Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Haze (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005)

One word you will occasionally hear when someone describes a movie is "claustrophobic". Sometimes this can refer to action that is contained to few characters in unsettlingly intimate living quarters (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to cite a recently seen example), other times it can obviously mean when a character is trapped in a tiny space, unable to move (scenes in Spoorloos, Kill Bill 2 etc.). And then you have a movie like Haze, which so fully embodies the term and so effectively paints the essence of claustrophobia in all its frozen terror and anxiety-ridden glory, that the horrors seep through the screen and fully into the psyche of the viewer to such effect as to make one feel worthy of an Olympic medal for having simply endured it.

The movie opens up thrusting the viewer immediately into the muck. Our unnamed protagonist (played by director Tsukamoto) awakens in darkness. Now whereas most movies in a scene like this would give our hero something, a lighter or match, to slightly illuminate the screen and provide something of a visual context for both the character and viewer, Haze is satisfied with a momentary patch of light, giving us a brief glimpse at our guys wide, terror-filled eyes before plunging him back into a world of complete darkness, his heavy panting and uneasy sounds saying more than any words could. He feels his way around the narrow corridors of this dark and mysterious place with his limbs as best he can, stumbling into barbed wire and other little traps, inadvertently setting himself up in some extremely cringe-worthy situations (the worst involving teeth and pipes) as he searches for anything at all that will make sense out of the predicament he has found himself in.

If it is not a wholly original concept, the execution is anything but stale. Tsukamoto's digital photography is unrelenting. The first half of the movie (which only runs about 45 minutes total), is primarily filmed in grainy, visceral closeups in near complete darkness. You can never really be sure exactly what you are looking at at any given time. It is disconcerting for sure and frequently frustrating, but make no mistake, Tsukamoto knows exactly what he's doing and his unwillingness to give the audience any piece of tiny freedom or context that our hero is not given feels fresh and admirable in a very committed, mind warping way. To give away much more of the "plot" would be a crime, but I will say that our hero finds that he is not the only person trapped in this place, and efforts to find out exactly what is going on and why give the second half of Haze its shape and focus.

Shinya Tsukamoto is probably best known for his cult series of Tetsuo films, none of which have been seen by me (I am anxious to see them now). If Haze is any indication at all, Tsukamoto has that distinct ability to craft not only a movie (a very good one at that) but an experience entirely unto itself. The most remarkable thing about Haze is that as immediate and intense, as in your face and unyielding as this material is, it still finds the perfect blend of poignancy and meditation on which to end, and it doesn't for even a second feel manipulative in the least. In fact, for all of the darkness and misery experienced, for all of the pain and anxiety felt, it probably shouldn't have ended any other way.

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