Fatal Frame, like the earlier SineAsia selection Bilocation, is from director Mari Asato. And like the prior picture, Fatal Frame only looks like a horror movie. It features ghosts and doppelgangers and horrific deaths, but it isn’t really all that interested in scaring audiences. It instead presents a dramatic agenda that explores the tumultuous terrain of a teenage girl’s psyche. The movie works best when it stays in this context. It starts to falter when it is forced to provide answers for all the mysteries that it has set up.
The movie takes place in a all-girls Catholic boarding school. Aya (Ayami Nakajô) is the best singer in the school, and because of that she has become the object of the affections of many of her classmates. At the start of the film, she is locked in her room, seemingly imprisoned against her will. And then some her classmates start disappearing, all of them mysteriously linked to a strange photo of Aya. Her classmate Michi (Aoi Morikawa) investigates the matter, in the process discovering some uncomfortable truths about their school.
The movie gets to some really interesting territory as it plumbs the depths of its characters. The story dares to explore their burgeoning sexuality, which is mostly developing in the absence of boys. And in this strange pressure cooker that mixes up conservative values with maturation and hormones, there emerges these really intriguing depictions of what it means to love someone, and what it means to be loved. The film frames these dilemmas within the context of a curse, playing into psychosexual ideas as it allows these teenage emotions to take form through the supernatural.
But things get a lot less interesting as the story moves into its final act, where answers start to take precedence. There is much less room for the compelling psychology of these characters as the film sketches out solutions to the mysteries. There is some cleverness to what is eventually revealed, but even the film itself doesn’t seem to be altogether convinces by what it puts out there. Thankfully, the last bits put the mysteries aside as it presents one final thrust into this particular depiction of teenage life, playing up the transient nature of these outsized emotions.
Mari Asato is proving to be one of the most compelling Japanese directors out there right now. Even when the story isn’t firing on all cylinders, the filmmaking is never less than gripping. Asato has full control of her frame, orchestrating its elements to elicit various emotions. Here, she uses bits and pieces of horror filmmaking to give visual structure to the emotional content. A kiss is played as a grand, supernatural event, something outside the bounds of normal experience. The cast is solid, though something is definitely lost in the Tagalog dubbing. It certainly doesn’t help in giving clarity to the film’s already tedious mysteries.
Fatal Frame is pretty unique. One might come in expecting a typical J-horror film, or something that resembles the gameplay from the original source material. But the film is playing a much more complex game, using ghostly trappings to dig into the mysteries of the teenage mind. Unfortunately, the actual mysteries of the film aren’t nearly as compelling. The film loses something as it starts to explain the logic behind the events of the story. The film is much better when functioning within the realm of the illogical and the emotional, director Asato finding gripping ways to show the internal turmoil of her characters.