BAMY (Japan, 2016) [OAFF 2017]
BAMY plays with the myth of the red string of fate – an unbreakable bond that ties people destined to be together – but posits that instead of this being something romantic or joyful, it is nothing but a curse because it reveals that people have no control over their own lives. People cannot escape what has been preordained by some larger transcendental entity. Director Jun Tanaka follows this thread to its natural and almost absurd conclusion in a film that raises itself from being a semi-pastiche of Kurosawa’s modern-day horror classic Pulse (2001), to an entertaining tapestry depicting a set of romances intertwined with ghosts and predestined connections between people.
The couple connected, or should that be entangled, together are Fumiko (Hiromi Nakazato) and Ryota (Hironobu Yukinaga) – old acquaintances from their college photography club. They would have missed each other had it not been for a mysterious red umbrella tumbling from the skies causing them to lock eyes. Soon enough they are making plans to get married. They seem like an ideal couple but, unfortunately, their relationship slowly ruptures because Ryota is troubled by a secret ability… he is able to see the dead. These entities, reminiscent in terms of movement and look of the malevolent spirits in Pulse, frequently float into the corporeal world from shadowy corners of apartments and warehouses. They seem to be everywhere.
You can imagine that seeing these phantoms every day would be almost debilitating especially since they tend to appear at the most inopportune times and places for Ryota such as during wedding planning and passionate kissing sessions with Fumiko so it is no wonder he becomes worn out by these encounters and starts fighting back which is where the threads of fate threaten to unwind. For Fumiko, who cannot see the ghosts, Ryota is acting strangely and it scares her so she pushes him away just as Sae Kimura (Misaki Tsuge), a woman with the same ability as Ryota and someone seemingly better able to bond with him, enters the film.
BAMY takes place in a Tokyo made alien by the cinematography. Tanaka expertly spends the initial part of the film carefully showing the encroachment of the spectres on the world in a series of chilling and innovative encounters which show his confident use of the cinematic language of Kurosawa to create a pure horror atmosphere. The naturalistic settings, off-kilter framing, atmospheric lighting, imaginative use of features such as glass and windows to obscure things, and the washed out visuals all create desolate menacing spaces laced with threats. In this respect, Tanaka echoes the anxiety-creating feel familiar from Kurosawa’s best horror films, establishing a state of suspense and terror in characters and audience alike. But he then pulls the rug out from underneath the audience by unexpectedly subverting this supernatural setting to set up a romance.
Ryota and Sae’s relationship, borne by the haunted atmosphere, develops in quite a sweet, darkly comic, and unexpected way as the spirits turn into tragi-comic victims of the couple’s shared resentment-fuelled fight back. Ryota and Sae initially seem like typical hopeless protagonists from a Kurosawa film but become fed up by being constantly bothered and chase off their supernatural tormentors. There is no reverence for or fear of the dead despite their ghastly appearances that defy all rationality. Ryota and Sae, both disconnected from the reality where Fumiko exists, become teenagers let loose in an alternate realm. They discover kinship with one another, the ghosts helping them to bond through pushing them into a shared desperation and isolation. There is no tonal dissonance in the film as this strange love-triangle develops and the threads of fate knot together. Tanaka deliberately ties together seemingly opposite genres so they work together to help emphasise each other. If Ryota and Sae’s relationship threatens to defy fate, a certain sinister red umbrella isn’t going to take this lying down, ghosts or not.
The audience will find it hard to pin down what will happen next until it reaches a spectacular and spectacularly over the top ending. Despite there being moments of black comedy due to Ryota being that protagonist who is the only one who can see ghosts and thus looks kind of like a mad eccentric when he reacts to their presence, it is only when Tanaka wants to make his ultimate point of the unbeatable nature of fate that he uses tonal dissonance in an aggressive manner to generate a large degree of horror. In Kurosawa’s earlier films, romance is sometimes a source of tonal dissonance to highlight the horror and absurdity of the situation or turn a film into a genre pastiche – just think of the sudden shift in tones in Loft (2005). Here, it makes the film come to life in such an original and entertaining way, it lifts BAMY from pastiche to something fresh. It is hard to imagine an audience not getting a lot of enjoyment out of the ending whilst also enjoying the philosophical ramifications.
Everything leading up to the finale shows deliberate and intelligent use of material to undercut audience expectations from making the string of fate a sinister umbrella (updating it and making it more mobile and a source of visual gags). The development of the story, pushing the soundtrack made up of chanting and otherworldly screams to ridiculous degrees and knowing when to cut it off with something mundane like a mobile ringtone, the gentle romance initiated by interlocking of fingers, all show absolute command of the material and makes it incredibly fun to watch. But what will throw the audience off-kilter even more is that, by adopting Kursoawa’s visual techniques and pacing, Tanaka gives himself a ready-made world and cinematic language to subvert and invert. His execution marks him out as a director to follow.
For all the talk about Kurosawa’s style this may sound like a parody but it is more than that and the film should appeal to a wider audience than J-horror fans. Take a chance on BAMY – you will get a lot more joy out this gently twisted tale than from the latest outings for Sadako and Kayako.
BAMY will be shown on March 6 and 8 at the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2017.