Released in Japan in 1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s psychological thriller Cure was part of a new wave of Japanese cinema that crested in what was, in retrospect, a miracle year. Hayao Miyazaki’s animation Princess Mononoke smashed box office records, Takeshi Kitano’s cop-on-a-mission drama Hana-bi (or Fireworks) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and Hideo Nakata’s big-hit shocker Ring (or Ringu) launched the J-horror boom.
In this company, Cure was something of an outlier. Unlike Kitano and Miyazaki, both big names at the time, Kurosawa was a little-known director who had spent years labouring in the straight-to-video vineyards. And in contrast to those three widely released films, Cure played in relatively few cinemas, while falling into no clear genre.
After two decades, however, the film appears more formally daring and socially prescient than its contemporaries. It has horror elements, including Gary Ashiya’s ominously thrumming electronic score, but uses little in the way of standard genre scares. Instead, Kurosawa – who also wrote the script – raises goosebumps with understated atmospherics (water puddling on a dirty floor; a flimsy curtain rustling in a long-abandoned building) and a moving camera that follows characters from a discreet but somehow unsettling distance, like a trailing ghost.
Kurosawa’s terror-raising villain is a puffy-faced young man in a long coat who can’t remember his name and annoys his police interrogators, including an irritable detective (Koji Yakusho), with his repeated questions: Who are you? Where am I?
But the detective, together with a hipster psychologist, suspects that this amnesiac, eventually identified as Mamiya, knows more than he lets on, and is remotely orchestrating a series of horrific murders, whose victims are gouged with an “X” across their throats.
Meanwhile, the mind-controlled murderers can remember nothing of their crimes. And they in turn infect others. The detective begins to fear that his mentally unstable wife may become Mamiya’s next victim, but can’t stay away from him. Moth, meet flame – or rather, pocket lighter, seemingly Mamiya’s tool for hypnotising his targets.
Kurosawa would use many of these elements in his later films (the curtains are still rustling in his latest, the alien invasion film Yocho “foreboding” ) but in Cure they have a queasy freshness. The film’s psychology is questionable and its mystery is hardly mysterious, but like the best of Kurosawa’s work, Cure seems to exist in a nightmare world of its own, at once alien and infectiously familiar. You’ll never look at that puddle in the shower the same way again.
Cure will be screened on December 10 and 17 at the Hong Kong Film Archive, in Sai Wan Ho, as part of the Critics’ Choice 2017 – Cinema of Occultism programme.