Shutter (2008)

2008-03-21 (General release)

The wedding looks a lot like any other movie wedding: the bride is wearing white, the photographers’ lights are flashing, and the groom appears pleased with himself. Following the ceremony, the newlyweds rush back to his apartment, strewn with cameras, bulbs, and contact sheets. They’ve got a flight in an hour, Jane (Rachael Taylor) says, to accommodate Ben’s (Joshua Jackson) professional schedule. Ben’s grateful that his wife is so obliging, of course. But hey, he exults as they tumble into bed for a quick consummation, “The first stamp on your new passport will be Japan!”

Uh-oh: Jane’s in trouble now. In Asian Extreme horror remakes, bad things always happen to unsuspecting blond girls when they head East. In fact, Shutter is based on a 2004 Thai film, by Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom, in which an unmarried couple living in Bangkok ran into ghosty crises. The shift in the remake’s race and nation particulars underscores Jane’s isolation as she’s suddenly immersed in Ben’s bad past. As she finds out, he’s worked before in Tokyo: their stay this time is facilitated by the company, which provides an apartment, studio, and pretty assistant, Seiko (Maya Hazen). He also introduces Jane to a couple of Caucasian buddies, lumpy Bruno (David Denman) and slimy fashion photographer Adam (John Hensley), their ugly-Americanish camaraderie immediately odious.

As tends to happen in Asian horror movies, the trouble Jane encounters has to do with a vengeful ghost. This one appears within minutes, as Jane drives them to a countryside cabin for a getaway weekend: it’s dark, the road is deserted, and she slams into a girl wearing a baggy white dress and miserable expression. Ben hasn’t seen the girl, however, which means that after they spin off the road into a tree and pass out for a few hours, he’s disinclined to believe Jane that she’s killed someone (this despite the loud grinding and bumping beneath the rental car’s wheels). Thus begins Jane’s ordeal: her husband is not only deeply involved in his apparently important assignment (shooting Japanese high-fashion models in colorful traditional costumes at various locations), but he’s also inclined to disbelieve her and/or lie to her.

It’s only a matter of time before Jane begins investigating on her own, being a plucky American feeling alienated amid Tokyo’s crowded streets and neon signage. She pulls out her guidebook and rides the metro, where she predictably spots the ghost of the girl she thinks she hit. She also starts researching “spirit photos,” in which whooshy white lights or actual figures appear alongside the ostensible material world subjects. Conveniently, Seiko’s ex (James Kyson Lee) runs a magazine devoted to the subject, and provides helpful exposition: the images are “connecting us with the unseen, trying to tell us something,” Ritsuo says, about “unrequited love or unfinished business.” He sums up, “I think it’s a case of strong emotions making themselves heard.” Hmmm, Jane furrows her brow. “Like a message.”

In fact, the message this time has everything to do with race and gender differences. Turns out that the girl in the road, who begins showing up in Ben’s dark room as well as in his photos, is someone he knew the last time he was in Tokyo, a sad-faced translator named Megumi (Megumi Okina). When Jane insists they visit a medium (“a man that people go to to cleanse their spirits,” she says), Ben resists (“A fortune teller?!”). But then Ben is also disinclined to translate what the medium says, with no small display of anxiety. “He said there’s nothing we can do,” he says, hurrying Jane out of the man’s office, then back to their loft, where she can stew about his deceits and her frustrations.

Before you can say “miscegenation,” Jane’s digging into her husband’s past relationship with Megumi and discovering all kinds of nasty secrets. For all Shutter‘s pedestrian plotting and ho-hum scares, this detail of the ghost’s motivation gives pause. It’s hardly news that in a scary movie, a white girl wandering through Tokyo is frightened and harassed by some supernatural phenomenon. But Shutter is almost perversely upfront in connecting privileged, self-justifying white boys with the problem at its core.

The movie doesn’t precisely investigate this connection, and even leaves those white boys looking more inept than scheming when facing the spirit’s awful vengeance. But it does grant Jane a moment of revelation, in which she suddenly shares a sense of victimization with Megumi rather than feeling victimized by her. Jane can’t see the context — as she’s essentially exited from the movie at this point — but you might.

RATING 3 / 10