Welcome to hell. Or welcome back, Tsukamoto fans. The visceral nightmare that is Haze has limited appeal, but then again it’s only a limited running time. It’s a brisk forty-eight minute venture into the abyss that anyone can enjoy, surely? Even in this so-called ‘Long Version’ it’s a perfectly formed piece of extreme cinema. No frills, and a variety of thrills. It sticks around to offer a few existential questions and zips away with few, if any, answers. Third Window Films offer it as part of a bundle, in which you can also enjoy two of the director’s other films. The zany but heartfelt sci-fi short Adventure of Denchu-Kozo, and the cold and bleak samurai drama Killing. For those looking for a few nightmares and dreamscapes beyond Tetsuo The Ironman, it’s a set worth having. But I digress, let’s take a look into the shadowy claustrophobia that the subject at hand has to offer.
An amnesiac man (Shinya Tsukamoto) wakes up in a concrete tunnel of some kind. It’s very dark, with just a few shafts of light showing his face, his limbs, and the predicament he’s in. What exactly is this tiny geometric tomb? Is he standing up with his hands against a wall, or is he lying down on his back? If you’re expecting this to be explained away be warned, there’s little in the way of exposition coming. Films about people being buried alive, or even trapped inside tiny locations, have been done before of course. But regular viewers of the director will know what’s in store as the crackling ‘H’ of the title card appears, and as Chu Ishikawa’s unsettling score begins to play. Direct narrative logic or any overt storytelling aren’t on the cards. This is a film about the visceral nature of the situation, in particular the texture and the sounds.
Questions begin to pile up as the man tries to move around. He’s got a bleeding wound somewhere on his abdomen, which is staining the few articles of clothing he has. How did he get here and who injured him? A few pieces of internal monologue go through the usual clichés. Perhaps this is a prison, or a torture chamber, or an experiment. But there’s nobody available to answer back. There’s no mastermind to advise him, or the audience. Instead there are just a series of monochromatic scenes; sinister markers on the man’s journey. There’s just enough light to see what he’s doing, but whether he’s making progress or even moving forwards is unclear. What’s he even standing on? What is that weird machine hitting him over the head? Is that his blood or someone else’s? There’s little time to think as he begins crawling onwards, edging sideways, sometimes moving up and down.
The sensory experience of the movie climaxes with a scene that involves what seem to be some upside-down spikes. There’s also a corridor so tight that he must open his mouth to move past a metal pipe or ledge. Everything is heightened by the sound design, with brings home the impact of wet hands and bare feet against hard surfaces. Blood sticks and teeth scrape. The man panics and cries out in confusion. Soon it becomes even weirder. If this is all a twisted nightmare, then why is he having hallucinations inside of it? If the situation wasn’t bad enough there are visions of gasping fish and naked people being butchered. Maybe it’s all some kind of slaughterhouse metaphor. Or perhaps it’s just a vision of the underworld. Whatever the truth is, it’s soon obvious that being alone here without hope is the real problem.
An amnesiac woman (Kahori Fujii) with an identical wound is also trapped in this place. Is this sort of connection mirrored elsewhere? It’s never so transparent, even during the final coda. But their meeting allows for some hope to spring up briefly. It also gives our hero someone else to talk to, even if she’s just as confused as he is. The danger in the story starts to feel less alien and daunting as a result, but their ruminations on memory loss and fate offer some food for thought. Which is perhaps the wrong turn of phrase at a time like this. Nobody is likely to be thinking of food during what can only be described as the ‘human meat sewer dive’ scene. If the idea of being trapped in an enclosed space gives you chills, the idea of drowning in a dark tunnel is probably an effective horror chaser.
In what is such a short story this momentary interlude serves as part two. Which means the remainder is kind of a third act, albeit an incredibly brief one. Does the finale offer clues about the meaning of all this? Well yes and no. In some ways this could all be a tale of loss, loneliness, or what it feels like to be without hope in life. The only other human beings in the story are depicted during flashes of grotesque imagery. There’s no real villain in the usual sense. Perhaps this is a hell of their own making, or one that waits for those who fall into despair. The glimpses of the protagonist being at ease are through memories of simple pleasures after all. Although for suggestions about this being connected to Eastern folklore you’ll have to do some extra-curricular research.
Whatever you take from all of this, through the subtext or the potential afterlife prison scenario, it never outstays its welcome. It’s not exactly a Kafka-esque pit of despair, and maybe it’s not even akin to something like Lost Highway, but it doesn’t have to be. Tsukomoto has put together the clues and the set pieces economically, and the results are engrossing. At times the whole thing is just too dark to see, and the dream-like geography is a little too obfuscating. But it makes up for what you can’t see through what you can hear. It has moments of dark humour, and if you’re reading into it a certain way there are moments of warmth in place of pain and regret. It has limited scope, but that’s by design. It’s a fascinating, and often painful, trip into a subterranean world of black, grey, and red. Take a look if you’re in that kind of mood.
Other articles in this series:
FIRES ON THE PLAIN (2014)