Saturday, August 26, 2006

Fantasia Screeners: Synesthesia

The plan for this Red Sox road trip was going to be watching a movie at eight and reviewing it during the game, thus knocking off my four remaining screeners in rapid succession. That'll teach me to make plans.

The screener was the first anamorphic VHS tape I've ever had. Messed me up as I tried to get started - first I've got the TV in zoomed-in "TheaterWide" mode, but it's clearly cutting off picture along with the subtitles, then in 4:3 mode, which doesn't look quite right. Fortunately, in an early scene one of the characters pulls out what looks like a box of Lucky Strikes, and I figure out that the circular logo is distorted. I bet that this thing must annoy critics who don't have a 16:9 display, but if you like movies enough to be a critic, you've probably got one.

Synesthesia (aka Gimmy Heaven, Synesthesia Divine Thriller)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2006 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Screeners 2006)

Synesthesia is a neurological condition that can be described as sensory cross-chatter. A synesthete may see the letter "A" and process it as the color red; scrambled eggs may taste like triangles. If you did not know this before seeing Toru Matsuura's first movie, don't worry - you'll have it explained to you twice before the opening credits.

Even before that, though, we join Detective Shibata (Hiriji Kojima) at a murder investigation. Mari (Aoi Miyazaki), the adopted daughter of an electronics company's founder and chairman, finds him next to a peculiar stain on his floor with a knife in his back, and the police note that it's the third time her foster parent has been killed, though the police captured the previous killers. This crime scene isn't the only place where the symbol appears; while investigating something peculiar at one of the webcams he manages, Shinsuke Hayama (Yosuke Eguchi) spots it on on a bed and recognizes it as the mark of "Picasso", a mysterious internet figure who deals in snuff feeds and supposedly is able to induce murder and suicide with a hypnotic video game. A synesthete himself, Shin thinks the symbol is a message from one person with the disorder to another. It leads him to find Mari in an unlikely place, and while his best friend and business partner Takashi (Masanobu Ando) immediately falls for her, she has flashbacks that reveal a traumatic life even before her first foster parent was murdered.

Synesthesia is built from several intriguing premises, but is frequently frustrating in how it tells its story. We're told that Shin has synesthesia, and that the way synesthetes perceive the world makes them terribly lonely, but Shin seems far too well-adjusted most of the time. He's functional, lives with his understanding girlfriend, and doesn't even seem particularly eccentric. Matsuura opts not to show us anything obviously from Shin's perspective until the very end - at least, it seems that way on first viewing - so the concept remains very abstract. Making the disorder something we normal folks can't grasp may have been the intent, but if so, shouldn't it appear to have a more obvious effect on him; shouldn't he appear different?

There are also certain standard thriller deficiencies; the villain who seems omniscient, the storyline that seems to fall apart under a little bit of scrutiny, the unlikely master plan. The idea of a video game that drives people to murder is an old one, but it's probably implemented better here than in many other instances: The game itself looks kind of boring, the sort of repetitive thing that at least looks like it could induce a trance state. The use of web cameras starts out as an interesting hook, but the film goes a little too far with it after a certain point - why does the killer know to put cameras at a certain site?

And yet, the cast does a pretty fair job of winning us over. Yosuke Eguchi doesn't necessarily make his character's syndrome obvious, but his performance is at once human enough and generic enough to interpret as a veritable wall of coping mechanisms. He's got a nice, easy chemistry with Ando; they rag on each other like real best friends. Aoi Miyazaki's dialogue over the course of the film probably runs one or two pages max, but she manages to convey plenty of hurt and fear. We see her attraction to Shin even though she's not able to state anything directly. And when she does finally have some reason to smile, it's briefly uplifting, even if everything is going straight to hell around her. In smaller roles, Ryuhei Matsuda manages to be creepy as "Picasso", in part because he makes the audience wonder how much of his off-center behavior is legitimate and how much is affected, while Hiriji Kojima is a small pleasure as the investigating detective: her Shibata is attractive and has a distinct personality without being the tough chick or stuck in a romantic subplot. It doesn't sound like much, but it certainly seems rare enough to be worth noting. I think Konno, the yakuza investor in Shin & Takashi's business, is played by Minoru Torihada; whoever it is, it's an amusing performance that still implies danger.

Matsuura makes what seem like some questionable decisions, but the ones he gets right, he gets a hundred percent right. For example, there's a cut toward the end that tells a great deal of story in very little time.I like the way he has "Picasso"'s face quickly dip into view in one scene, eliminating the idea that he might be someone we've already seen, but still preserving the unease of not being able to look directly at him. And while he doesn't spend much time showing a synesthete's perceptions directly, he does find ways to play with our senses; for instance, he and cinematograper Kenji Takama find spots in the otherwise very busy Tokyo where large swaths of the landscape are a single color to unbalance the picture, or cut to a cityscape with lots of motion and images projected onto the sides of buildings after an explanation of synesthesia to suggest unrelated sensory input coming together.

When it comes right to it, though, I think the concept of synesthesia got away from Matsuura and writer Yuji Sakamoto. It seems like it should be a slam-dunk way to mess with the audience's mind, but the story winds up being rather ordinary, even as the cast and crew gives it their all.

No comments: