Friday, April 24, 2009

REVIEW: The Hypnotist

催眠 (Saimin)

Released: 1999

Masayuki Ochiai

Goro Inagaki
Miho Kanno
Takeshi Masu
Ken Utsui
Yuki Watanabe

Running time: 110 min.

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

A quick question at the outset...Does knowing the director's intent have any bearing on your enjoyment of a film? Do you even care what a filmmaker is trying to say or do you simply pull your own meaning from the story and visuals? Many people love the works of Ed Wood Jr., but they likely aren't loving those films in the way Ed initially intended. Or what of Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow Up" and its examination of people's own perceptions of reality? Is it OK that some people focus on the murder mystery plot? There's some great discussion to be had about the relevance of what a film was meant to be and what it ends up meaning to you. Masayuki Ochiai's 1999 movie "The Hypnotist" doesn't fit into that conversation though...Because I'm not convinced Ochiai himself had any idea what he was trying to do with it.

OK, that's an unfair comment. The inconsistent tone, pace and style of the film is not necessarily a reason for criticism. I suppose that if you're going to make a broad comic farce that also happens to be a spooky-ish mystery thriller with touches of melodrama, gore and a serious message about humanity, then you can't really be restricted to standard conventions. The problem is the movie becomes a grab bag of different styles and never settles into any rhythm.

The story opens by flipping between four separate events: a controlled demonstration of hypnotism and three apparent suicides. The deaths all share some similar characteristics since each person is behaving normal until a metallic sound occurs (a ringing bell or clanging of some kind). This triggers an implanted hypnotic state at which point they begin talking about green monkeys before they kill themselves via feats of strength that surpass human tolerance (e.g. running so hard that your bones break). The soundtrack implies a scary atmosphere filled with dread, but the visuals belie this. The effects of bones breaking and windows shattering are quite clunky as is the very broad acting of the victims. However, when the spiffy opening credits reminded me of an "Outer Limits" type TV show, I thought that perhaps I had misjudged what the film would be. Sadly, things changed up on me yet again - a pattern that continued throughout the entire running time.

There are moments of creative editing and foreshadowing that actually manage to engage you in the plot though. Particularly when the young psychologist and older cop are discussing the possibility that hypnotism could be at the root of the deaths. Further investigation lands their focus on a TV show hypnotist who appears to be using his skills to tap into a single deep fear of the victims which will rise to the surface later and become overwhelming. As they realize that anyone could be susceptible to this, the older cop opines that "Humans are losing their hearts" and that humanity has suffered through a great number of psychological bruises. Unfortunately, any good will built up by these moments is rapidly drained as we get treated to additional occasions of the psychologist yelling his theories or of the bumbling and inept young female detective dropping something or throwing up at a death scene.

The funniest scene in the movie may very well have been intended as one of the most tension-filled moments. Upon discovering that the hypnotic state is kicked off by any kind of metallic sound, the young psychologist bursts into a concert hall to try to save a detective he believes has been implanted with the suggestions. As he causes disruption, both he and the detective realize that the clanging will be caused by the ringing of a triangle in the orchestra. Now the race is on - can they make it out of the auditorium before the tuxedo-clad triangle player rings his instrument? It's the kind of scene that would fit perfectly in a parody of police thrillers until it suddenly shifts back into being a normal police thriller. I don't know if Ochiai intended for me to laugh out loud and then suddenly be confused. If so, then high marks. I'm not sure that's what I was looking for though.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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