Hideo Nakata asks for your patience in each frame of “Dark Water”. “Give me time,” he might say. “In order for you to be jolted or uneasy, these characters must be fully laid out, even if it takes awhile.” Even with what to us seems like an easygoing 101 minute running time, turns into an intense journey at the hands of Nakata and the screenplay by him and Yoshihiro Nakamura. He is not looking to get us right at the outset. He wants us to absorb, to feel a location, and to understand the plight of the characters before he goes any further.
We are given Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), a wife and mother going through a messy divorce which also hinges upon her custody of her daughter, Ikuko (Rio Kanno). The father wants Ikuko, and the bureaucratic process looks down upon Yoshimi, considering whether she’s actually able to take her of her daughter. It’s a hard time for both mother and daughter, and the trek begins not only to look for a new place to live, but also a new job and getting Ikuko into a new school, one that prides itself on letting kids be individuals. They find the new digs in an uncomfortable apartment building. It has constantly been raining, and the rundown, dingy building looks even more rundown with every drop. Yoshimi takes the apartment offered and she and Ikuko move on right away, as a problem looms from the floor above. Water is dripping down. A small water stain at first, but it grows steadily. What’s up there? Who is up there? For that matter, is there anything really up there?
Ikuko settles into her new school, though everyday, Yoshimi is late in picking her up. Through flashbacks, it wasn’t uncommon for Yoshimi either. She sat the same way Ikuko sits, waiting for her mother to show up. In this way, Nakata puts the mind into motion, questioning whether Ikuko may follow the same path. Yoshimi’s mother was divorced and now Yoshimi is too. It’s not so much a concern as to whether Ikuko will be the same way; just by her face, we know that the cycle will break with her. Rather, it’s about how Ikuko faces all this. She’s just as crucial to the story as Yoshimi, and probably affected by the divorce even moreso. There are two moments that define this. Yet again, Yoshimi fails to pick her up, occupied with making good on her job, but suddenly realizes that she’s forgotten once again. When she does arrive, Ikuko is with her father, going home with him. Yoshimi tries to pull Ikudo away from her father, but she doesn’t budge the first time and it goes two ways. First, she believes in some small part that she serves as a link between her mother and father, trying to bring them together again. Secondly, it might also mean that she sees her father as the more stable and solid of her parents. She needs someone there. She’s a kid, after all. The second moment happens when she and Yoshimi are walking home after the encounter and Ikudo looks forlornly at a family playing with fireworks. Yoshimi mistakenly believes that Ikudo is looking at the fireworks and wants some. Ikudo wants a family again.
The real meat by which this story evolves is where Yoshimi finds out more about who lived upstairs. Nothing doing with the dripping water problem, which gets considerably worse, but a child that once lived up there, an abandoned child. Missing posters still hang on poles, aging. The girl’s mother had upped and abandoned her a year before Yoshimi and Ikudo arrived and Yoshimi sees something in this girl, so much so that the girl’s ghost travels around the apartment building, on the roof and the same floor where she once lived. Yoshimi may believe she’s taking care of Ikudo as best she can, but she’s really not. Little by little, she becomes more obsessed with the ghost, because the story mirrors her own. Ikudo slowly slips out of her mind.
Nakata retains the dreaded sense of atmosphere he produced in “Ringu”, though here, it’s more thoughtful, meditative of where these two are, and what could be lying in wait for them. The effects are as you’d expect from Nakata, water everywhere and in an unsettling hide-and-seek sequence involving Ikudo, feet slowly approach where she’s hiding, as water seeps from them. However, Nakata reaches too far for closure as an epilogue proves.
Nakata is smart in remaining detached from the beginning. He allows handheld camera movement only when Ikudo is skipping across the roof area of the apartment building, reflecting the energy of a child. Mostly, it’s a fixed-angle where the characters act in front of it or walk toward the camera or away from it. He wants us to get involved, but not too involved right away. His cinematographer, Junichiro Hayashi and production designer Katsumi Nakazawa are very nearly co-directors as they are deeply instrumental in producing a world of uneasy calm, where we can never be sure where the next fright will be and that’s exactly how horror films of today should run. Incidentally, “Dark Water” has been Americanized by Walter Salles, and starring Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly, Camryn Manheim, Pete Postlethwaite, Shelley Duvall, and Tim Roth. While it’s assured that this new one will not be the same as Nakata’s, there is some hope. Salles has a good eye for atmosphere in his Brazil. Screenwriter Rafael Yglesias of “Fearless” and “Death and the Maiden” gives weight to strong characters. And the cast speaks worlds enough, so long as the film has been left alone to develop on its own. Studio interference is dangerous enough, and remakes of foreign films are an extremely delicate balancing act. Already the source material has established a following enough, certain aspects that make it as celebrated as it is. Hopefully Salles will not have seen it best to try to mimic what makes “Dark Water” the dreadfest that it is, the ways in which we become anxious while watching it. And through “Dark Water”, Nakata keeps up a repertoire that is securely his.