for the faint of heart. But be brave, because it’s worth it. Kurosawa is a major filmmaker.” (From Scorsese’s review of CURE)

Ghosts, demons, or the supernatural do not scare me. Why? I don’t believe in them. People exits. Hence, people scare me. The amount of pain humans can inflict on one another is truly terrifying. This is the problem in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE.

MAMIYA: Who are you?

Set in contemporary Tokyo, a gruesome wave of killings terrorize the densely-populated city with the same modus operandi: every victim is brutally murdered and trademarked with an ‘X’ carved into their chest. The strange thing is: the killers are always random civilians and when apprehended, he or she has no recollection of performing the actual murder. The only connection between each case appears to be their interactions with a man who has some kind of hypnotic abilities that “unlocks” normal people to murder.

This movie is creepy to the tenth degree! Even as an adult who’s seen his share of horror movies, I still find myself unsettled by Kurosawa’s cerebral style (no relation to the great Akira). He has this unique way of telling a story without explicitly telling the audience what is going to happen next; as a result each scene feels like a fresh, new cinematic language.

For example, in a typical Western film, where a killer chases someone in the hallway, we’ll get spooky music, jump-scare audio hits, and frenetic editing. These are shots and edits that most audiences are familiar with and subconsciously expect to see — a reaction, an explanatory cut, b-roll, etc. —in CURE, Kurosawa will intentionally omit these standard vocabulary shots. Sometimes entire scenes will play out in one, moving master shot (i.e. when Takabe interrogates the policeman who kills his partner). In a genre like horror where editing and sound can be the heart of a sequence, an unbroken master leaves the viewer puzzled and uneasy because we are not getting visual answers we are expecting, which has a strange and unsettling effect to the audience. Also, Kurosawa doesn’t sexualize his violence like US movies, whereas violence is spectacle. Kurosawa will film a woman’s head getting bashed in with the same importance as someone pouring a glass of milk, making it more disturbing and raw.

The other brilliant [and frustrating] thing about this movie is how it flows through its narrative by posing unanswered questions, then providing unquestioned answers. This tactic seems like a screenwriting paradox since writers are often taught to write open questions at the beginning and then answer them as the script goes on, but for reasons I cannot explain, it works in this movie. We are baffled, yet we are given enough layers of information in our baffled state to follow the story.

On a technical scale, it’s an absolute joy to watch Kurosawa execute horror; he has such a mastery over the psychological effects of composition — framing, editing, and sound — that you will subconsciously feel your heart beat faster as the movie unfolds. You may not notice it, but in the audio track, there’s a deep humming in the background which adds a sense of dread and eerieness to each scene. There’s also something about the bland look of low-budget 90s films that’s so surreal and eerie, we feel like we are in a different universe. Those are the main keys to horror: atmosphere and sound. If you got those two down, you’re well on your way to creating a chilling experience.

I’m always intrigued by the interesting editing choices made here. Like I briefly mentioned, Kurosawa employs narrative edits that I haven’t seen before such as omitting the reaction shots and cross-cutting between certain scenes without explanation. I still go back to this movie once a year and study it because of its originality, technical mastery, and the fact that it’s a brilliant example of atmosphere and storytelling without excessive exposition.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is famously known for making art/horror films (PULSE, RETRIBUTION) that act as social allegories for Japan as well as human nature. I’ve seen and can recommend all the movies I’ve seen of his (comment if you’d like recommendations); unfortunately, Kurosawa is more well known in Japan and will probably never find a solid Western audience. His films are too meticulously paced and ambiguous for those wanting more ham-handed filmmaking where everything is answered and highlighted for the viewer. Subtlety is the key for Kurosawa. He wants his viewers to think about each scene as opposed to merely receiving information about them, which can make his films scrape the edges of your brain. However, they are never boring.

The title of the film is called CURE — a cure from what, exactly? Social repression? Personal identity? I’m not exactly sure, but this film is endlessly fascinating. On the surface, it’s a standard detective/serial killer story, but dig deeper, and you will realize there are more philosophical and sociological facets at hand. I still find myself haunted by this film. Perhaps, it may have hypnotized me.

Other Highlights:

  • Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho is fantastic as the hard-boiled cop stock character. He’s masculine, yet not afraid to reveal his vulnerability. Especially during scenes with his mentally ill wife (who may or may have something to do with the overall theme). Therein lies his weakness and we are drawn closer to him as he tries to solve the case. He’s the perfect protagonist to face the malevolence here since he’s the only character in the film able to express himself outwardly.
  • I love the look of this movie. It has a 90s low budget, noir feel to it, yet it’s beautifully shot and perfectly executed in blocking. A good example is when Takabe first meets Mamiya. As well as the other scenes where they go head to head.
  • Abandoned buildings are a staple of Kurosawa’s movies and in the final sequence, I could not commend the set design any further for being such a key element. This is further proof filmmaking is such a collaborative form for all the arts.
  • I was heavily influenced by Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work in my film, The Caterpillar Trail (2015)

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

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Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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