Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Movie Musing - Excuse me... who are you?

Haven't seen this poster before, dare
I say it is perfect?
I recently revisited Satoshi Kon’s fearsomely good thriller Perfect Blue. It is one of those movies that I can revisit and get something new out of each viewing. This time I was struck by how Kon seeds certain ideas early in the film and then gives us payoff by the end. Most of the stuff is subliminal. For example there are several scenes where Mima crosses a busy street. She has a dream where a truck hits her. She has a dangerous encounter inside a highway tunnel. All these things just seem like part of the tale, but build to the climax of the film involving a desperate foot chase in the busy city streets and a truck careening toward one of the characters. Brilliantly foreshadowed, and something I’ve never really noticed until this viewing.

But why do I keep coming back to Perfect Blue after all these years? Because it is one of my favorite kinds of horror film. It is based around the fear of self; or to put it another way, the fear of loss of control.  It is related to my least favorite scare genre: possession. But the stories and films that work for me, don’t allow me to question the “why” of the situation. That is my primary issue with possession films, I keep wondering why a demon or devil would go to these extremes. 

But with these other variants on loss of control it feels more relatable. We have all had moments where something we saw, heard or felt can be brought into question. We’ve all been sick and our bodies seem to rebel against our mind. Horror films and stories take this concept to the extreme.

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Perfect Blue does it especially well, but putting the viewer into Mima’s world from the earliest scenes. Kon does some masterful editing during the opening sequence switching from scenes of Mima’s final performance with the pop group Cham and her daily life. These edits are hard cuts with the only visual link being Mima’s pose or motion. This allows us to see what Mima is like as a member of the idol singers and as a regular woman. It also plants the seeds for the later editing techniques and reality warping style that Kon will use as Mima’s condition tilts further and further to the extreme.

Mima's Idol life in the opening scene.
Mima's real life in the same scene about 2 seconds later.
We come to understand Mima, she’s a nice girl who is reaching toward a dream – but one that isn’t really hers. Already she has control of her career removed from her before the film starts. As we watch she loses control of her personality (having to act as someone else in a film), of her body (participating in the rape scene and the  photo shoot that turns into cheesecake shots) and finally her mind (she has conversations with the pop version of herself and sees the sinister Mr. Me-mania everywhere she looks). Kon often puts us in Mima’s perspective and it gives us the feeling of loss of control. He takes the reins and shows us things that couldn’t possibly be – they are just part of the film Mima is working on, right? She isn’t really killing people, that was just a dream, right? Perfect Blue allows you to feel Mima’s insanity and her fear and does so with amazing skill, especially for the first full-length film from a director. 

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Mima’s first line as an actress is “Excuse me… who are you?” It is a question she ends up asking herself many times over the course of the film. In that way it reminds me of a similar film made the same year, Cure by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. In that film the prime suspect of a series of murders only answers in questions. And his primary question is, “Who are you?” That question seems to get various disturbing reactions from different characters throughout the film. It is a question at the heart of many of the relationships in Cure. It is a question that protagonist detective Takabe answers in the climax of the film and one that seems to settle his mind… until the final scene shows him acting as the catalyst for a whole new set of murders (at least it appears that way… we can never quite be sure).
At some point both of them ask "Who are you?"
We define ourselves in so many ways including: actions, feelings, our past, our goals, our physical presence. A good horror film has the protagonists question these, and lose control of these. David Cronenberg does this masterfully in many of his films. The Fly is the manifestation of loss of control over an experiment as well as the physical being. Videodrome does something similar with a protagonist losing control of his reality, his mind and possibly his flesh. Might be why I enjoy Cronenberg so much.

Didn't your mother ever tell you not to sit that close to the TV...
especially if David Cronenberg if filming you!
One of my favorite David Lynch films basks in this concept too: Lost Highway. Fred loses control of his anger, convinced his wife is cheating on him. This causes him to snap and kill her. His mind shatters at the same time. He becomes someone else completely. He physically changes into Pete, a different man with a different life. But is Fred insane? Is the whole episode with Pete a delusion, or is this another manifestation of the uncontrollable rage within? The movie is a dark twisted puzzle that is filled with horror and fear. Lynch’s surreal imagery makes it more impactful, you feel like you’ve lost control as well, hurtling into the darkness along the Lost Highway.

Insanity noire.
Interesting that Lost Highway also came out in 1997. Something must have been going around that year, fear of losing our identity maybe? Fear of the world spinning out of control? Y2K looming in the horizon. Who knows, but having Lost Highway, Cure and Perfect Blue all come out the same year seems like more and a simple coincidence... or is it just my mind playing tricks on me.

Two women... one woman... don't think about it too long, or you won't
stay sane.
I could go on and on, but this type of horror film will probably always be my favorite. Because, yeah I’m a bit of a control freak, and losing control can be terrifying. In many of these films the characters find a way to get back in control, or accept that some things are out of their control. It ends with someone looking into the mirror and knowing exactly who they are… even if that is a deranged killer.

"Excuse me, who are you?"
Just had to add this. Seems like quite a few
of us want Criterion to release the Perfect Blu-ray.


  1. Carl Jung considered facing one's dark side (the "shadow," which perhaps can look back from the mirror), accepting it, and integrating it into one's personality to be essential for health. All the same, I'd rather my mirror didn't actually talk.

    That's an interesting take on horror, and a better explanation of "Lost Highway" than most critics had, e.g. Roger Ebert: "I've seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it."

    1. Yeah talking mirrors are a staple of horror films, and when they are used well, they are really darn creepy.

      Heh heh, yeah Ebert wasn't a fan. I think they even put "Two Thumbs Down" on the poster for "Lost Highway" reveling in it. I plan on doing an in depth review of the film at some point. Lots of material to dig into there. The film comes together a bit better if you come at it from an intuitive fashion rather than logical. True for a lot of Lynch's "Twin Peaks" work actually.