Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has written and directed 14 genre movies since 1983. Those I’ve seen have been deftly made and unsettling in affect, with a definite metaphysical backbeat. In his ecological thriller, Charisma, the master criminal is a malignant tree. In the melancholy slapstick License to Live, a boy awakens from a 10-year coma to find his family dispersed; attempting to realize the dreams of his 14-year-old self, he winds up wondering if he had in fact ever existed. License to Live was included in the 1999 New York Film Festival, but Cure (1997), opening at the Screening Room this Friday, is the first Kurosawa film to get a U.S. release.
Typically low-key, albeit one of the moodiest, most brilliantly sustained occult chillers since Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim, Cure begins “once upon a time” with a fairy tale being recounted in a clean, well-lit mental-hospital dayroom. The sequence is never fully explained, but it gives the film an edge of menace even before a prostitute is clubbed to death in a love hotel, her corpse left bizarrely mutilated and the perpetrator found cowering naked in an air shaft. The killing, it turns out, is only one in a series of similar murders that have been committed by otherwise ordinary citizens operating under the grip of some strange compulsion.
These crimes are apparently motiveless, but Kurosawa immediately starts spinning a web of connection, beginning with the enigmatic meeting on a deserted beach between a helpful young teacher and an annoyingly persistent amnesiac drifter (Masato Hagiwara), who may or may not be a former medical student named Mamiya. Mysterious rumblings accentuate the entirely justified sense of dread. Meanwhile, the police detective assigned to the case, Takabe (Koji Yakusho, here more world-weary than romantic), seems obsessed with the killings in part because his young wife is suffering from her own irritating form of mental illness.
Takabe’s deduction that the killers have been programmed to act by remote control only adds to the creepiness. Mesmerism—or hypnotic suggestion—evidently has supernatural associations in Japan, where (according to the movie) it is literally known as “soul conjuring.” Mamiya, a follower of Mesmer, disorients his victims (and defeats any sort of official interrogation) by the simplest possible means—his apparent lack of short-term memory and affectless series of persistent questions serve to throw off verbal communication. Druggy and diffident, he’s a new sort of supercriminal (or rather, a refurbished version of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse), who uses the flame of a cigarette lighter or an ordinary glass of water to cloud men’s minds.
As a filmmaker, Kurosawa is scarcely less economical. For a big effect, he punctuates a series of understated long shots with an abrupt iconic close-up. The image of spilled water advancing hypnotically across a hospital floor is worthy of Lang. The action is tactful, the style controlled. Kurosawa has a good eye—shooting a narrow street from above, so that it wraps the nighttime gloom with a ribbon of light—and a sure sense of timing. At one point, he allows Mamiya to jump down through the frame as though blown from some perch in the sky. By now we know that as the drifter is brought into a police outpost for questioning, it will only be a matter of time before one cop matter-of-factly shoots his colleague.
Primarily a genre flick, Cure has an indirect social agenda. The various victim-perpetrators are largely members of what French Marxists used to call the state ideological apparatus: teachers, cops, doctors. The killings themselves initially appear to be a new form of mass behavior or a deadly contagion. “You look sicker than your wife to me,” a hospital psychiatrist tells Takabe. There’s also a Dostoyevskian aspect to the investigation. The heart of the movie is the prolonged, almost philosophical, and borderline violent confrontation between the cop and killer—complete with a near mystical degree of mutual identification.
Cure has a generic resemblance to Seven, but it’s far more oblique, and that much more troubling. Even though the killers are not knowingly committing their murders, there is a sense that they are nonetheless acting out unconscious desires. Moreover, the open ending seems to implicate the movie’s most sympathetic character in the chain of death. Cure sticks with you—it’s a movie about the power of suggestion that casts a troubling spell on the viewer as well.
Hollywood’s greatest periodization of the ’60s, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now has a unique narrative trajectory. Few movies have ever identified so closely with their own grueling production stories. Not since D.W. Griffith had a director so blatantly attempted the grandiose simulation of a historical event. It’s a movie to watch with a wonder akin to ecstasy and then with horrified incredulity.
Apocalypse Now went into production less than a year after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Shot throughout and beyond the bicentennial, it was finally released in the summer of 1979—billed by Coppola as a suitably megalomaniacal postscript to the most convulsive episode in American history since the Civil War. No less than the New Frontiersmen who initiated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Coppola undertook Apocalypse Now for what he believed to be a noble cause—namely the creation of his Zoetrope studio. And, as the American government had, he found himself confounded by nature, beholden to unsavory dictators, and bogged down in an epic quagmire.
Like LBJ, Coppola was tough on his subordinates. He fired Harvey Keitel and drove Keitel’s successor, Martin Sheen, to a heart attack. And like Nixon, Coppola had no idea how to end his extravaganza. In a sodden paroxysm of irrationality, he hired Marlon Brando to be his white whale and prayed that once the actor arrived on location, something resembling a climax would occur. Sheen’s character, who spends most of the movie pursuing Brando’s, speaks for his director: “I really didn’t know what I’d do when I found him.”
Re-released 22 years later with 53 minutes of new footage and a Redux affixed to its title like a badge of honor, Apocalypse Now remains what it always was—a phantasmagorical trip through the spookhouse followed by a descent so precipitous you can’t believe it’s really happening. Perhaps in this way it recapitulates the war as well. There’s a part of me that loves Apocalypse Now—the use of superimposition, the orange flares against the green and gold foliage, everything that Stanley Kauffman dismissed then as the movie’s “jungle discotheque look.”
The moment when Jim Morrison intones “This is the end” and the tree line explodes remains one of the greatest sync events in movies. (I’ll never forget the impact it had on me as a neophyte film critic sitting in the third row at the Ziegfeld all-media in August 1979.) There’s never been anything to top the fascist excitement of the “Ride of the Valkyries” air cavalry attack—or the historical resonance that Coppola packs it with. At the same time, Coppola was one of the first American directors to evoke war as pure terror: The grunt who can’t leave the chopper (“I’m not going, I’m not going”), the wounded guys screaming for Mama, and later, the surfer who stumbles through the movie’s equivalent of the Khe Sanh siege on acid.
The two major restored sequences—the reencounter with the Bunny chopper, evidently shot during a typhoon on a rain-demolished set, and the so-called French Plantation scene—are welcome mainly in that they serve to forestall the movie’s inevitable collapse. Actually, the Plantation sequence—which Coppola can be heard loudly complaining about in the documentary Hearts of Darkness—has another use. The conception of a ghost remnant of the colonial past quickly turns into a poltergeist banquet. But even in this static hysteria, something necessary is communicated: “You Americans fight for the biggest nothing in history.” How true.
Everything fails in the Brando scenes—first imagination, then language. The actor gets one good line: “You’re an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.” The rest of his dialogue sounds like lyrics from a bad Doors song (“I watched a snail crawling along the edge of a straight razor”) or worse. Dennis Hopper’s stoned snicker and screwball delivery livens things up; too bad Coppola wasn’t crazy enough to ask him to edit the sequence. Incredibly, Redux lengthens the torture by adding scenes of Brando reading aloud from Time magazine.
Since its premiere, Apocalypse Now has had four different endings. Redux seems to have returned to the 70mm “peace” version. Air strike or not, it hardly matters. Masochistic? Delusional? Despairing? As in all previous versions, Coppola compulsively reprises Brando’s pitiful croak—”the horror, the horror.” Nothing can redeem the movie’s final 40 minutes. That may not be an ultimate horror, but it is a real one.