Roommate: Film Review

Toei Films
A twisting and turning story devoid of tension and atmosphere.

Japanese A-listers Keiko Kitagawa and Kyoko Fukada star in a psychological thriller about two mentally unstable young women sharing an apartment.

Takeshi Furusawa's psychological thriller should not be mistaken as sharing the same roots as its run-of-the-mill 2011 US college-dorm slasher namesake. Not that Roommate, which made its first venture beyond Japanese shores (where it opened in November) with a Feb. 20 release in, could actually boast of being that much original than its American counterpart: an adaptation of a 1997 novel by Aya Imamura, this co-tenant-from-hell starts off like Single White Female and morphs into Sybil as it goes along, with shades of Never Talk to Strangers along the way.

Having already made his mark in the so-called J-Horror genre with films such as Ghost Train (2005) and Another (2010), Furusawa has sadly come unstuck in this narrative mash-up. Rather than spicing up the much-travelled premise with some innovative mise-en-scene or structure, the young helmer has chosen to simply ease through the proceedings with the usual cliches: grisly deaths befalling nosey characters and beloved pets, the jolt in the shower and many a flashback outlining some unspeakable childhood trauma.

There's a lot of beckoning but not much build-up to it all, and the characters and their stories are hardly fleshed out to the point of being able to generate empathy and fear for the viewer. But the presence of A-listers Keiko Kitagawa (Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift) and Kyoko Fukada (Kamikaze Girls, Yatterman) - whose performances are constrained by their thinly-sketched characters - would still bring Roommate some love, and screenings at themed showcases or home video are probably possible.

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Roommate begins with death and mayhem - or at least a very mild interpretation of it. As rain lashes down, detectives are summoned to a nightclub where a man lies bloodied and dead, while ambulance men ferry a heavily injured couple away; suspense builds as officers struggle to catch a woman leaving the crime scene, and find themselves intrigued by a diary they found there.

All this serves as a prologue: hopping back three months, the narrative proper begins with a young temp worker, Harumi Hagio (Kitagawa), wakes up in a hospital and only faintly able to recall how she was mowed down by a car. Seemingly concussed, she struggles to secure help from her mother over the telephone - a voice was heard asking her to forget about city life and return home - and finds herself an ally in the shape of a nurse called Reiko (Fukada). Quick as a flash, Reiko suggests to Harumi about becoming roommates - an idea which the latter entertains as a way to half her rental expenses.

Unsurprisingly, happy days soon give way as Reiko slowly shows signs of instability: initial signs of a personality disorder (when she is heard arguing with herself) gradually descends into horrifying acts of violence (dog lovers should look away). It's hardly a spoiler to say a multiple personality disorder is in full swing, as Harumi telling herself and her friend Keisuke (Kengo Kora) - the man who hit her in that traffic accident, and also the one revealed to be found unconscious in the opening scene - that he might have brought in more than the one roommate she bargained for.

All this is unveiled with the film barely hitting the hour mark, when the story swerves towards another tangent. As Harumi and Keisuke attempts to rationalize Reiko's behavior by attaching some childhood trauma to her, a more complicated truth gradually emerges about Harumi's actual living arrangements and her own clammed-up past.

It's at this twist that Furusawa's efforts flounder. With the twists and turns becoming yet more unconvincing and non-watertight, Roommate instills intrigue more than terror; heavily reliant on the narrative, the director rarely psychologizes. Somehow treading lightly on employing visual symbolism - there's hardly even a marked difference between Harumi's or Reiko's wardrobe, possessions or rooms, for example - Furusawa and his art director Takeshi Shimizu hasn't established the gloom and tension needed to sustain a climate of fear.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong, Feb. 20, 2014

Production Company: Toei Films with Roommate Production Committee, Kinoshita Group, Pony Canyon, Toei Video, Yomiuri Shimbun, Pia, GyaO!, Chuokoron-Shinsha

Director: Takeshi Furusawa

Cast: Keiko Kitagawa, Kyoko Fukada, Kengo Kora, Hiroyuki Onoue

Producer: Ryo Kawata

Executive Producer: Shinichiro Shirakura

Director of Photography: Takeshi Hamada

Editor: Seiji Harimoto

Art Director: Takeshi Shimizu

Music: Genichi Tsushima

International Sales: Toei Films

In Japanese

No rating, 110 minutes

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