Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2005, 115 mins., starring Miki Nakatani, Etsushi Toyokawa, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yumi Adachi, Sawa Suzuki, Ren Osugi and Haruhiko Kato.
Since its release in Japan back in 2005 to a queasy mixture of deafening silence and polite confusion on the part of reviewers and audiences, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Loft (aka Shi no otome) has been mired in somewhat of a mystery: for a start, an English subtitled version has been nigh on impossible to obtain until, in mid 2007, a single English subbed version was released in Malaysia, of all places. First Anchor Bay had rights to releasing it for their Dark Asia label, and subsequently nothing was ever heard of about it again. Then a Japanese-only DVD was released, but completely subtitle-free. Not even the usual Hong Kong distribution companies seem to have touched this title with a 20-foot disinfected bargepole. Hmmm.
I don't mind telling you, Loft was the first Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie I was feeling almost reluctant to watch. Despite being a hardcore KK fangirl, I had heard so many reports ranging from neutral indifference to passionate hatred that I actually came into this review expecting the worst. Yet I am extremely pleasantly surprised (nigh on delighted, actually) and my faith is 100% reaffirmed - because I truly do not see what's not to love about Loft.
To my mind it does everything you would expect a Kurosawa movie to do. Want weird, beautiful, memorable death imagery? You got it! Want eerie, brooding atmospherics? You got 'em! Skin-tinglingly gorgeous soundtrack? Yep, that too! A plot that crawls along at a pace that makes continental drift look as if it's in danger of getting a speeding ticket? (And at around two hours long, that's quite some feat!) Youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.... gooooooot....... iiiiiiiiit! Jesus, it even features cameos by Haruhiko Kato and Ren Osugi! What the bloody hell more do you want? ;-)
I daresay that the reason for much of the neutral reaction to Loft is due to the fact that almost exactly halfway through the film, the focus suddenly shifts: it's as though Kurosawa suddenly became bored of the whole mummy horror thing and diverted his attention to making a rather peculiar mix between a bizarre romantic piece and a murder mystery with horror elements. The change is almost completely incongruous, yet Kurosawa manages to blend both halves together in a fairly convincing way. Yet by the end, the reasoning becomes crystal clear, the focus shifts again and again until reality and unreality are hopelessly intertwined. It's a brave move on Kurosawa's part to change tack like that and derail one illusion after another, but ultimately it turns out to be what I would consider a genius move.
From a horror standpoint, is Loft actually scary, though? Welllll.... hmmm, a bit. It's creepy, it's macabre, it's hypnotic, it's definitely morbid. Like Charisma and Cure, the story draws you into its mazy, intricate internal logic and keeps you on edge throughout. But scary? Not unless you are of a very sensitive disposition, or are terrified of mummies and/or pretty girls in black dresses. Maybe that's also why there are mixed feelings about this movie: a horror film with only one big scare (never mind that it's a good one)? Why, shame on you Kurosawa-san! However, I perfectly understand the point of a horror film lacking scare factor, as my review of Acacia proves without a doubt ;-) Like Kairo, sometimes horror is all about the dark, mesmeric feeling a movie produces in your brain rather than how hard you bounce off the ceiling when something goes BANG! in your ear.
As ever, Kurosawa seems to find the most beautiful architecture for his movies: so much atmosphere is created by the buildings and locations, especially the "creepy old abandoned building" type which occurs so often in his work. The building used in Loft as the "haunted house" of the piece is absolutely stunning, and in Kurosawa's capable hands it becomes almost an icon, an object of fear in itself, let alone what mysteries it might hold. That said, he also demonstrates an amazing affinity with nature: he has a wonderful eye for images of wind waving through trees and grass and uses this to create very memorable shots (for instance, images of the wind snaking through the grass which were used to great effect in Kourei are almost duplicated here in Loft).
