After wasting a ridiculous amount of time and money on watching the utterly dreadful Avengers: Age of Ultron today (seriously, it’s a rant for another time and another place, but gosh that was abysmal), I was in real need for a nice palette cleanser. Looking at the terrifying “to watch” pile, I decided to finally watch a movie that has been crying out to be watched for about 5 weeks. Japanese schoolgirl ghost story? I am there. Adaptation of a popular compute game franchise? Not so much. Will the good balance out the bad? Join me as we find out.
Early on in “Fatal Frame” popular student Aya (Ayami Nakajō) has for some reason locked herself in her room. Michi (Aoi Morikawa) is troubled by this (mostly because she has a massive crush on Aya), but when another classmate goes missing in front of her things get somewhat stranger. It seems their all-girls catholic school has some kind of mysterious curse on it – involving girls kissing the photo of the one they love at midnight. Soon a number of girls have been visited by a ghostly version of Aya, and are being asked to lift this curse. All that seems to happen though is that these girls wind up dead. Michi is affected by this madness, but is saved from repeating the act which would doom her by the sudden re-appearance of the real Aya. Together the girls work together to solve the mystery. Which will involve a photography studio, a Shaman, Twins and lesbian nuns.
Now I have never played any of the “Fatal Frame” games (they are a survival horror type thing, involving using a camera to take pictures of ghosts), but to be fair it doesn’t really matter, as the film is actually an adaptation of a novelisation of the franchise. It is a shame that the camera aspect of the games is only really touched upon, as it might have given the film a little USP. Because let’s face it – sapphic themed ghost stories in all girls Asian schools isn’t exactly the most original trope. On the other hand, the enjoyment should come from the execution, not the originality of the concept.
Luckily we are in good hands with director Mari Asato, who mostly impressed with her last film “Bilocation” a few months ago. She knows how to work the horror genre, although this one really is more creepy than scary. Eschewing any cheap jump scares or easy soundtrack-based fights, she soaks this one in atmosphere. The first half of the film is especially impressive, with a number of excellent set pieces. She also manages to ensure each of our identically dressed girls stand out as individuals, which is a harder task than it might sound.
What is also rather impressive is that is doesn’t get all coy about the sapphic content in the story. Usually such things are more hinted about than actually discussed. It isn’t that the film is particularly graphic or sensational when dealing with this subject, but it is not only a key part of the plot, but characters actually talk about it.
Asato also has chosen not to cast any popular names in her film, choosing instead near amateurs (Nakajō and Morikawa are more famous for being models in the popular Magazine “Seventeen セブンティーン“). This works, as it gives the characters a sense of reality and vulnerability, and really helps the ensemble feel for the opening hour of the film. Setting the film in a catholic girls school also gives the film a somewhat timeless quality, whilst it is set very much in the modern-day, it could easily be any time in the last 100 years. The use of Hamlet, specifically the suicide of Ophelia, gives the movie a more literary feel (although one must question a school that uses a young girl committing suicide as the annual musical event). It isn’t maybe very subtle, but it works towards this timeless feel.
It’s not perfect though. The opening of the film is terribly confusing, as we are fed dreams and reality concurrently, making it somewhat difficult to follow. I do sense this was deliberate, we are meant to be joining Michi in her confused state, but you do have to work as the audience to keep up with the narrative flow.
The ending is also a little over-long and exposition heavy. Previous mysteries are unwrapped a couple of times, meaning the film goes on at least 20 minutes too long, and it feels a little exposition heavy rather than giving us answers that have truly been earned.
However, these criticisms aside, the film just drips with atmosphere. It has a number of set pieces that linger in the memory. It is brave enough to talk about subjects in a mature and non-sensationalistic manner. Story threads are not left hanging. And in the final scene, we even get a touch of happiness which these films usually stay away from. If a film containing suicides, forbidden love and child murders leaves you with a warm feeling and a smile on your face? It has to at least get a Recommended.