Two years ago, bowled over by three excellent Rurouni Kenshin movies, this reviewer predicted that the sun would rise again. Surely, with the nation’s biggest stars, considerable financial resources and beloved manga/anime properties at its disposal, the Japanese cultural juggernaut would stage a comeback against those pesky Korean upstarts.
Two years later, this reviewer has had to eat his words. While Train to Busan became a surprise hit even among non-kimchi addicts, manga adaptation after manga adaptation passed through our cinemas without as much as a whimper. Museum, starring the dapper Shun Oguri and also based on a manga, is destined to continue this lukewarm state of affairs. An intriguing set-up and intense cast performances aren’t quite enough to compensate for a plot full of fortunate coincidences and inconsistent pacing. The final nail in the coffin of this reviewer’s credibility is that this film is directed by the same man who helmed the above-mentioned Rurouni Kenshin trilogy: Keishi Ohtomo.
Proceedings kick off promisingly enough. A girl has been murdered in a manner that can only be described as inventively grotesque, and Detective Hisashi Sawamura (Oguri) is on the case. When another victim horrifically bites the dust, Sawamura begins to suspect that what he’s dealing with is a serial murderer. The dance of death between cop and serial killer has been played out on screens many times before, but Museum infuses its opening scenes with enough suspense, dread and gore to make the premise fresh again. For an all-too-brief moment, Museum demonstrates why psychopaths conjured up by twisted Japanese minds are so much creepier than the garden-variety Hollywood slasher. The film’s raincoat-clad and frog-mask-wearing killer is (initially) one of the more memorable villains to stalk the dark aisles of movie theatres this year.
Then the ball drops, the mask comes off and the plot loses itself in a series of twists each more outlandish than the last. It turns out that Sawamura’s wife Haruka (Ono) and young son are potential targets due to Haruka’s involvement in a death penalty case three years ago, so Sawamura’s stake in the investigation becomes personal. This is about as plausible as the film gets. The revelation of why the killer only strikes on rainy days is particularly ludicrous. It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be able to guess the reason off the top of your head, but that’s because it’s so contrived you won’t be able to believe it’s the actual explanation. Tacking on the family-in-peril subplot is also unhelpful insofar as it causes Sawamura to vacillate between cop-on-the-case and Liam-Neeson-on-a-rescue-mission. Sawamura’s two modes work at cross-purposes so frequently that it’s little wonder why the film takes as long as it does to bring things to a close.
And then there are the serendipitous flashes of insight. It may be a convention of detective fiction for sleuths to arrive at the last piece of the puzzle due to a chance remark or occurrence, but in Museum, this seems to be the good guys’ default method of getting answers. Someone just happens to remember an obscure detail from a twenty-year-old cold case. Sawamura just happens to be in a diner where an irate customer utters the very word he needs to supply the missing link. Numerous other examples abound, and one wonders what the point of incorporating so many plot twists is when the writers are too lazy to come up with proper paths of deductive reasoning.
In the last half hour or so, Museum abruptly transitions from serial murder mystery to some kind of macabre escape room challenge. Sawamura goes all vigilante and seeks the killer out for a solo confrontation, only to get himself locked inside a wax museum populated by the killer’s past victims (hence the film’s title). It makes for great drama to see Sawamura lose his marbles when he realises he’s at the killer’s mercy, but you’ll find yourself wondering at the back of your mind whether this is worth prolonging the film for. Adding to the film’s pacing problems are intermittent flashbacks that provide Sawamura’s backstory, but which come across as similarly superfluous. It’s one thing to draw out the suspense but quite another entirely to kill it by inserting too many draggy interludes.
About the only thing worth staying past the first twenty minutes for is the acting. Megumi Ono puts in a credible performance as a terrified mother nevertheless trying to remain strong for her son’s sake, but it’s the two leading men who steal the show. Oguri manages to make some of Sawamura’s less convincing character traits just about pass muster, and Satoshi Tsumabuki is nearly unrecognizable as the deranged serial killer. Tsumabuki became a matinee idol in the early Noughties due to his star turn in 2001’s Water Boys (back in the days when Japanese movies could still become bona fide cultural phenomena), but thoroughly ditches the pretty boy image for a flesh-crawlingly odious persona here.
Summary: Half-baked exhibits and a confusing floor plan make this Museum a perfect testament to the false dawn of Japanese cinema’s resurgence.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 stars
– Leslie Wong