There are movies that eschew explanations because none are needed, and then there are movies that eschew explanations only to come off as lazy and self-indulgent. Picnic at Hanging Rock gave us a mystery that had no answer, because none was needed. Ringu worked almost the same way — giving us enough of an answer that after a certain point our imaginations would take flight and go the rest of the way. Uzumaki tries to work in the same ambiguous mold but simply winds up falling flat on its face. It ostensibly has inexplicable horrors on its mind but winds up being about nothing much at all, because it never bothers to interest us more than superficially.
The problem is not ambiguity per se but what you do with it. Hanging Rock used its open-ended mystery to do two things: conjure up a foreboding atmosphere and make a sidelong running commentary about the presence of so-called civilized men in the wilderness. Ringu (and its American remake) used its cursed videotape premise for some dark commentary on the ubiquitousness of TV. Uzumaki (from a manga by Junji Ito, whose Tomie was made into an equally senseless movie) has no such deeper meaning: it's all sensation and images, hitched together by the loosest possible excuse for a plot and ending either when everyone is finally dead or the director has run out of ways to make the camera go in circles. You choose.
The camera does literally go in circles, by the way. The film concerns itself with a pretty young high school girl in a village which is becoming obsessed with spirals. She stumbles across a father of a close friend of hers, videotaping snails, and when his distraught son brings her over to visit one day, he shows all the signs of a man with entirely too many parts on order. "We can manifest the spiral with our own bodies," he declares, and sets his eyes twirling in opposing directions. (The girl's own father is a potter, whose endlessly rotating pottery table becomes like visual shotgun foreshadowing.)
The man's obsession with spirals consumes him: he gobbles down a whole roll of spiral-patterned treats, then swirls his soup into a whirlpool and gobbles that down. Eventually he commits suicide in a spectacularly grotesque fashion, and when cremated his ashes turn into a giant whorl that plunges into a lake nearby. Could that lake be holding dark secrets? Why is the girl's father going there for his clay, and returning with a crazed smile on his face? Eventually the wife of the dead man slides into insanity herself, tearing off her fingertips to eradicate the spirals there (and then going even further, in a way I won't describe here).
It gets weirder, if that's even possible. A boastful female classmate styles her hair in giant ringlets, hypnotizing the other kids. Students metamorphose into snails after guzzling gallons of water. Then a reporter steps in with some peculiar clues about the lake, and we expect some kind of explanation, but the movie jerks that out from under us, too, and gives us a visually over-the-top Grand Guignol climax before simply ending with a bunch of freeze-frames. It's hard to think of a more unsatisfying ending for a movie than the one found here. It also attempts to double back on itself in a way that more than one other reviewer has tried to describe as a spiral — but that's not a spiral, guys, it's a loop. Let's at least be that honest.
Director Higuchinsky invests the film with great stylistic flair, if nothing else. He inserts subliminal spiral designs here and there, and finds great new ways to manhandle the camera and load the soundtrack with eerie industrial noises. The film is lavishly shot and assembled, with striking gore effects. I admired a rather grotesque moment where someone gets twisted around a car wheel, even if I didn't admire the function it serves in the story.
The film's biggest problem is it's ultimately without a real reason to exist — it has no real point and doesn't go anywhere. It also doesn't have the staying power of the best horror films, which work by contrasting character and situation. Since no one in the film is developed beyond being a mere caricature, their downfall is all the more uninvolving. Once the basic logic is set up, there are no real surprises. In fact, come to think of it, a coherent explanation would have come as the biggest shock of all in a movie like this. Another parallel gets drawn between Uzumaki and Lovecraft, but Lovecraft at least had the nerve to tell us why the Elder Gods were so damn frightening. There's great potential for a movie here, but it never rises above being mere creepy behavior in a vacuum.
The other week I reviewed Takeshi Kitano's Sonatine, a good deal of which consisted of Kitano and his co-stars clowning around on the beach. But its story had heft and resonance, and I won't soon forget it. I'd sooner watch Kitano's clowning around on the beach again than Higuchinsky's Uzumaki.