Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Starring Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki and Anna Nakagawa.
Detective Takabe is perplexed by a series of grisly murders in which the perpetrators claim to have no memory of the crime. While seemingly random and unrelated, the murders all share one common trait, the carving of the letter ‘X’ into the victims’ necks and an encounter with a mysterious amnesiac.
When Hollywood horror was in a sad state, Japan emerged as a formidable force in cinematic terror, creating fascinating and frightening films made with a uniquely Japanese touch that favoured atmosphere and slow creeping dread over loud clattering jump scares. A film often regarded, along with The Ring and Audition as one of the best the Japanese horror (or J-Horror) sub-genre is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure.
The film is presented in a cold, almost clinical approach full of extended takes that can often last up to several minutes, with the camera barely moving and only changing angle occasionally during the many long dialogue scenes. This creates an uneasy feeling in the viewers, toying with your expectations as to what could happen, with the quiet stillness often ratcheting up the anxiety, particularly when character’s minds start to become twisted by the sinister Mamiya. This approach gives the film a quietly creepy atmosphere that digs under your skin with the noticeable lack of music (aside from an unnervingly upbeat opening theme) only adding to what is an already queasy experience.
The clinical direction extends to the depiction of violence that often comes as a shock after long periods of peace. Take one murder, for instance, where a policeman attends to his regular duties before calmly drawing his gun and shooting his colleague in the head. It’s a brutal and shocking scene comes after a long quiet period that has lulled the viewer into a false sense of calm before jolting us awake. It’s an approach that keeps you on your toes as we anxiously await the next outburst of bloodshed.
Perhaps the best quality that Cure has going for it is it’s, on paper, simple story that hides something far more complex. Cure’s plot is very akin to a great mystery novel, the myriad of twists turns and surprises never ceasing to confuse and engross. Our sanity being tested as we become increasingly unsure as to what is real, a dream or a vivid hallucination. The story is loaded with complex themes regarding memory, sanity and perhaps, in my view, most distinctly, identity. Take the repeated asking of the question “Who are you?” and how it seems to drive some characters to react with anger, confusion and fear.
The mystery around Mamiya is a powerful draw, with the character’s mysterious nature and perpetually sinister presence a source of many questions. Who is he? Where did he come from? How can he do what he can do?. While the film offers answers to these questions, suggesting he is someone who, through exhaustive study, cracked the human mind and has gained control over it, there is still enough ambiguity about his powers to make this unassuming oddball a surprisingly terrifying villain. The guy doesn’t need a knife to kill someone, he can make someone else do it through mere suggestion.
The central performances are strong, particularly from Koji Yakusho and Masato Hagiwara as Takabe and Mamiya respectively. Detective Takabe makes for a sympathetic protagonist, emotionally repressed and barely keeping his mind in check to cope with the darkness of his job while struggling with a mentally ill wife. Yakusho excels at bringing the character to life, wearing the mental and physical exhaustion on his tired, weary face, his anger and frustration building to the point of explosive outbursts of rage and anguish.
Hagiwara though is the real star on show as the amnesiac yet immensely dangerous Mamiya. Always appearing lost and confused, Mamiya might not seem like the most fearsome horror foe, however, it is this harmless appearance proves to be his greatest asset. Hiding a devious and sinister psychopath possessing an almost supernatural ability at manipulation. Hagiwara is fantastic in the role, his constant repetition and cryptic questions coupled with his cold and hypnotic delivery lending his words more power and danger than any weapon.
Cure is a film that is light on scares and overt horror with it being far heavier on atmosphere. The story is a slow burner, moving along at a butt-numbing pace that, at times, can make it rather tiresome in its initial half-hour. And don’t expect everything to be fully explained by the time the credits roll either. The film ends on a cryptic note that leaves more questions than it answers and this is bound to frustrate viewers hoping for an easy resolution. It’s an approach that I am torn on, appreciating the film for not spoon-feeding me an easy to digest mystery, although, I wouldn’t mind a few spoon fulls of something a tad easier to wrap my head around.
The queasy atmosphere, strong performances and impeccable direction ensures that Cure is an engaging mystery that keeps you wondering what the hell it’s all about, even if its slow pace and sometimes confusing approach is likely to leave you bewildered and possibly bored. Check it out if you’re curious, but be patient with it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★