Angel Dust marked Sogo Ishii's return to feature filmmaking after an almost ten-year hiatus, and it shows: it is bewildering and technically superb in about equal measure. After The Crazy Family, Ishii made a slew of nontheatrical films, and came back to feature filmmaking with his anarchic attack heavily restrained, or maybe refined. Or maybe also blunted.
Films like this trouble me, because they are so adept and yet at the same time fall to pieces when you examine them closely. What could have been a really strong and gripping story is undermined badly by two things: pretentiousness (in both the story's approach and in the material itself) and needless confusion passing for ambiguity. There's a big difference between leaving something open-ended and simply dumping the pieces in the audience's lap and expecting them to figure everything out. In one, you're letting them use their minds; in the other, you're evincing simple contempt for them.
Angel Dust is a trendy serial-killer movie in something of the same vein as Se7en or Silence of the Lambs, with creepy music and disturbing images mated to an equally unsettling story. Set in a pale, unpleasant-looking modern-day Tokyo, it opens with a series of murders being committed at six p.m. on the dot, all on the same city subway line. Ishii uses alternating close focus and zoom lenses to enhance the feeling of the impersonal, crushing crowds. These opening scenes are marvelous mood-setters and portents for the way the rest of the movie operates.
Then by way of a jarring hallucination / dream sequence, we are introduced to Setsuko Suma (Kaho Minami), the forensic psychologist who has been assigned to the subway serial-killer case. She has a peculiar way of being able to empathize with her subjects, and uses that empathy to either predict their next moves or learn things about them that conventional forensics cannot. Ishii sets her up nicely, especially in a wonderful shot where she is surrounded by symmetrical halls and corridors and then enters the conference room — which is staffed entirely with rows of equally symmetrical men. She is a woman in a man's profession, in a male-dominated society, and one of the truly odd things is how the movie is like a regressive journey back from her independence and self-assertion.
Clues in the case are almost impossible to come by. A re-enactment of one of the death scenes turns up nothing (not that we expected it would). Then Setsuko receives an unexpected break in the case and is led back to Dr. Rei Aku (Takeshi Wakamatsu), her former colleague and lover. Aku came to infamy for his unorthodox deprogramming techniques of former cult members, and several of the victims appear to have been ex-patients of his. Could he be behind this — say, using a programmed zombie to kill people who know a little too much about the way he really operates? Or is that in itself misleading?
Ishii enjoys stacking the deck against him at first, and does this through casting: Wakamatsu embodies Aku as a smirking, icy, wholly unlikable character, a polar opposite to the stately and gentle Setsuko. The falling out between the two extends into this matter as well, and Aku seems to enjoy putting one over his former lover by not giving her anything to work with. The two of them eventually collide in a battle of wills, only to find that they are in fact both victims of a sort, and I will leave it at that for the sake of those still interested despite my complaints.
Ishii shoots modern-day Tokyo in cold greens and blues, under harsh fluorescent lighting or dimly lit by TV monitors. When there's sunlight, it's either blinding or wan. He also uses sledgehammer repetitions — noises, loops of music, sequences of images — to induce a semi-detached state in the audience. After a while, what's going on is not as important as the numbing mood he's generating — what's going to happen is outside of our control, much like the brain-dead ex-cult members Aku works with in a bleak extended sequence that takes place entirely on a video screen. There is also one recurring image that is used brilliantly — a gaping cave's mouth into which the camera plunges, inside which we will either find enlightenment or oblivion, it seems.
The bad news is that the story has not been given the same level of attention as the visuals and the sounds. Instead of getting real motives, we get psychobabble, described in terms so stilted and weird that only the technical advisor to this film could love it. There's also a preponderance of red herrings, the most jarring of which is a revelation about Setsuko's current lover that is simply thrown in without any explanation at all. Too much is either unexplained, or when it is explained, it's explained in a way that clarifies nothing and simply leaves people's heads spinning. Someone else said that the movie's stylization is so absorbing that the problems with the plotting only bother you after the movie is over, but I felt bothered all the way through. The movie takes itself way too seriously to just be a feverish style-burner like one of Dario Argento's giallo.
It would be criminal of me to talk about a movie like this and ruin the ending in the process, but Angel Dust's ending is such a letdown, so far afield from the movie's real concerns, that it very nearly sinks the film completely. For one thing, Ishii gives us an ending which tries to tie up everything so neatly that it sinks into complete implausibility. Instead of trying to face down the real darkness inherent in his story (the way Se7en did), he tapdances around it with a deus ex machina. He also gives us a questionable turnabout of character for Setsuko, so much so that I felt disappointed with the character the way I would with a friend who had betrayed me. Maybe that was the idea, but it's hard to say what "the idea" is with a movie this purposelessly vague.
Ishii was criticized for abandoning his formerly wild and anarchic filmmaking style for something more stately and reserved, but that's not the big reason Angel Dust is such a fizzle. It does mark the first of many attempts for him to reconcile his older, more in-your-face style with a newer sensibility, and in that sense it's not a total loss. Gojoe would be a much better synthesis of the two, but here at least you can see some of the seeds of that movie's approach. And, like many good directors, while Ishii can sometimes make a bad movie, or at least not a great one, he seems incapable of making one which isn't visually stimulating in just about every shot.