Hideo Nakata’s Latest Maze of Death, “Chaos”
by Steve Erickson
An exceedingly grim Hitchcockian riff, Hideo Nakata’s “Chaos” is a thriller as obsessed with narrative intricacy as film gets. Compared in Kino’s press release to “Pulp Fiction,” although it’s far harder to follow, this film’s spiraling plot is more than just a trick. If Tarantino used his convoluted structure to resurrect a sympathetic character, Nakata uses his to emphasize everyone’s essential dirtiness. A despicable person soon winds up as a victim, and vice versa. To lift a phrase from Philip K. Dick, it’s a maze of death.
Nakata is best known — to say the least — for his 1998 horror film “Ring,” which spawned two sequels and a prequel in Japan, as well as Korean and American remakes. (“Chaos” is currently being remade by Jonathan Glazer with Robert de Niro and Benicio del Toro.) The popularity of “Ring” led to a whole wave of Japanese horror films. However, it suffered from a flaccid middle third and an ending blatantly designed as a sequel setup. By contrast, “Chaos” is so tightly plotted that it leaves the awkward structure of “Ring” in the dust. Even so, Nakata has reached higher levels of dread elsewhere, particularly in his more recent “Dark Water.”
As “Chaos” begins, businessman Takayuki Komiyama (Ken Mitsuihi) is enjoying lunch with his wife (Miki Nakatani.) He soon returns to his office. Immediately, he receives a phone call informing him that she has been kidnapped. With his apartment full of cops, he gets another call asking him to meet the kidnapper. However, the kidnapper eventually extorts money from his victim’s sister. Then the screen fades to black, and we see these events from Mrs. Komiyama’s point of view. It turns out that she knows the kidnapper, Goro Kuroda (Masato Hagiwara), and that they have arranged a fake abduction in order to test Takayuki’s faithfulness. She seems to enjoy the situation, especially when Goro ties her up.
If it sounds like I’m giving away too much of the plot, trust me: I’m not. The screen cuts to black for the first time at the 20-minute mark, continuing to do so periodically. These cuts indicate a shift in protagonist and time. Takayuki is the initial protagonist, then his wife, then Goro. As each character progresses further and further, they begin to resemble icons in a video game, every “level” (represented by a cut to black) bringing the audience closer to the heart of the story. Mrs. Komiyama even describes her relationship with Goro as a game of tag. “Chaos” never overtly references computers, but it describes a version of virtual reality: an imaginary situation becoming real and doppelgangers coming to life.
Even so, there’s something rather arid about Nakata’s convoluted story. For all its bite, it never quite connects to the real world. The characters feel like secondhand anti-heroes, femme and homme fatales. Kenji Kawai’s score pulses with tom-toms and bass drums as if trying to kickstart their hearts. Many of its exteriors are almost paradoxically sunny and pretty, counteracting the rest of the film’s neo-noir feel.
Fear of technology, whether TV and video (“Ring”) or the Internet (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Pulse” and the anime series “Serial Experiment Lain”), has been a recurring thread in recent Japanese films. “Ring” clicks with genuine worries about video technology’s potentially harmful aesthetic and moral impact. “Chaos,” which depicts a world where physical and financial desire trump any sense of responsibility or family ties, won’t be mistaken for an ode to the Japanese bourgeoisie. On the other hand, it never feels like a real portrait of Japanese society, just three extremely screwed-up people and a director and screenwriter who use them as though they’re participating in a cockfight.
Eventually, the cuts to black become meaningless. Time shifts back and forth, with a major revelation about each character coming every other minute. Each detail is important. For instance, the entire plot turns around the reason why Takayuki wears a bandage around his right hand. Paradoxically, the film may be best seen if one knows nothing about it, but that state may also make it incomprehensible. Considering the utterly cynical 90 minutes that preceded the ending’s dark romanticism, it doesn’t ring true, but Nakata’s gloomy vision of mutually assured destruction loses none of its power. Love will tear his characters apart.