The films are somewhat alike - a threatening and restless spirit pesters a divorced mom who is raising a kid. But Dark Water foregrounds the divorce: There are scenes of the mother and father fighting for the child, Ikoku, in a lawyer's office. Abusive and manipulative, the father (Fumiyo Kohinata) wants his daughter back, and he feeds stories and seedy bits of information to the divorce counselors.
The mom, Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki), is not doing well. Her apartment leaks, the management has failed to do upkeep, and the tap water is filthy. There are also some apartments in the building that are open, and easy for a little girl like Ikoku to get lost in. What's more, Ikoku and her mom see a little girl in a yellow slicker, one who went missing three years ago.
Because the horror is based on loss of money (i.e. cash or property values), Stephen King described The Amityville Horror as an "economic-horror" movie. In Dark Water, economic desperation is just as acute. Will the money Yoshimi needs to be a good mom take all her mothering time to earn?
There is also the question of her mental stability - before she married, Yoshimi saw a therapist. She blames the books she proofread, but it may have been something more. Note: this is a horror movie (a ghost story), and I have not mentioned the trappings of the genre - spooks or what have you. They are here, but the movie goes for the emotional core of the material. The diverting but spiritless jackhammer style of modern horror is nowhere to be found.
The film trips, however, on the character of the "good" lawyer. He helps organize a defense for Yoshimi, and shames the managers of the apartment into doing their job. But he's gone too soon. If he was more integral to the plot and had more depth, he would be more interesting. But he is not.
By the time the shocking and horrifying conclusion arrives, this is forgotten. I won't discuss it in detail, but I will say that it is the opposite of most surprise endings. Rather than twist a puerile mess into utter negation, the surprise in Dark Water deepens what came before. It is resonant, and it pushes the film toward tragedy.
There are reviews that miss the point of the end, and assign1 it to Freudian allegory. Using this sort of pseudo-intellectual sophistry to trick yourself into liking a film is mad. Movies should not be allegories that exist to fulfill the social or political agendas of specific audiences. They should entertain, and they may enlighten. If they seek to instruct, they are propaganda; if you find instruction that is not intended, you are a charlatan.
I try not to be a charlatan; I try not to read into films things that are not there, and I try to report my exact reaction. Recently, I rewatched Ringu, and I believe that Dark Water is superior. Perhaps it is the circular and repetitive narrative. Maybe it is the greater subtlety in the stakes the horrors represent2 - to some, a weird videotape means more than the spreading water stain on Yoshimi's ceiling.
As the title suggests, Dark Water is murky. But it should be seen, and understood.
1If the ending confuses you, highlight this for an oblique hint: Yoshimi does not sacrifice herself, she is being punished for her actions.
2I do not wish to sound condescending. Sometimes, narratives go over our heads. Nothing to be ashamed of - we can all miss a few details. Not me, of course. I have a degree, and a lack of employment to prove it. Of course, I might be wrong.
2003-06-02 - Kent Conrad