There are indeed nods to his previous films: some surreal car rides which echo both the beautiful, almost hallucinatory bus scenes in Kairo and, more tellingly, Koji Yakusho in the opening shots of Cure; a ghost scene which is redolent of a similar scene from Kourei; an night-time exhumation scene which eerily recalls Kourei again; and even the darkened, billowing plastic sheeting of Kairo makes a welcome comeback ;-) Don't think though that Loft is merely a medley of all Kurosawa's greatest hits: plot-wise it brings plenty of entirely new and original ideas to the table and unlike any of its predecessors, it features the most gorgeous visual echoes throughout which reveal the plot piece by tiny piece.
One thing, though: Miki Nakatani still can't act for toffee, you know ;-) She bleeds apathy in almost every scene, even when none is required. I would have wept actual tears of joy if Kurosawa had cast, say, Kumiko Aso in the role of the frustrated writer Reiko, but frankly it's only a minor niggle in the grand scheme of things. Etsushi Toyokawa is an exceptionally strong central presence, at once brooding, angry and mysterious as well as vulnerable, unstable and strangely doomed. And Ren Osugi and Haruhiko Kato are always welcome presences in any movie.
"Seeking eternal beauty
She fell into a swamp and lay there, preserved
After a thousand years
She awoke to put her curse on me
A terrifying cure, a curse for all eternity..."
Hatuna Reiko (Miki Nakatani) is a well-known writer and literary prize-winner, who, in time-honoured movie style, is suffering from a fairly serious episode of writer's block, which should always strike fear into the heart of any character: it didn't turn out great for James Caan in Misery, so it doesn't look too good for Reiko, either ;-) In addition to her problems, her stress is making her sick - she has a foul, persistent cough and keeps retching up something that looks not unlike an extra from Alien.
Half Reiko's problem is that she's working out of her normal serious intellectual field of expertise and trying to churn out a plebeian, Mills and Boon-type romance fiction - trying, and failing pretty miserably. Yet after a very unhelpful meeting with her editor, Kijima Koichi (Hidetoshi Nishijima), she starts hacking up stuff again - but this time, nothing comes out, which leads her to believe that what she was coughing up before was some kind of stress-related hallucination. As you do.
So, obviously never having seen Misery (or indeed Charisma, in which a burnt-out cop takes a holiday in the country and ends up with more than he bargained for), Reiko follows in James Caan's footsteps, and decides that a change of scenery might just help inspire her to write some mushy rubbish. After all, James Caan never saw it coming that he'd end up getting his foot chopped off with an axe by a loony stalker, so why should Reiko suspect Bad Things might be afoot (no pun intended)? Her editor finds her a lovely big house miles away from anywhere in a place called Ibaragi, right in the heart of the countryside, with another house just opposite, which appears to be abandoned. Strangely, the previous occupant of the house seems to have left an enormous pile of stuff behind - including a manuscript for, coincidentally, what looks like a romance novel. Weird, huh?
The house opposite, however, turns out to be inhabited after all: she catches sight that evening of its occupant, a mysterious man, getting out of his jeep. Yet when she sees him removing what appears to be a plastic-wrapped corpse out of the back seat, it seems unlikely she's going to want to pop round for coffee any time soon.
Creeped out and yet intrigued by the previous night's events, she investigates what might be going on over there, since the house is supposedly uninhabitable, and finds out via a book at the local library that the facility belongs to the archaeology department of Sagami University, and that last year they discovered a 1,000-year-old female mummy in the depths of the nearby Midori Swamp. The strange man from the previous night turns out to be Yoshioka Makoto (Etsushi Toyokawa), a Sagami University anthropologist - and somebody who seems, well, more than a little unhinged, to put it mildly.
As Reiko delves deeper into the mysterious mummy discovery - and why exactly a berserk anthropologist might have chosen to apparently kidnap it - she finds out that this is not the first time a mummy has been pulled out of the swamp. After her researcher finds an expert on the subject for her to talk to (Haruhiko Kato), he offers to show her film footage of a mummy which was rescued from the swamp - in 1920. It is an exceptionally creepy bit of film, too: a time-lapse sequence edited from three solid days' filming a mummy on a slab.
