Hideo Nakata's Chaos

In the opening scene of Hideo Nakata's Chaos, a married couple sits enjoying a meal at an upscale restaurant. They smile, seemingly pleased with the food and with each other's company, and yet something isn't quite right. The husband (Masato Hagiwara) can't bring himself to cut his food, and requires the assistance of his wife (Miki Nakatani). After the meal, she disappears. Later that afternoon, he receives a phone call from her kidnapper (Ken Mitsuishi) demanding a hearty ransom and establishing the legitimacy of his threat by putting his breathless captive on the phone. Again, this scene isn't what it first appears to be. After kicking the current cycle of Japanese horror films into overdrive with 1998's Ring and its sequel (an American remake of the original was a major hit last fall), director Hideo Nakata decided to take a break from the genre with this 1999 film. Though not a proper horror movie, Chaos hardly marks a break from the unsettling and the macabre. Hiding his characters' ultimate motives–and ultimate capabilities–Nakata keeps the threat of violence on hand at all times, heightening the tension with an austere style that makes the smallest gesture look significant and potentially deadly. The never-ending double-crosses echo Blood Simple, and a later development echoes Vertigo, but the film's most distinguished feature is also its most frustrating. Chaos' fractured narrative, in which flashbacks come and go with no warning, often make its title seem too apt. Confusion is built into the design scheme, and part of the director's overall interest lies in exploring how appearances get constructed, but it can still be overwhelming on the first pass, straight through to a truly curious ending. Still, in the end, Chaos is as compelling as it is confounding, and it's compelling in large part because of the confusion it stirs.

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