Friday, June 20, 2008

NYAFF: Shadow Spirit

Welcome to post-war Japan, but watch your daughters. A psychopath is dismembering teen-aged girls and packing them in boxes. There are indeed such elements of the macabre in The Shadow Spirit, but it is tempered by its careful period detail and pulp magazine-inspired sense of adventure and mystery. Directed by veteran Japanese filmmaker Masato Harada, Shadow Spirit (trailer here) opens the New York Asian Film Festival today, kicking off seventeen days of screenings at the IFC Film Center and the Japan Society.

The difficult to briefly encapsulate story of Spirit starts when Enokizu, a clairvoyant detective, is hired to find the kidnapped daughter of a famous actress poised to make a comeback. Eventually, his inquiry dovetails with the concurrent dismemberment investigations by detectives Aoki and Kiba and journalists Sekiguchi and Atsuko. Kyogokudo, an exorcist and antiquarian book-seller, provides Zen-like leadership for the disparate band of heroes as they face the forces of evil, which seem to include not just the serial killer, but a mysterious new religious cult dedicated to the Box of Sacred Mystery and an evil scientist playing God in his box-like fortress (yes, the box motif looms large in Spirit).

Spirit is a film of dark secrets, in which events of the past have a tangible effect on the present. In fact, much of the nefarious doings have their roots in bizarre events set in motion by the Japanese military during the war. Ironically, Spirit implies greater criticism of Japanese actions in WWII than recent Hollywood films.

At one point Sekiguchi, the button-down writer sighs: “Don’t drag me into your weirdness.” Good luck with that. Spirit has plenty of weirdness, throwing in fantastical elements and a few disturbing images of the killer’s surviving limbless victims. Fortunately, the cast pulls you through with their earnestness, particularly the gaunt but compelling Hiroshi Abe as the extra-sensory detective, and Rena Tanaka, whose plucky cub reporter is cute but not cloying.

Spirit is a fast-paced, stylish film that pretty much throws in the kitchen sink, but is loath to waste much time with exposition, with characters’ past relationships quickly glossed over. You sort of have to go with it. Director Harada juxtaposes splashy, colorful visuals with rain-soaked noir, creating a great looking picture. Spirit is the second stand-alone film based on a series of Japanese mysteries by Natsuhiko Kyogoku, the first of which appears to be scheduled for U.S. publication in the winter 2009 season. It is an entertaining start to the festival, playing this afternoon and again on July 1st.