Another nugget of information Reiko discovers is that the reason why such mummies have been found in swamps, untouched by decomposition, is all down to that fact that some women in ancient times used to swallow huge quantities of mud to preserve their looks, which ended up killing most of them. This, of course, scares the crap out of Reiko - because she realises she had been hallucinating puking up a black, muddy, inexplicable substance before she came out to the countryside, as if it was some kind of physical premonition, a psychic harbinger of what was to come.
But what exactly is going on over in that creepy old building? Well, it turns out that Yoshioka has indeed kidnapped the mummy to prevent it being shown in an exhibition, and also to prevent it from being examined by some students - the reason behind this evidently being that he wants to protect the public at large from the strange, deeply unpleasant psychological effects that the mummy seems to be exerting upon everyone involved with it. When Reiko tries the door of the building one time and finds that it has been left unlocked, she encounters both the mummy and Yoshioka, and ends up running away in pure terror.
However, when Yoshioka comes to her front door a little later on, clearly himself petrified with fear, and asks Reiko to take the mummy for a little while to hide it from the students on their way to the training centre, she agrees, and hides the mummy in her loft for him - and invites nothing but death, horror and despair upon herself as a result.
In the final reckoning, for me at least, Loft is a true Kiyoshi Kurosawa horror masterpiece, right up there with Kairo and Cure. Its originality, vast intelligence, outstanding artistic beauty and hypnotic, quietly cerebral nature have made it one of the very best movies it has ever been my pleasure to see. That said, the pacing almost cripples it in places and sometimes you might think you'd like to poke Kurosawa a few times with a sharp stick to hurry him up a bit, but if you like his eerie, mind-bending, brooding pyschological horror style, your patience will be more than adequately rewarded. Two thirds sheer genius, one third total mind-melting insanity, Loft is a joy.
(Editorial note: we reviewed the Malaysian PMP Entertainment release, as at the time of writing (September 2007) it is the only release with English subtitles. However, we cannot recommend the disc as the film is cropped into fullscreen and the picture quality is atrocious, as you may be able to ascertain from the screenshots in this review.)
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 9/10
Acting: 9/10 for Etsushi Toyokawa, 0/10 for Miki Nakatani, and a bonus Ren Osugi point because, well, just because ;-)
Sex: 1/10 for a bit of a snog
Mummies: 1, weird-looking
Ghosts: 1, weird-looking
Miki Nakatani: 1... well, you get the idea ;-D
Loft: I want my mummy! (sorry folks, couldn't resist it ;-D)
Films in a Similar Style: Cure, Kairo, Kourei, Charisma, Acacia
*** Nigh on essential ***
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://www.mirovision.com/english/movie/feature_poster.asp?movie_sno=77 - official Mirovision Inc. (production company) site for Loft
http://www.cinemastrikesback.com/?p=1028 - a reasonable, somewhat neutral review at Cinema Strikes Back
http://twitchfilm.net/archives/003493.html - trailer and information at Twitch
http://www.cahiersducinema.com/article1003.html - a very perceptive article by Jean-Philippe Tessé at Cahiers du Cinéma
http://www.firecracker-media.com/reviews/international_reviews/i_review1202.shtml - Nick North seems a bit confused by Loft, but a well-written review nonetheless
http://www.dvdtalk.com/interviews/004275.html - a fascinating interview by DVD Talk's James Emanuel Shapiro with Kiyoshi Kurosawa, in which he states quite categorically of Loft and its lack of official releases , "... Apparently, I should have made a less unambiguous love story or a more ambiguous horror. We're struggling a bit to find the appropriate release." Insightful and revealing stuff, indeed.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loft_(film) - Loft at Wikipedia