Cure (1997) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An old creepy psychological thriller by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 1997 film “Cure”, whose 4K restoration version is released in South Korean theaters in this week, is an unnervingly creepy and insidious masterwork to be appreciated for many good reasons. While you may be disappointed if you expect your average clean-cut thriller flick, it will deftly immerse you into its subtle but palpably ominous atmosphere once you go along with its rather twisty journey into darkness, and you will find yourself chilled a lot more expected around the very final shot of the movie.

At the beginning, the movie puts us right into a bizarre case of serial killings which has baffled a detective named Takabe (Kōji Yakusho) and his colleagues a lot. In each incident, a seemingly normal citizen suddenly committed a brutal act of killing in an uncannily identical pattern, but, while willingly confessing what she or he did, all of those murderers do not know or remember at all what actually motivated them.

While Takabe and a psychologist named Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) keep searching for anything common among those murderers besides their identical killing pattern, the movie also shows us what is happening on the opposite side. We are introduced to a mysterious lad named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), and the movie calmly observes how this elusive young dude works upon his latest target. On the surface, Mamiya seems to be suffering some odd case of amnesia, and his latest target, a young married schoolteacher, willingly lets him stay at his residence, but Mamiya soon comes to shows his true color while talking a bit with his latest target. He simply asks a seemingly plain personal question, but, along with his increasingly insidious passive-aggressive attitude, that seems to strike something inside his latest target somehow, and that is subsequently followed by another atrocious incident to be added to Takabe’s case.

As alternating between Takabe’s ongoing investigation and Mamiya’s rather random wandering, the movie shocks and chills us via a series of striking moments which are all the more disturbing due to the uttermost detachment beneath them. At one point, cinematographer Tokushô Kikumura’s camera remains static while merely looking at what is about to be happen in front of a small police station sooner or later, and we come to brace for ourselves even though everything feels utterly mundane and detached on the screen. The following interrogation scene is also chillingly phlegmatic as the performers in the scene flatly deliver their lines, and then the mood becomes unexpectedly intense when Takabe attempts something risky on the interrogated person.

And then there comes a sort of breakthrough thanks to the latest incident of killing, but Takabe subsequently finds himself becoming much more agitated than before. There is something about Mamiya which frustrates and disturbs Takabe a lot, and that makes Takabe more obsessed with whatever Mamiya is planning behind his decidedly blank appearance. Regardless of whether he is really an amnesiac or not, Mamiya looks like enjoying toying with Takabe, and it looks quite possible to Takabe that Mamiya somehow found some diabolical method to manipulate others’ minds.

Never clarifying much what Mamiya exactly does to his targets, the movie instead focuses more on Takabe’s psychological implosion behind his stoic façade. Several early scenes in the film already showed us the growing estrangement between him and his wife who apparently has some serious mental problem, and the anxiety beneath their rather barren domestic life is often represented by the recurring sound of an empty washing machine. While she really needs more help than her routine visit to her psychiatrist, it is apparent that he also needs some rest and therapy, and we are not so surprised when he suddenly suffers a sort of mental breakdown later in the story.

As soberingly observing the accumulating crisis of its hero, the movie eventually comes to us as a social horror fable. It subtly implies that Mamiya’s certain frequent question functions as some kind of trigger for all that personal anger and discontent suppressed in the name of social conformity and normalcy, and it goes without saying that Takabe eventually comes to confront his own darkness like any other flawed heroes of noir thriller films.

While the finale is rather ambiguous with some unresolved story elements, the movie still holds our attention nonetheless, and then it strikes us quite hard via what is so casually presented in the last scene. I must confess that I am still scratching my head on how to process and interpret this scene, but I admire how effortlessly Kurosawa delivers the underlying dramatic impact. As looking at what is presented during the following end credits, I came to reflect more on what and how the movie is about, and the movie came to feel creepier to me than before.

In conclusion, “Cure” can be a sort of acquired tasted to you, but you may find yourself mesmerized by its distinctive creepiness and unconventional storytelling. Although some of Kurosawa’s later works such as “Tokyo Sonata” (2008) and “Wife of a Spy” (2020) are more accessible in comparison, the movie, which considerably influenced Oscar-winning South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (It is actually one of his all-time favorite films, by the way), still exudes its dark and insidious power even after 25 years, and I am glad that I finally watched it at a movie theater.

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