The peaceful life of the girls of a Catholic boarding school in a small Japanese town turns first strange, then rather too exciting, and finally tragic. It starts when one day, everyone’s favourite student Aya locks herself into her room, and after a month, she’s still not coming out.
She does appear in the dreams of some of her friends, though, whispering into their ears to free her from “the curse that can only afflict women”. The dreams turn to frightening visions, and soon, some of the girls find themselves sleepwalking during these visions, waking up in front of a portrait photo of Aya, and just about to kiss that photo. There’s an urban legend about a love spell ritual and a curse connected to that sort of thing going around in school, but it’s disconcertingly vague, so it’s not much help in any attempt of the girls to understand what’s going on around them. What’s not vague is the fact that those of the girls who do end up kissing the photo disappear without a trace.
Has Aya really cursed the others – and if so, why – or is something rather different and quite a bit more complicated going on here?
Officially, Mari Asato’s Fatal Frame is some kind of adaptation of the fine (at least those I could play before they landed in the exclusivity-grabbing hands of Nintendo) series of survival horror videogames known as Project Zero here in Europe, but if you expect a film about girls and young women hunting ghosts with the help of a magical camera, you’ll not be too happy here, even though photos do play an important role in the plot. The main connections between the film and the games are certain thematic concerns: girls growing up, girls uncovering the dark secrets of the past, sometimes even their own, the societal and internal emotional pressures on the lives of young women, and the difficulties added to them by a Shinto and animist inspired supernatural world that, unlike in our world, actually exists. The rest are merely nods in the direction of fans of the games.
Fortunately, Fatal Frame the movie is much too well made a film to make this loose approach to adaptation annoying – even though I’d still like to see a film about young women photographing ghosts while uncovering the secrets of the past – telling a clever story with quite a bit of subtextual pull in an interesting and satisfying way. Going by the films I’ve seen by director Asato, she’s one of the rays of light among younger Japanese genre directors, the kind of woman who can turn on paper crappy sounding franchise work into pretty great low budget films which definitely show a personal handwriting and thematic concerns, in particular concerning female friendship, love between women, and growing up.
Obviously, these are some of the main themes of Fatal Frame, too, sometimes elegantly, sometimes somewhat bluntly expressed and intensified through the supernatural. At first, the film does threaten to be beholden to a bit of lesbian panic but the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes Asano (who is also responsible for the script) is playing a different game with different rules, and clearly isn’t out to preach against the (highly doubtful) evils of girl-love, though, this being a Japanese film where a gay happy end still seems rather unthinkable, it’s not really embracing it either. It’s not all that important to Asano, either way, I think, for the director seems more interested in how the sexual aspects of growing up add to the general confusion of girls right on the line of becoming women, even before the threats of the supernatural come into it at all. While the film does have quite satisfying supernatural elements (and a bit of the Japanese gothic too), they are on the quiet side, the ghosts here being a pleasant antidote to the jump scares of contemporary US horror as well as to the fixation of some Japanese horror directors on repeating scenes from Ringu again and again. For some tastes, this approach might be too quiet and too little interested in the supernatural being scary but I found myself quickly invested in a film that does use the supernatural from a different angle than we’re used to right now; it does of course help I’m rather fond of quiet ghost stories, and that “quiet” doesn’t mean “without emotional stakes” or “harmless”.
While the storytelling becomes a bit flabby towards the film’s end – the sort of thing that happens when you have to tie up plot threads of not just your main characters’ growing up but also of more than one haunting and more than one case of very human evil – most of the film is very focused, with Asato’s highly composed looking, always clear and calm direction anchoring the film in a world of naturalistic sensation that can still turn into the dream-like and the strange with apparent ease. There are quite a few moments here I find quietly wonderful from a filmmaking perspective, at their core very simple scenes and concepts realized with a quiet confidence, helping unite character, mood and themes, and making it easy to ignore the film’s handful of missteps. If you – as I do – sometimes like admire the rhythm of a film, this might impress you as much as it does me.
On the technical side, Fatal Frame also impresses with a very Suspiria-like soundtrack (which certainly isn’t an accident given the film’s themes), mostly excellent photography and acting that is much better than I’ve become used to in Japanese low budget films. Unfortunately, the film having come to me without an official release in these parts, I have no idea which actress is playing which role, but they’re all good, so it’s fine in any case.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?