If there’s one genre that the Japanese take way too seriously it’s in horror, not that I’d necessarily dispute was a bad thing in the slightest. For years we’ve been subjected to their mastery of comedy and their knack of churning out successful melodramas. They’ve certainly helped change the face of horror in recent years and for all intents the genre should indeed remain effectively chilling. But the problem in Japan is that for every Ring and Juon there’s half a dozen other horror features that unintentionally cross the line between creepy and farcical. Masayuki Ochiai’s (Parasite Eve) Infection, then, falls into that latter category and the results are predictably hit and miss.
The story takes place in a general hospital, located in an unknown city, which is facing bankruptcy and is heading toward imminent closure. Considerably understaffed, running out of medical supplies and with no room left, its representative Dr. Akiba (Koichi Sato) has no choice but to turn away patients. The doctors even consider placing patients in shared rooms, but run the risk of cross-infection. As it turns out they’ve been treating a heavy burns patient for the past three months, with Dr. Uozumi (Masanobu Takashima) in full charge of his case. When an emergency calls the doctors to room 3, where their mystery patient is located, ambulance staff leaves an infected patient in the emergency ward. Head nurse Shiozaki (Kaho Minami) immediately reports her find, but when she returns with Akiba there is no body to be found. Meanwhile Uozumi’s patient is critical, having fallen out of bed and the doctors and nurses in attendance attempt to save his life. Dr. Akiba instructs nurse Tachibana (Tae Kimura) to administer a certain dosage, but a fatal error of judgement on his part sees that she gives the patient the wrong drug, which subsequently kills him. The staff is left with two options: report the death and mistreatment and risk losing their jobs, or cover it up and keep their fingers crossed. They opt to go both ways, by speeding up the decomposing process, thus eliminating any potential anomalies and handing the body over to the authorities.
When Akiba and Uozumi discover the liquefied missing patient they almost puke, but Dr. Akai (Shiro Sano) asks them to help him study the patient, so that they might find a new strand of virus and become mega rich. Naturally the two doctors want no part of it, but unlucky for them Dr. Akai knows of their little secret. Soon things get all gooey and the doctors and nurses try to find out what’s going on and then it all goes mental.
Scripted by Ochiai and the writer behind the successful Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown) TV drama and movie spin-offs, Ryoichi Kimizuka, Infection deserved to turn out better than the oddball mess we ended up with. You see here we have a story that initially starts off quite promising; it gets right to the heart of the matter, with a hospital facing imminent closure and struggling to accommodate its patients, while the doctors and nurses have yet to receive their paycheques. In an interview conducted with Ochiai in regards to his film he firmly states that the intent here is to highlight the poor state of the modern healthcare service in Japan, which also happens to relate highly toward the educational and judicial systems. Certainly he delivers his case in point for much of the first half. In fact it’s all quite obvious and needs little addressing. Ochiai creates a solid atmosphere as the hospital is gradually overcome by panic, while patients are continually brought in suffering from unknown illnesses and the doctors have no choice but to turn them away. This creates an abundance of ethical dilemmas which inevitably gears toward the doctors themselves turning into corrupt and selfish people, in an attempt to safeguard their careers when a patient is accidentally administered the wrong drug and dies. Naturally this angle plays out very effectively in further highlighting inherant codes of honour and furthermore the strict employment system which would see these doctors and nurses written off the planet. Doesn’t sound very scary so far, does it?
By now we know to expect psychological horror features from Japan and in that respect this plays no differently by presenting an ensemble that finds horrors within itself. Like all psychological horrors Infection has to provide some sort of twist in order to make sense of everything that’s happened over the past hour or so, but in the case of Ochiai’s film one can’t help but think that the final resolution is all but tacked on. It’s very much a groan inducing scenario, with a twist that director’s have been pulling out of their bag ever since Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in 1920. Ordinarily such a thing might excuse some of what we’ve seen prior, as it begins to put things into perspective, but unfortunately for Infection it does little to do away with its maddeningly surreal and unintentionally funny displays of acting and shoddy scares. Nothing stops the fact that what we’ve been witnessing is some kind of Scooby Doo episode in which a bunch of doctors and nurses try to track down a runaway pile of goo, playing it totally straight of course. In fact I honestly don’t know how any of them kept straight faces while delivering some of the lines here. Yes, it’s quite silly throughout, but as previously stated it’s the silly of the not-so-good variety. Eventually said goo multiplies and we get more goo, which starts to run out of every facial orifice until each and every character - literally - dissolves, but not before doing the obligatory zombie style display of arms stretched out, head tilted to one side. When all is said and done it leaves us without a single scare, or remotely creepy moment, and the ones that should give us pause for thought are sadly shrouded by ill conceived plot devices. This is a story that according to the director was fifteen years in the making, spurred on by an idea he once had while working on a TV show. Nobody would be blamed then for expecting something a lot tighter.
