Chaos (Japan, 1999)

Japanese noir has rarely been more seductive than Chaos, a skilfully-crafted thriller by Ring (1998) director Hideo Nakata, who briefly leaves the realms of the supernatural to focus on a sexually-charged blackmail scam. Gullible handyman Goro (Masato Hagiwara) becomes involved in a risky scheme when he meets Satomi (Miki Nakatani), the beautiful but unhappy wife of wealthy businessman Komiyama (Ken Mitsuishi). Satomi is convinced that her husband is having an affair, and Goro agrees to ‘kidnap’ her as a means of determining whether her spouse still has marital feelings based on whether or not he pays the ransom money. Goro ties-up Satomi in a cramped apartment to add authenticity to their plan, and then arranges the drop. When the husband receives the kidnapper’s demand, he contacts the police who begin to investigate. Upon returning to the apartment, Goro discovers that Satomi has been murdered and that he has been framed for the crime. Shortly after disposing of the body in the woods, Goro sees the ‘dead’ woman on the street. Now aware that he is a pawn in a dangerous game, he tries to turn the tables and clear his conscience. In-keeping with its exploration of criminality, Chaos pilfers from a range of suitable sources: the hard-boiled fiction of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo (1958), and Brian De Palma’s implausible but stylistically compelling early-1980s thrillers. However, this is a particularly Japanese spin on tried-and-tested genre territory, largely due to Nakata’s predilection for kinky role playing.

The title of the film refers not only to the state of flux that the principal characters find themselves in as the kidnapping plot escalates beyond their control, but to the manner in which Nakata arranges the story: flashbacks may initially cause some confusion for the viewer as Chaos becomes a cinematic jigsaw puzzle, although the motivations of all concerned are eventually revealed. It’s a variation on the multiple-viewpoint structure that Akira Kurosawa pioneered with Rashomon (1950), but was popularised much later by such genre-savvy American independent filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino and Bryan Singer. When remaking East Asian films was in vogue in Hollywood following the success of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002), a new version of Chaos was rumoured with Robert De Niro and Benicio Del Toro suggested for the respective roles of the businessman and the blackmailer, while Jonathon Glazer of Sexy Beast (2000) fame was set to direct. It may have been a more appropriate remake choice than Nakata’s Dark Water (2002), which was awkwardly transplanted from Tokyo to New York by Walter Salles in 2005. Indeed, Chaos uses recognisable tropes (corpse disposal, relationships defined by mutual suspicion, the city shrouded in heavy rain) and familiar archetypes (the cold husband, the femme fatale, the morally-compromised lover) that would not be lost in translation. Yet while these stock genre elements could have been retained, the sadomasochist desire between Goro and Satomi, which only intensifies after the kidnapper realises that he has been deceived, would surely have been diluted.

An extended scene in which Goro adds ‘realism’ to the staged kidnapping by tying up and harassing Satomi is all the more uncomfortable for the matter-of-fact manner in which it is handled; Goro seems to be taking control of the situation – he provides Satomi with a set of rules to follow in order for their plan to work without complications, and makes sure that the knots are as tight as possible – but she clearly has a hold over her ‘captor’ which transcends physical entrapment. It is in these situations that Nakata’s recurrent themes of anxiety and fear are pulled into a more sexualised context, with the dangers of the unknown lurking within desperate human beings rather than on a cursed video cassette. The elliptical climax, which is prompted by a miscommunication during foreplay, emphasises that Goro and Satomi cannot trust one another, or that she is at least unable to have a straight-forward relationship once the sheer thrill of acting out high-stakes scenarios has worn off. As such, the mechanics of the story actually become secondary to sustaining atmosphere with regular Nakata composer Kenji Kawai contributing an exotic, percussion-based score that evokes the primal instincts that come into play when one false move could mean imprisonment.  As with many thrillers that rely on sudden twists to maintain interest, Chaos has its fair share of inconsistencies, but Nakata weaves such an intoxicating web of amoral activity that it is easy to become immersed in its ingenious labyrinth of cross and double-cross.

Chaos is screening this Saturday, March 17th, 2012 at the Japan Society in New York City as part of the Society’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” film program.  For more information and tickets, go to the Japan Society page for this screening here.