In the thick of a festival with a prominant competition, as the Berlinale has, attendees often argue over not just particular films but also where those films were placed in the festival's various sections. Ultimately, what these debates tend to boil down to is whether a film "deserves" to be in the spotlight of the competition—or not. When a major director's latest movie is accepted by a festival but not given this most prominant of positions it casts into doubt its qualities—or those of the programmers.
One such mystery here are Berlin was why Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Creepy, a detective tale freely adapted from an award-winning novel by Yukata Maekawa, was stranded in the "Berlinale Special" section (as is Terence Davies' wonderful Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion), thus neither competing in the festival's cavernous, red-carpet fed Palast, nor placed among the edgier cinema programmed by the Forum. Such quibbles undoubtably will evaporate into film history the moment the Berlinale is over, but in the microcosmic world of the festivities, such programming decisions can feel like significant statements of judgment.
Creepy may not be the masterpiece of Kurosawa's Cure or Charisma that some of the filmmaker's fans are continually looking for, just like some acolytes of Johnnie To forever want him to make another The Mission. But then again, Kurosawa has always been a B movie director at his core, with a love for pulp material that he slows down and draws out, mining the schlock and cliché of horror films and thrillers for their deep metaphysical unease. He films a world broken and disturbed at its core, so how can we expect perfection from such a vision?
After the ghost romance Journey to the Shore, which debuted last year at Cannes, Kurosawa has returned to the genre he is most known for, and as usual those expecting a straight-forward detective tale may be disappointed. Even though Creepy's hero is a retired detective, he has taken a step back from investigating serial killers for a quieter life with his wife in a new neighborhood and a teaching job. While flirting with detective conventions, this shift from the official to the private sphere means that the story's mystery is not about solving a crime, but rather the disturbing possibility of crime surrounding every day life. While bringing gifts to their new neighbors, the husband and wife discover a deep mistrust of those around them, the sense that they are breaching unspoken rules of privacy. Through this small and common nuance, where odd behavior may connote rudeness as much as it could inspire suspicion, Creepy peels back social conventions to reveal the uncanny that lays under the placid fact that we all live among strangers.
For this ex-detective suspicion is precisely what his new neighbor, who is by turns asocial and ingratiating, inspires. We know immediately this man is trouble, and for the film's first half Kurosawa has the couple squirm between trying to politely befriend the man and his unusual family that lives next door, and edging away from his uneven behavior. At the same time, the husband's college work on serial killers dredges up the unsolved case of a family's sudden disappearance and the strange memory lapse of their surviving child. This victim mixes up memories with dreams—under questioning by the husband, his office's lighting dims to a shadow world of recounted pain—in a somnolent manner characteristic of the film's steady, oneiric tone. The classes on killers, the unsolved crime, the bizarre neighbor: Creepy's world quietly hums an ambient eeriness. Something horrible seems to be lurking nearby, an idea that stains the world with a hushed restraint, as if it's holding back terrible secrets.
It is a subject perfectly suited to this director's style, here shooting, as in Journey to the Shore, in cinemascope widescreen, spacing his characters out to be alone even in cramped interiors. Outside, their slack figures, back to us, are lonely as wraiths. Separation and emptiness rule the images, subtly draining this couple's life of a sense that others are living around them, busy and happy—or even indeed that they are completely present in their own marriage. We see university students through panes of glass and the odd commuter or jogger, but Kurosawa has a truly uncanny knack of making it seems like the room you are watching is the only inhabited one in the entire world, that a city's houses lay entirely vacant, that our hero and heroine are unknowingly living in a dream, haunted.
We later shift to the horrid basement of shabby nightmares that the neighbor has been rather poorly hiding. The revelation is hardly a surprise, as the story is weighted heavily with fatalism, as if "creepiness" has a kind of fascination or gravitational pull: once noticed it is impossible to escape from. As we see more of the madman's method, Creepy pushes farther and farther away from realism, towards a kind of ghastly, muffled phantasmagoria. The layout of the killer's lair is blatantly architecturally impossible, his victims irrationally drawn deep inside its dank corridors, and the terrifying introduction of a serum draining victims of their will finally underlines the sneaking suspicion that we've moved out of the realm of crime into the realm of metaphysical torment. All is, admittedly, a bit absurd. Kurosawa often treads close to dark comedy in his perverse, implacable twisting of genre conventions, a tone no better exemplified in Creepy than with Max, the hugely shaggy dog owned by the couple, who cannot but goofily steal any scene he's in, no matter how solemn. But the gravest of concerns always edges close to comedy. Because, indeed, the family history lurking in each passerby, hidden behind the locked doors that surround us...to walk through such a world without fear must take either naivety or a black sense of humor, because without those weapons the possibilities suggested by this film are absolutely terrifying.