Once again working from a book by Kôji Suzuki, Hideo Nakata re-established his position as Japan's finest horror director after shooting to prominence with Ringu (and its two sequels). Staying with supernatural horror and, like Ringu, featuring a single woman with a young child at the centre of the film, Dark Water begins with Yoshimi Matsubara battling for, and winning, custody of her six year old daughter, Ikuko. Without a job, Yoshimi must settle for meagre accommodation in a run-down apartment block, with a strange water stain on the ceiling that won't go away.
The caretaker isn't much help and refuses to investigate the source of the stain that begins to spread and leak into the main bedroom. Yoshimi is further troubled by the appearance of a child's bag that Ikuko finds on the roof by a huge water tower. After a short stay in the lost and found, Yoshimi discovers that the caretaker has thrown the bag away despite Ikuko's attachment and desire to have it and the toys inside.
The young girl is having a hard time in kindergarten, not fitting in very well and seeing things that aren't there. Meanwhile the water in the apartment has a strange taste and some hair even comes out of the tap and that stain just continues to grow.
Unsurprisingly, Dark Water is thematically similar to Ringu, focusing on what a mother will do for her child and incorporating supernatural elements to tell a story with a simple explanation and moving ending. There are also several well orchestrated jumps which are helped by the pervasive sense of unease throughout the film. Yoshimi is an extremely likable character with whom you empathise and her relationship with her daughter, strained through juggling work and childcare commitments, will be familiar to many single parents.
As the follow up to Ringu, this sees a reunion of its director, producer (Japanese horror guru Takashige Ichise) and writer and is of the same quality as that landmark film. Dark Water hinges on the performances of the mother and daughter, as a relationship that didn't ring true would ruin the film, but Hitomi Kuroki and Rio Kanno are perfect, with the latter putting in a performance beyond her years.
Befitting the subject material, the palette is extremely bleak with lots of greys and browns and the sky seems permanently overcast even when it's not raining. The transfer is pretty good though some of the background texture isn't as defined as it could be. Dark Water is a very well shot film, keeping you ill at ease, and the effects are excellent.
Given the choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround or DTS 5.1, I went for the latter but switched around later on and found that Dolby Digital provided much clearer soundtracks with less muddy dialogue and sharper surround channels. The score complements the picture, mournful and downbeat but providing the aural stabs when need be to great effect.
The subtitles are American English so you get Mommy and Mom, but are clear and make the film easy to follow.
Dark Water is an extremely sophisticated horror film, drawing on the close bond between mother and daughter to provide a believable situation to site something horrific and you're so drawn in that the supernatural element works almost without question. I think this is a terrific film that shows how innovative Japanese horror can be. I've seen it several times now and it never fails to move me, the sign of a good film.