Postmodern Film Approach: SHUTTER
By Pete Quinones
Of course, even before entering the theater, I knew that going to check out the latest J-horror film Shutter would involve putting up with fifty 10-14 year olds shrieking out fake screams of terror, making snide comments at the screen loud enough for everybody in the theater to hear, and texting and talking on their cell phones throughout the picture. This is just an extension of school, or the mall, or a friend’s basement. The idea that the cinema could be a place housing art as important as any museum doesn’t occur to kids this age. Obviously, it doesn’t occur to most adults either, and in combing through about twenty online reviews of this film I see it doesn’t even occur to many people who are paid to write about the movies for a living. Too bad; if most films are given a chance they certainly repay the effort. Shutter definitely does.
The film begins with the wedding reception of a young American fashion photographer, Ben (Joshua Jackson) and Jane (Rachel Taylor). The shallowness of Ben’s personality is telegraphed immediately, the very first time he speaks – he tells the wedding guests, “Thanks for coming, let’s all eat some cake.” His character flaws are the linchpin on which the whole picture hangs, so this is important. Immediately after the wedding and consummation the couple whisks off to Japan, where Ben has a gig, for a combination of work and honeymoon. While driving on an isolated country road at night Jane hits a young woman, but no trace of her can be found afterwards, even by police search teams. In due course a strange white streak of light starts showing up in Ben’s photographs. His assistant suggests this looks like ‘spirit photography’ in which the spirits of the dead show up in photos, usually looking for revenge. As it happens, the assistant’s ex boyfriend runs a well known Japanese magazine devoted exclusively to this subject. When Ben and Jane visit him he says the spirits that show up in these photos often do so because of ‘unrequited love’, which will eventually turn out to be the case here. The mysterious girl whom they hit on the road is Megumi, a translator with whom Ben had an affair on an earlier assignment in Japan. He just wanted a fling, but she was looking for much more, and when he dumped her she started stalking him. Ben’s friends Bruno and Adam – American expatriates who live in Japan – got involved. It all ended very tragically, and nowhere ghost is back for revenge.
Although this is allegedly a ‘horror’ film, that is a superficial classification. There really isn’t a single truly scary moment in the entire picture. My personal opinion is that it is no longer possible for any film – not just this one – to scare audiences in the way that, say,Psycho could when it was a new type of cinematic experience. So in order to have our cinematic hunger gratified we have to look for other things.
I’ve always felt that the existing body of films from the past can provide us with a way to participate actively in a new film, and that is either through obvious direct visual quoting or through a scene that at least awakens a memory in us of a prior film, even if this is not the director’s actual intention. One example in Shutter: the characters see images in photographs of things that were not physically present in the time and place of the photograph. This immediately conjures up the scenes in The Omen where the exact same phenomenon prophetically occurred. And, of course, the truth and/or falsity of what a camera can capture has been a cinematic preoccupation since Blow Up. And an image that Kubrick played with in The Shining – that of a woman who appears to be sexy and beautiful from the front but who is revealed in actuality to be a decomposing corpse when we see her from the back – shows up here as well. And these are just three examples that I caught in just one viewing, in a theater with sixty screaming kids around me throwing popcorn. And I don’t think it really matters very much if the director (Masayuki Ochiai) has the specific intention of quoting or referring in this manner, or not. If he does, fine; if he doesn’t, it speaks to the power of the images in their own right and for their own sake. And it jostles the viewer’s imagination into making connections for itself. We hate to dabble in cliches, but as directed by Ochiai and photographed by Katsumi Yanagishima the poetry of the images is breathtaking. Aerial views of both New York and Tokyo are outstanding (and the natural beauty of Mount Fuji too). The visual style is very cool, very steely and detached, very ice blue in tone. I mentioned Blow Up earlier, and I think the way the hipness of 1960s London was portrayed there is a very definite influence on the way a sort of international, boundaryless hipness of today – personified by the sensational Maya Hazen in female mode and by the near brilliant James Kyson Lee in the masculine example – is done here. Ochiai, like Michael Mann, has the gift of being able to speak volumes of exposition without dialogue. As an example, Jane’s jealous nature is communicated twice by facial expressions, reactions she makes to how Japanese women approach Ben, with crystal clear clarity without a single word being spoken.
This film is really about things like, How much should you know about your spouse’s background? What is the nature of stalking? Of taking justice into your own hands? And finally it’s about the blending of cultures into a true kind of internationalism. Again, a lot of this is visual. The Tokyo skyline could just as easily be the skyline of an American city. The young Japanese professionals throughout all speak English and dress like Americans, just as Ben and his friends move easily and fluently through the Japanese language and customs. Not overtly political at all, but definitely functioning in a manner as to indicate we’re all going to be moving deeper and deeper into Global Village mode as the twenty first century advances.
Shutter is pretty capable moviemaking. Don’t believe the (negative) hype.
Peter Quinones is the author of the #1 Amazon Besteller, the book of stories Postmodern Deconstruction Madhouse.
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