Ochiai also stumbles over his own cast from time to time; it’s not that anyone isn’t particularly good in their given role, but that there are far too many characters for him to know what to do with. Realistically we need only five or six maximum, and for the most part our attention is focused on the important figureheads. However, the director diverts our attention during several intervals by having us spend time with totally insignificant players, such as Nurse Azumi Madoka (Mari Hoshino), Dr. Nakazono (Michiko Hada) and the chap who’s obsessed with performing sutures. I say insignificant purely because there’s little to no investment to be had in any of them. This is a shame because Azumi is originally set up brilliantly, being the rookie twenty three year old who can’t earn respect from her peers due to her incompetence and lack of confidence. She’s constantly belittled by Nurse Yuko (Yoko Maki), which illustrates the hardships and responsibility involved in becoming a top medical employee, but sadly she ends up being a little underused and finally crops up again for a silly twist of fate. Likewise the suture guy (I honestly can’t find this actor and his character name is never mentioned in the film) sits in a room stitching away while we wonder what the entire point of this exercise is. Due to the way in which the director frequents in and out it’s obvious he plays some part in all of this, but the final result is rather anti-climactic and we’re left to ask “Was all of this really necessary?” But the cast perform admirably given the constraints, even if they are taking the whole thing a little too seriously. Most notably of course is Koichi Sato in the lead, who has the burden of carrying the entire film and is the essential cog that keeps things moving along. Masanobu Takashima is just about the only other actor who vies for equal screen time, while Kaho Minami does what she can and Shiro Sano is left to stare Poe-faced as the seemingly cold-hearted and devoid of soul Dr. Akai. It’s one thing to make a point with several extra characters, but they need to be worked into the script a lot better than this, rather than be tossed into the sidelines.
Yet despite all of this Infection is surprisingly decent to watch and Ochiai captures a nice tonal balance, which not only makes the film pleasant to look at but also stresses one of the vital points, that which leans toward scientific significance in relation to the human state of mind and more specifically the way in which the brain functions in conceptualising objects. He manages to squeeze in this extra plot point quite effectively and uses important colours to signify certain environmental changes; primarily green and blue hues, and on occasion red, which deepen as the film progresses. In saying that I often find directors using similar palettes in fleshing out the aesthetics so that they conform to what we traditionally associate horror with; moreover we’ve the dirtied walls, which is quite unusual early on and some solid, foreboding lighting which does enough to make us not like this hospital very much; all this with the aid of digital cameras, which can so easily go wrong. In terms of setting up his film Masayuki Ochiai can’t be faulted to a great extent and I firmly believe that if given the right script and a bigger budget he could do wonders in future.
This is another in the “J-Horror” series: a six-film project supervised by producer Takashige Ichise.
This is a standards conversion. There, that’s out of the way. Presented anamorphically with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, Infection looks quite decent. Being shot in digital it carries over a couple of negative aspects, most notably aliasing, which often seems to be problematic when transferring to film and digital disc. To make it look less flat a light grain filter seems to have been applied, which works well, though the edge enhancement doesn’t. The palette generally comes across solidly, with nice skin tones and the bleak surrounding being complimented decently with good black levels and contrast.
It would be unsurprising to learn that Infection brings with it a workable score, which does enough to emphasize the desperate nature of what we’re seeing. The sound design is fine, though it’s not particularly memorable, but at least there’s a few options with which to enjoy it. Standard fare from Tartan: DD 2.0, DD5.1 Surround and DTS 5.1. The latter tracks don’t offer considerable differences, but they’re well defined and offer some effective rear channelling with various ambient effects, though it’s certainly nothing stellar and the music tends to ramp up from time to time and take over a bit, while dialogue comes across crystal clear.
Optional English subtitles are provided and appear to offer a good translation.
Leading us into the bonus features is a “Cast & Crew Interviews” section, featuring Masayuki Ochiai and nine of the principal cast members. These are accessed individually and run for little more than a few minutes each. The questions are the usual predictable stuff, such as how was it working with the director, describe your character, do you like horror etc. “Behind the Scenes” (30.49) takes us behind various scene set-ups, starting with the Treatment Room, then Doctor’s Office, Examination Room, Room 1 and Room 3. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of film making: directing actors, creating horror, special effects and make-up, special equipment, inducing sense of fear and shooting long-cut scenes. The director does get very involved with his actors and the entire process, offering encouraging words. In addition we have him talk over much of what we’re seeing as he offers his thoughts on the film making process. “Digital Effects Exposed” (4.45) is a little odd, because we’re only shown the scenes in which computer effects appeared – not how they were achieved. Basically they’re scenes taken from the final cut and they show effective use of subtle CGI. It would have been a little nicer to see how they did them. “Japanese Press Conference” (4.45) is footage taken from the film’s early promotion in 2004. This would have been done around the same time as Premonition was being promoted, due to the poster on the wall and as such Takashige Ichise repeats what we’ve heard before, citing Ring as a major benchmark and telling us how a couple of directors have achieved success overseas as a direct result of the Japanese horror boom. From there we get very brief interviews with the director of Infection and a few of the cast members, with Koichi Sato providing his amusing thoughts on the Rasen series that he appeared in. The original theatrical trailer and a Tartan trailer reel finishes off the disc.
Infection is ultimately an awkward film. Watching it I couldn’t help but feel that it would work so much better if it just incorporated its ideas a little more loosely and presented itself in a laid back fashion. The possibilities are great; this could have been a well staged drama or even better a wonderful satire on the healthcare service, with some effective comic horror thrown in, if only Ochiai and Kimizuka freed themselves a little and the actors involved weren’t quite so restrained. It’s certainly watchable and is an amiable way to pass 90 minutes, but again I find myself sorry to say that this is yet another film that squanders its chances of becoming so much more.