A man wakes up in a dark, coffin-like space. He can barely move, but move he must if he wants to survive, because he is bleeding from an abdominal wound. As he slowly works his way through this cramped, claustrophobic labyrinth, he encounters a mysterious woman and struggles to piece together the fragments of his own memory.
This is Haze, a 49-minute long short feature written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto – who also stars as the film’s hapless protagonist. I am a big fan of Tsukamoto’s strange, low-budget breed of Japanese thriller. He first wowed audiences with his frantic 1989 film Tetsuo: The Iron Man but has since impressed with a number of idosyncratic, disturbing and fetishistic thrillers including Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Tokyo Fist, Nightmare Detective and A Snake of June. He has an ardent fan base internationally, where he is arguably more popular than he is at home.
Haze is one of his best works: both provocative and daring.This is a highly abstract film; one which does not provide the viewer with context or backstory. Instead it throws us into the deep end without enough information to really grasp what is going on, and then expects us to tread water through to the end. The lack of context makes it feel particularly nightmarish. Because of the tightly confined setting we rarely get to see anything except in extreme close-ups. I used to think that Neil Marshall’s The Descent was the most claustrophobic horror film ever made. Tsukamoto has it beat. One scene in particular sees the nameless protagonist making his way down a long dark passageway. It is so narrow that he has to shuffle sideways, his mouth biting around a long stretch of pipe attached to one of the walls. He can only fit by straining to accomodate the pipe between his jaws. You can hear the sound of his teeth scraping its surface. It is extraordinarily difficult to sit through, more likely inspiring flinch reaction that a sense of entertainment. As a visceral experience of horror, however, it’s absolutely remarkable. It is not a horror of jumps and scares so much as one of disgust and rising dread: that is a much more difficult effect to create, and thus makes Haze seem all the more impressive.
I think there’s enormous opportunity for short features such as this: there is often too much material to an idea for it to work as a short film (although Haze was originally edited to a briefer 25 minutes), but at 90 minutes or more the same idea would lose impact. The problem is finding a market for such films: too long to be a short and too short to be a feature. What’s a director to do?
An earlier version of this review was published at The Angriest on 13 May 2014.