“A dream of being awake?”
Best known for his cyberpunk films Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and Vital (2004), Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto masterfully switches between different roles in his claustrophobic 2005 Haze (original title: ヘイズ). The mystery horror film is written and directed by Tsukamoto, who also stars in this 49-minute-long production, the so-called “long version” compared to the original release running only for 25 minutes. Remaining true to his industrial and alienating concepts of modernism and the self, Tsukamoto creates a concrete confinement to get our teeth grinding, and our nerves pulsating in the dark.
An unidentified man (Tsukamoto) wakes up to find himself trapped in a maze. Not only is he unable to remember how he got there and who he is, but he soon finds a bleeding wound in his stomach, pressing him for time and action. He starts to move around this labyrinth made of cement, either by crawling through the narrowest of tunnels or trying not to fall prey to sharp spikes and hammers aiming for his head. When he unexpectedly runs into an equally lost and memory-deprived woman (Kaori Fujii), the two join forces to find a way out of the maze.
Although the film borrows some basic elements from James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997), it spins them in a profoundly nightmarish way, intentionally ignoring the viewer’s need for background information and a clear view of the brutal mechanics of the maze. Avoiding a gore-heavy setting, the shots are kept dimly lit, leaving us in the literal dark as to what is really happening – especially at the beginning. This intensifies feelings of claustrophobia and anguish brilliantly.
Intentional close-ups of Tsukamoto pressed up against walls and metallic pipes further aggravate the feeling of entrapment from within, rather than from an outside force. However, recording in digital video takes the edge off certain moments, leaving us feeling that the film’s confusing gloom could have easily been swapped for an even bleaker outlook on the protagonist’s possible hallucinations – or truly torturous devices.
What makes up for the obscure visuals is the sound design, which blends static noise with metallic scraping. This adds to the overall feeling of paranoia and chaos, from which the protagonist seems to emerge in search of his own true self. The bits of dialogue here and there turn sounds and minimalist visual components into the only means we have of interpreting Tsukamoto’s hell. It seems to seek the dissolution of the body and its senses, both literally on-screen, and metaphorically in the mind.
The Japanese filmmaker, known for his experimental style throughout the decades, revealed in an interview at the Locarno Festival that the tunnel scene from The Great Escape (1963) had deeply inspired him, long before Buried (2010), which offers a similar confining experience seen from an up-close personal view, aired in the West. Haze is clearly not for everyone, due to its unconventional cinematography and lack of dialogue, but it is definitely worth watching once as an experiment to test how much your own claustrophobia can withstand these days – without necessarily looking for a deeper meaning.