Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/30/06 10:49:08

"Takashi Shimizu only seems to do one thing, but he does it well."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It's easy and popular to bust on Takashi Shimizu for how much he and producer Takashige Ichise have gone to the same well with their various iterations of the "Ju-on" franchise, and to be quite honest they don't stray too far from the basic template: You've got a father killing his family, a creepy kid, and a crime scene that should be avoided, even years later. Despite all that, "Reincarnation" has a very different feel from the "Ju-on" movies; if he's a one-trick pony, he at least knows a few variations on that trick.

This time around, we're told of a spree killing that happened in the early 1970s, where a university professor on vacation at a hotel in the Tokyo suburbs killed not only his wife and two children, but the hotel staff and the rest of the guests for good measure before killing himself. Now, thirty years later, Ikuo Matusmura (Kippei Shiina) is making a film based upon the crime. He casts inexperienced actress Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) as the professor's daughter (and final victim) Chisato, noting that the six-year-old girl has been rewritten as a teenager. In casting Nagisa, he passes over Yuka Morita (Marika Matsumoto), who feels strongly that she was murdered in a past life. Soon, Nagisa is seeing an apparition of a tiny girl towing her favorite doll around, occasionally passing out on set (which strikes her castmates as unprofessional). Meanwhile, college student Yayoi Kinoshita (Karina) is having strange dreams of her own. Her boyfriend introduces her to Yuka, and both sense a connection to the hotel murders. When the director has the cast visit the hotel, it soon becomes clear that the past (and past lives) still have a strong connection to the present.

It's a decent enough set-up for a ghost story, and Shimizu does a fine job of creating a foreboding atmosphere despite going out of his way to remind audiences that it's only a movie. Take Yuka's too-earnest comments about her past lives, or how the picture will occasionally get downright procedural in showing the audience how a movie is made - rehearsals, bits of sets being disassembled so that a camera can follow the star around a corner, mundane gossip off to the side. You may wonder just how many of the scenes in the "real" hotel are shot on the film-within-a-film's hotel set. The film establishes enough of a sense of the ordinary that the strange things that happen wind up feeling a little stranger, especially when the movie picks up speed toward the end.

And it's good that Shimizu is such a good director, because director Takashi Shimizu has to cover for a lot that co-writer Takashi Shimizu leaves messy. Let's ignore that Nagisa Sugiura doesn't seem likely to choose acting as a profession, being shy and prone to stage fright and get down to the question of just how reincarnation works in this movie. Skip ahead a little if someone talking about the mechanics of a supernatural horror movie seems pointless, but it seems like fair game to me. My question is, can a murder victim be both a ghost and reincarnated at the same time? It seems like it should be one or the other, but even if the ghostly forms snatching the reincarnated murder victims aren't meant to be ghosts of the original victims (what are they?), the girl is at least represented twice. The 8mm movie camera with which the professor filmed the original murders is a neat device, but it just sort of appears out of nowhere. There also seems to be little connection between souls pre- and post-reincarnation - who people were in a past life has remarkably little bearing on who they are and how they act in this one.

Shimizu's got plenty of help from his cast and crew to make up the difference. The two single-named starlets create distinct and interesting heroines: Yuka's Nagisa is the timid, threatened one, and she does a nice job of reacting to the shifting realities that she finds herself plunged into. Karina's Yayoi is more proactive and confident, and she makes an enjoyable odd couple with Marika Matsumoto's Yuka Morita - the smart, research-oriented college student playing off the flighty would-be actress. Kippei Shiina could use a little more to do as the director, but he and the rest of the supporting cast are good enough for the job at hand.

The story takes a different path than the Ju-on movies even if it's got the same destination; rather than breaking the narrative up so that it can get in a kill every ten or fifteen minutes, it tells Nagisa's and Yayoi's story in mostly chronological order, occasionally flashing back as they discover new information. Getting there is kind of creepy, though, with the shuttered hotel rivaling the mental hospital in Session 9 in terms of making the very location feel toxic. The filmmakers do a fine job of making Chisato's doll a suitably menacing presense, even when it could look like a silly bit of puppetry. People being killed by an invisible force looks nicely disturbing, too.

I went back and forth on this movie afterward. I don't think there's much denying that Shimizu's ability to execute has steadily improved since the first "Ju-on" film, but he's been stuck on the same basic idea for far too long, and this iteration of it gets pretty sloppy at times. His skill as a director is enough that I'm willing to try and rationalize his story's plot holes away... this time.

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