Waiting In The Dark (Kurai tokoro de machiawase)

Japan (2006) Dir. Daisuke Tengan

There is no denying the premise of this film, based on the novel by the mononymous Otsuichi, is a little creepy and has all the hallmarks of a being the makings of a horror film or psychological drama. But, as this comes from Japan, we shouldn’t be surprised to find not quite as dangerous as it sounds but still subversive in its own way.

As the result of a traffic accident Michiru Honma (Rena Tanaka) lost her vision and lives an isolated life with her father (Ittoku Kishibe), save for the odd day out with her friend Kazue (Mao Miyaji). When her father suddenly dies, Michiru confounds her relatives by defiantly refuses to leave the house and live alone, claiming she is ably self-sufficient.

Shortly after the funeral, Michiru answers the door seemingly to no response, unaware that a Chinese-Japanese immigrant Akihiro Oishi (Bolin Chen) has snuck into the house undetected. Remaining as quiet as possible, Akihiro stays in the house alongside Michiru, often in the same room without her knowing he is there, but gradually, Michiru begins to sense Akihiro’s presence in the house.

It is quite likely the name Daisuke Tengan won’t leap out at anyone with any prominence unless they have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese cinema – surprising given his pedigree as the son of legendary director Shohei Imamura. Having written screenplays for his father and other directors – including Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins – Tengan takes a rare step from out of the shadows to direct this anodyne mystery.

Broken down into three parts, “Michiru”, “Akihiro” and “Michiru and Akihiro”, Waiting In The Dark isn’t in any hurry to reveal its whole story, but don’t be fooled by the glacial pacing of the first segment, dedicated to establishing Michiru and her story, as things pick up with a swifter telling of Akihiro’s plight before concluding with an eventful third act, ahead of a pedestrian denouement.

Michiru qualifies as blind yet she can see only the brightest of lights, which becomes a recurring motif in noticing she is not alone in her house. There is an unsolved air of ambiguity surrounding her mother’s presence in the film, suggesting she is either a ghost or she is still alive but keeping her distance; with many tiny threads coming together to compete the fabric of the central mystery, this is the one left dangling.

The main mystery, as you might have surmised, is why Akihiro has snuck into Michiru’s house and remains incognito, but even this isn’t as straightforward as it first appears. the script sets out is stall in stages leaving us to leap to early assumptions as to what is happening and why, then reveals we are very wrong. At the root of it is the age-old enmity between the Chinese and the Japanese.

Working at a printing factory, Akihiro is constantly at the mercy of abusive and openly racist colleague Matsunaga (Koichi Sato). Both he and Akihiro commute on the same daily railway journey until Matsunaga takes his last ride when falling in front of a passing express train and is instantly killed. The only other person the platform guard sees is a scared Akihiro, who flees the scene.

It is of some coincidence Michiru’s house is opposite the train station; she can be seen looking out of the window at the platform each morning, not that anyone is aware she is blind. This makes it the last place the prime suspect of a brutal murder should seek refuge, but then again if the tenant can’t see him, maybe it is the perfect place.

Akihiro is ninja like in his stealthy avoidance of contact with Michiru, even when sitting silently in the same room as her. The staging is clever in opting to utilise the closer quarters of the house over the safe option of having Akihiro hiding in a separate room, creating a nervous sense of danger when Michiru ends up in very close proximity to him.

That Akihiro isn’t actually a threat to Michiru is finally exposed in a heart-stopping scene of incredible timing and stringent planning on the production side, yet it remains a long while before a conversation actually takes place. Part of the film’s poetic gentleness is how a tacit trust is built between the two leads with nary a word spoken, relaying the mutual appreciation and comfort of the other’s presence.

Many social themes slowly rise to the surface as the story evolves. The prejudice Akihiro faces for being half-Chinese may not form the basis for any moral rhetoric but is subtly weaved into explaining his paranoia and detachment from others. As such, Bolin Chen plays everything with an intense poker face, efficacious in confounding our reading of his character in relation to his actions on screen at every turn.

For Michiru, she is a sympathetic character but not a pitiable one. The film does address how everyone writes her off because of her impairment but Michiru is made of sterner stuff – except when she has to leave the house alone. A scene where she is tormented by impatient drivers whilst crossing a road then knocked over by an unapologetic cyclist is the hardest this film hits at exposing insensitive attitudes towards the disabled.

Rena Takada gives an authentic performance as Michiru, holding her fixed blank stare in an act of immense discipline to convince us of the blindness is genuine, along with the subtle physical gestures and reactions. Takada’s slight frame and elfin looks endear her to the audience but the steely resolve and integrity beneath them shines through in key dramatic moments.

There are other plot details and characters I’ve not discussed which would require hinting at the later twists. With that in mind, beyond the plodding opening act, it comes to light that Waiting In The Dark is an unconventional story with unconventional characters told in a conventional setting, bursting with moody, artistic luminance and a radiant lead performance.