DECEMBER 19, 2012
Are certain filmmakers legally prohibited from telling stories in a conventional manner? There is absolutely no reason for Black Rat to be presented in such a convoluted way, telling its fairly traditional revenge story with the use of excessive flashbacks (including three to the same moment in time) and at least one unnecessary plot twist, unless there was some law preventing them from just telling the damn story and letting the audience get attached to what is happening in it. It's not as baffling as say, the Ju-On films, but still - keep it simple!
It's especially frustrating here, because the revenge slasher demands that we sympathize and identify with the characters more than the usual spookfest ghost movie, but the mangled timeline makes it hard to get a handle on the victim and why they're hellbent on seeking revenge. Take a movie like Terror Train - we get why Kenny is so enraged, and we fully understand that the bulk of the protagonists deserve what's coming to them (well, at least Doc). But here, the victim (Asuka)'s tragedy doesn't quite correlate to what she (or someone acting on her behalf) is doing to her peers in the present - all that we really learn is that they didn't like her much. Hey man, some folks just don't gel with one another. No need to kill them because they didn't invite you to karaoke or whatever.
But it's the chronology that really stings; even with their "crime" being far less villainous than Terror Train's (or Slaughter High, Carrie, etc), it would be easy to get on board with it if the info wasn't presented near the end. I kept waiting for some "holy shit" moment, where we learn that they had done something horrible to her, but instead with each bit of info I found the killer's actions less justified, with many of the flashbacks merely stressing what we already know - Asuka needed better friends. Not that there's ever a 100% OK reason to kill someone, but if it's the "I Know What You Did" scenario or something, we can at least go along with it long enough for the ride - we shouldn't be asking ourselves why they deserve to die before they even do so.
I was also a bit put off by the correlation between the tragedy (a suicide) and the killer's getup - a goofy rat mask, like something a school mascot might wear. It was mangled up a bit, and I guess it could be creepy under the right circumstances, but with the killer's silly "tests" (one has to perform a karaoke song perfectly or she will be killed, another is forced to play soccer) the potential for creepiness was already diluted enough - even a Michael Myers mask would seem a bit silly with this MO, so the rat thing just puts it over the top. Yet at its core the movie is about a very sad girl who committed suicide - are we supposed to be laughing, or feeling bad? Either way, it's not quite compatible.
That said, it's an enjoyable enough slasher, with some fine kills and a fast pace that I found refreshing, since neither are usually the strong points in a J-horror film. And had the story been built toward more interesting reveals, the flashback structure would work - letting us know a bit of the history at a time until it all comes to a head (like any good episode of Lost), with the final piece having everything fall into place in a way that makes us want to watch it again to see what we missed (like "Did we really never see John Locke standing up throughout this episode?"). It wasn't so much that the flashback idea was unnecessary - it was just unnecessary for this particular story, and the extra twist (involving a character we never really got to meet before) made it more confusing, especially since this part of the reveal involved a sequence where the killer seemed to be in two places at once (for a second I thought there was an additional timeline going on, as they both have the same clothes on as well).
Also, despite the costuming issue I just mentioned, director Kenta Fukasaku (who handled a convoluted structure in X-Cross with far greater results, IMO) does a fine job of making the kids distinctive. Even with the same clothes, low lighting, and a structure that basically starts us in the middle of the story and branches back and forth from there, I never got anyone mixed up, which is rare for this sort of thing. It helps that there's a sort of children's story (about rats) paralleling this one, so they sort of tell you who's who right off the bat ("One always smiles" "One is timid", etc). They're not exactly well-rounded, completely interesting characters, but at least I never found myself having "Wait, which one was he dating? Isn't she dead? Oh, wait, no that's the other one" type conversations in my head. Even when multiple people start wearing the rat mask, I had a strong grasp on who was who and where they were in relation to one another in the school, so that's a plus, or else I might have been even more confused.
In short - nothing mind-blowing, and I probably wouldn't recommend it to the typical slasher fan who was just interested in seeing a new killer design or some creative/gory kills, but if you enjoy a "challenge" of sorts I think it will suit you just fine. Bloody Reunion (which Netflix recommended viewing once this concluded) is still the best Asian slasher film I've seen, but this is a solid enough entry in what is a sadly limited sub-sub-genre. Just don't expect to be able to watch with any distractions!
What say you?