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Complex, The
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by Jay Seaver

"This haunted housing project is a bit of a fixer-upper."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Hideo Nakata's new one seems to start out with such promise - creepy visuals, a likable lead, the possibility of a whole apartment complex haunted with ghosts, and a knack for building tension out of small, real things - that it's disappointing to see just how bland it becomes by the end. It doesn't quite descend into the "random creepy things" school of lazy horror, but just becomes the sort of ghost story whose twists are all too familiar.

The new family moving into this apartment building is the Ninomiyas - father Isao (Masanobu Katsumara), mother Sachiko (Naomi Nishida), daughter Asuka (Atsuko Maeda), and son Satoshi. Asuka, attending vocational school to become a nurse, is awakened every morning by noise from the apartment next door - whom neighborhood kid Minoru (Sosei Tanaka) calls "grandfather" - and the noises don't stop when she finds him dead. Fortunately, one of the guys who comes to pack away his things has experienced something similar, and this Shinobu Sasahara (Hiroki Narimiya) can recommend a good exorcist or two. Which is good, because there seems to be a lot of weird stuff going on.

From the name of the movie and the hushed way some of the kids at Asuka's school reference the building being haunted, one might expect The Complex to be almost an anthology of sorts, or for the building's history to be interesting. That's not really the case, though; Nakata and co-writers Junya Kato & Ryuta Miyake instead hew more to the idea that people are haunted more than places. All well and good, except that the ghost story being told is one that the audience has seen before - quite possibly quite a bit - and even the things meant to pull the rug out from under the audience seem well-worn. It's a ghost story that seems inspired by other ghost stories, and while the angle they seem to be pursuing early on (a twist on the occasional story of elderly folks dying in their apartments and not being discovered for months or years) isn't complicated, it would have meant something, rather than being so mechanical.

For all that the audience has seen this sort of movie before, though, at least Nakata and company make the details work for quite a while. Early scenes are meticulously constructed to hold up to later dissection but not obviously so, and the filmmakers do a good job of ramping what's happening around Asuka up from odd to weird to legitimately creepy; mimicking how little things with perfectly reasonable explanations can still become frightening. The setting hits a sweet spot - the sort of run-down building that can contain both defiantly tidy homes and crypts with mummified corpses. That's reflected in the opening shot, where what should be cheerful red flowers in the garden look like a spatter of blood. That's not the only surprisingly great-looking bit in the movie - the horror genre encourages either grimy or slick-black looks (especially in Japan and the movies inspired by Japanese horror), but Nakata and company find ways to insert really beautiful moments.

It's probably no spoiler to say that Atsuko Maeda is asked to carry much of the movie, but she's up for it. She doesn't oversell how Asuka seems to be the only person noticing something weird is going on, and she's able to make the character occasionally moody without pushing the audience away (sh's mostly fairly nice, though). When she's called upon to freak the heck out, she does it well. The rest of the cast is fairly capable, although Hiroki Narimiya winds up in a sticky situation because Shinobu is a little too old to be a love interest or contemporary of Asuka's but still seems too young to be authoritative, while his own backstory isn't fleshed out enough to connect with Asuka and the audience that way. Satomi Tezuka makes for a nicely down-to-earth exorcist, but by the time she shows up, Nakata and company are just looking to wrap things up.

That sort of rush through the motions is the sort of thing that, if movies were filmed in sequence, would tell a story of a talented filmmaker who started out enthusiastic but just lost interest by the time he had to move things to a climax and wrap them up. That's not the actual case most of the time, so there must be some other reason why this movie that started with a fair amount of promise eventually fritters it away.

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originally posted: 08/24/13 12:18:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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