This follow-up to the 1998 masterpiece RING reteams producer Takashige Ichise with director Hideo Nakata, again adapting a horror-themed story by Koji Suzuki, in this case "Floating Water," from the aqua-themed anthology Dark Water (some ideas from the other stories slip in, too). The result displays a similar, effective approach to the mechanics of supernaturally induced fear, which should appeal to fans of spooky Japanese horror. However, the feeling of familiarity, coupled with a slow pace, yields a film that is worthwhile genre exercise but not a groundbreaking masterpiece.
As in RING, the central character is a single mother with an only child. In this case, Yoshimi Matsubara (Hitomi Kuroki) is going through a bitter divorce involving a custody battle over her daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno). With little money, Yoshimi moves herself and her daughter into a dingy apartment building that seems to be plagued with leaking water. Complaints to the manager yield no results, and water dripping from her ceiling grows worse -- acting as a barometer not only for the pressure Yoshimi feels but also for her stressful mental state (she has undergone mental therapy in the past, and seems on the verge of cracking up at any moment).
As if all this weren't bad enough, it soon grows apparent that the building is haunted by the ghost who disappeared two years ago, last seen wearing a yellow coat: a red child's tote bag appears and reappears mysteriously; Yoshimi catches glimpses of a small figure in a yellow coat; and Ikuko is alternately menaced and befriended by an "imaginary" playmate -- who, the audience knows, is all too real, if not actually alive. Unfortunately, Yoshimi cannot afford to move to new lodgings -- uprooting her daughter a second time would make Yoshimi look like a neurotic in the eyes of the arbitrators settling her custody battle.
Gradually we learn that the missing girl's mother abandoned her -- as Yoshimi felt abandoned by her mother when she was a child. This touches off guilty feelings in Yoshimi, who fears that she is neglecting her own daughter in a similar way (her new job often forces her to arrive late to pick Ikuko up from school). And a psychic vision reveals to Yoshimi the fate of the missing girl: while playing on the roof, she climbed up on the buildings water tank, fell in, and drowned. Although Ikuko seems to be the victim of the haunting, Yoshimi eventually realizes that the little ghost girl has her eyes set on finding a new mother, a replacement for the one who abandoned her. In order to save Ikuko, Yoshimi makes the ultimate sacrifice, agreeing to become a surrogate mother to the undead child -- a decision that Ikuko doesn't understand, until fate brings her back to the building in an epilogue that takes place ten years later...
Unlike RING, the supernatural element in DARK WATER is a fly-in-the-ointment kind of plot complication; the real story is not about the ghost but about Yoshimi's battle to retain custody of her daughter. Thematically, the dingy apartment and the intrusion of the supernatural are externalizations of her own mental state, which is deteriorating under the strain of her situation. The film never advances the notion that the ghost exists only in Yoshimi's mind, however; the script simply uses her past mental illness as a plot device to explain why she tolerates her intolerable living conditions for so long (because if she says or does anything based on the ghostly manifestations, she will look like a nut and therefore lose her daughter).
As a result, DARK WATER moves at a slow pace. The same could have been said of RING, but that film worked like a clock with a gradually tightening spring; DARK WATER simply strolls along, relying on atmosphere and the occasional glimpse of the supernatural to generate horror. These moments are all well done (for example, Yoshimi holding what she thinks is her daughter's hand in the elevator, then realizing her mistake; or Ikuko's being stalked by a glimpsed water-logged apparition, glimpsed only from the knees down, during a game of hide-and-seek at school), but they are few and far between, leaving Yoshimi's plight to carry the film.
Hitomi Kuroki is good in the role, but she is not quite charismatic enough to hold the film together on her own. The supporting cast is likewise competent but not remarkable, except for Rio Kanno, who is quite charming as the young Ikuko.
As a director, Nakata is not a high-powered visual stylist; instead, he relies on more subtle methods, creating a sense of everyday reality, presenting the story in a matter-of-fact, straightforward way, and then using the occasional bizarre touch (e.g., strands of hair emerging from a water faucet) to unsettle the balance of "normality." His deliberate pacing, which worked so well in RING, here amplifies the problems of the script, slowing the movie down, when it could have used a little goosing up.
In the end, DARK WATER is a fairly effective spook show that relies on characterization and audience empathy to generate as much pathos as fear. Without the unique premise of RING, it is a more traditional kind of ghost story, but the ghost in this case is mostly window-dressing, as if KRAMER VS. KRAMER had made a detour into horror territory. As a follow-up to RING, it does a good job of supplying more of what fans enjoyed the first time, and the story is good enough to stand on its own. Like many follow-ups, however, it falls far short of its famous predecessor.
The film was remade in 2005, with Academy Award-winner Jennifer Connolly in the lead. The American version (reviewed here) de-emphasized the supernatural element even further and magnified the squalor of the living conditions, emphasizing the visual metaphor of the character's breakdown (i.e., deteriorating living space equals deteriorating mental state).