Sunday 29 May 2011

Ju-On (2002)

JU-ON is a Japanese horror film that was directed by Takashi Shimizu in 2002.  It was one of several Japanese horror films that were enormously popular in Asia and enjoyed some success in the West.  The biggest were even afforded the dubious honour of being remade as English-language features.

JU-ON is translated as "grudge" which seems a rather trivial word to describe the film's central idea of the ripples of malevolence and hate which spread out across time from the unquiet spirits of those who have met a violent end.  It's a great conceit and one which is well served by the unusual structure Takashi employs to tell his story.  The film is divided into chapters, each with its own title, telling the story of a particular person who has come into contact with the grudge.  The chapters jump around in time and it's not immediately apparent how they relate to each other; but they do, so stick with it.

In my experience, Japanese horror (or J-horror) is distinct from modern Western (particularly American) horror films in that it is more concerned with subtle, insidious ghost stories rather than dreary tales about masked lunatics slicing up over-sexed teenagers.  Indeed, the victims in J-horror tend to be rather ordinary folk - social workers, policemen, housewives, school kids - which not only makes their interaction with the supernatural seem of greater significance but also makes their demise have greater impact.

Similarly, the J-horror doesn't rely on violence or gore to provide its shocks.  In fact there really isn't any violence in JU-ON.  Most of the horror comes from fleeting shots of the spectres or, worse still, the unnatural sounds which presage their appearance.  The violence which brought the grudge into being is referred to but never shown or even described; it's a cliche I know but leaving it ambiguous means the viewer has to imagine for himself what might have happened and usually one can dream up something far worse than the film-makers.

I like films that ask the viewer to fill in the gaps, that take risks with leaving things ambiguous.  You may have noticed from my reviews that one of my bugbears in films is dreadful expository sequences: not only do they slow the film down but, to me, they represent failure.  What I mean by that is a failure on the part of the director (or screenwriter) to tell the story effectively.  If you've got to the last twenty minutes of a film without really knowing what's going on (and I don't mean whodunnit) then something has gone wrong.  My other problem is that expository sequences represent an adherence to the prevailing belief, certainly in Hollywood, that a film has to make sense and tell a conventional story in a conventional way.  In my experience, the best films - the ones that stay in the memory longest - tend to be those which contain ambiguities or uncertainties, and thereby promote discussion.

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