Film Review: Shadow Spirit

Bottom line: A nightmarish mystery-horror that unravels plot-within-plots like Chinese boxes

Venue: Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival

BUCHEON, South Korea -- "Shadow Spirit" is ostensibly a murder mystery about the serial dismemberment of teenage girls set in 1950s Japan. The twisted psychology of "Boxing Helena" springs to mind, but this crime maps a pathology that's more philosophical, with roots in the evils of war.

Adapting from a bestseller "Mouryou no hako" ("Demons' Box"), Masato Harada ("Climbers' High," "The Suicide Song") makes the production technically refined and visually strong enough to keep the audience suspended between horror, disgust and fascination. It performed acceptably in the domestic market. Elsewhere, TV and specialist Asian releases are possible.

The box motif alludes to human obsessions -- money, love, nationalism, scientific development - like the demons in Pandora's Box. It is the cause of a childhood trauma and triggers a soldier's sick hallucinations. It is the clue to limbs of murdered girls found randomly, in turn linked to a religious cult that worships a sacred casket. Then there is the ominous, cubic building where a scientist conducts human experiments dating back to a fiendish wartime policy.

The novel was thought to defy screen adaptation given the sizeable cast of enigmatic characters all linked by six degrees of separation, a plot with the mechanical sophistication of Swiss clockwork and scenes of unbridled warped fantasy.

The film is not any simpler, unfolding at least six narrative strands, cross-woven with each other. Excessive flashbacks from a few hours to a decade or two make it even harder to comprehend relationships. Only in the last 20 minutes (when special effects make their mark in a scene recalling "The City of Lost Children") are causal relations between every incident and person revealed.

The cast of character actors all give solid performances, but only the bad guys express psychological depth. Hiroshi Abe has the lead role as a detective who reads others' memories, but after an intriguing build-up, his psychic powers are all but forgotten at the halfway mark. Shot partly on location in China's Zhejiang province, and among beautiful Japanese temple grounds, the elegant art direction by Noriyoshi Ikeya (who served Seijun Suzuki and Shuji Terayama) recreates a melancholy, Old World feel that mirrors Japan's scarred and mangled national psyche still in rehab after World War II.

Geneon Entertainment/Asahi National Broadcasting Company/MCF. Planning/Ogura Jimusyo Co./Showgate/"Shadow Spirits" Production Committee. Cast: Hiroshi Abe, Shinichi Tsutumi, Hitomi Kuroki, Rena Tanaka, Kippei Shiina, Hiroyuki Miyasako, Akira Emoto. Screenwriter-director: Masato Harada. Based on the novel by: Natsuhiko Kyogoku. Planner: Nobuyuki Touya. Producers: Kiyoshi Inoue, Satoru Ogura, Issei Shibata. Director of Photography: Katsumi Yanagishima. Art director: Noriyoshi Ikeya. Music: Takatsugu Muramatsu. Costume designer: Makie Miyamoto. Editor: Hiroshi Sunaga. Sales: Geneon Entertainment. No rating, 113 minutes.
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