Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Real" features an ironic title. Like "Inception" or "The Matrix," the movie actively questions whether anything it depicts actually takes place. Set in a near-future where a technology called "sensing" allows people to step into the minds of comatose individuals, Kurosawa's adaptation of Rokurou Inui's novel contains a familiar set of ingredients cribbed from the sub-genre of virtual reality experiences. Compared to Kurosawa's other genre outings (including "Tokyo Sonata"), the mood is appropriately contemplative, but "Real" only works as far as its basic premise can carry it before the story takes on the same redundant quality of the dreams plaguing its unconscious characters. That's initially its strength and then something of a setback, but as a whole "Real" admirably services an overdone scenario.
Within minutes, Kurosawa establishes the basic conundrum: Manga artist Atsumi (Haruka Ayase) has attempted to kill herself in a river, leaving her childhood friend and lover Koichi (Takeru Satoh) confused about her motivation. After a year in a coma, Atsumi's condition remains unchanged, so Koichi agrees to take advantage of the sensing technology and step into her thoughts. He finds the woman in her virtual apartment working on her manga drawings on an endless loop and pleading with Koichi to find her missing plesiosaur sketch.
From there, Kurosawa establishes a series of puzzle pieces that haunt Koichi throughout the movie: Slowly, the experience encroaches on his waking existence. He starts to get haunted by ominous visions of a child following him at every turn and manages to feel the unconscious Atsumi reaching out to him in his dreams. Kurosawa assembles these ingredients with an encroaching sense of dread, ever so slightly tipping "Real" into horror. But then it doubles back into investigative territory and Kurosawa lets the contemplative mood triumph over its creepier aspects.
While probing Atsumi's thoughts, Koichi notices "philosophical zombies" wandering through her apartment and the foggy streets around her house, establishing obvious but strangely engrossing signposts for her inner demons. As the duo wander through her subconscious and witness manifestations of her past, the reasons behind their collective experience grow murkier until the arrival of a silly, predictable twist ahead of the final half hour. In the remaining time, "Real" uses a handful of mildly interesting devices to deal with familiar turf, ultimately leading to an experience that feels both redundant and sufficient considering the generally formulaic routine.
Thanks to Kurosawa's craftsmanship, "Real" sustains its premise even as it careens from one dry revelation to another. While the story begins like a routine combination of science fiction ingredients, by the time it turns into a CGI-spiked riff on Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound," it's hard not to get pulled into the stakes of the characters' abstract battle. The special effects are impressively realized to a point that strengthens the movie's surreal depiction of psychological turmoil. Even so, they lack any real sense of peril, as Kurosawa's curiously plain style hold back the thrilling potential of the outlandish events he depicts.
As it lumbers toward one mini-climax after another, "Real" takes its situation dead seriously but struggles to enliven it with new ideas. Its biggest revelations are ones we've seen countless times before in stronger versions of the same routine. While the two main leads share enough chemistry to inject their drama with purpose, it’s hardly enough to justify the two hour-plus journey. Compared with most psycho-thrillers, "Real" never attempts to make the depths of a troubled mind into a compelling labyrinth. Instead, it's a drab place with a few intriguing aspects but little in the way of noteworthy ingredients, an accidental metaphor for the movie's own aimlessness.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A definite entry on the fall festival circuit, "Real" should find decent support from the international genre film community and a home with a genre label capable to capitalizing on that foundation of support on VOD.