Speaking strictly from a J-cinema fan/patriot point of view, “Chatroom” is a cause for celebration. It’s set in London, stars some of the brightest young talent in the United Kingdom, centers around the timely topic of social networking — and the whole thing is directed by Japanese horror meister Hideo Nakata (of “Ringu” and “Dark Water” fame)!
The media are calling it “gyaku yunyu” — reverse import product. It happens with such stuff as cars, designer clothes and sake, but much less often with films. A Japanese director working overseas, on a film with not a hint of anything Japanese about it, just doesn’t come around very often. And it happens to be Nakata’s second such endeavor, after “The Ring Two” in 2005, which fans will remember was a pretty absorbing thriller starring Naomi Watts.
Since then, Nakata left Japan for Hollywood before transplanting himself to London. Rumor has it the director isn’t really comfortable with speaking English but he prefers the dark, moody British weather to that in Hollywood and, indeed, deploys the atmospheric London rain (specifically around Camden Lock) to full advantage in “Chatroom.”
Written by and based on a play by Enda Walsh, “Chatroom” works less as an Internet/social commentary than a straightforward spook story involving teenage angst. That online chat rooms can cause serious damage to one’s self-esteem is really old. That it happens among a group of gorgeous London teens who by all rights shouldn’t be plagued by the kind of angst that prompts them to spend 15 hours a day online is probably a more interesting issue.
The snag: Nakata is a bit out of his element here — this isn’t his script or his milieu and, because of this, the filming style seems both arbitrary and strained. On the other hand, the fragmented feeling works to the story’s advantage: It draws on untethered emotions, uneasy suspicion and the unshakable conviction that nothing and no one can be trusted.
The centerpiece and self-appointed king of the geeks is William (Aaron Johnson from “Kick-Ass” and “Nowhere Boy”), who gets his thrills from urging his online buddies to “do amazing, incredible things” with their lives while actually manipulating them into committing suicide. William especially relishes the moment they scream a final “Sod you!” to the world before doing the deed, a process he watches on his laptop with a suppressed orgasmic grin fleeting across his face.
William is many awful things, but his chief defect is a deep-seated cowardliness. Ostensibly, he wants to wipe himself out too, but lacks the courage to take the leap. So he chooses instead to “inspire” others into ending it all and, like a junkie, he keeps going back for another fix.
You can see why Nakata was called in to helm this project; true, there’s nothing recognizably Japanese in the story, but its driving forces are definitely infused with the values spawned in the Japanese school system and chased down with a dollop of Akihabara otaku (fanatic) aesthetics. While occasional high school massacres are a tragic reality in some Western countries, in Japan a teenager is under far more danger of inflicting harm upon him or herself.
Something to note is that in Japan, teenage suicide comprises 2.2 percent of the annual 30,000-plus number of self-inflicted deaths. In teen cinema and in real life, death by one’s own hand has become so familiar that many Japanese youths practically see it as part of the fabric of life.
And the feeling that this adolescent despair can only be quenched by extreme self-deprecation leading to self-annihilation is skillfully played out here by a cast that includes lovely young actress Imogen Poots as the bored, insecure Eva, plus whimsical Hannah Murray as Emily, who wants her parents to hug her “a lot!” instead of paying for deportment lessons to correct her posture. Meanwhile, Daniel Kaluuya’s pained, sensitively portrayed Mo is desperately in love with his best friend’s 11-year-old sister.
They got issues to be sure, but Nakata and Walsh fail to address the hallmark trait of the online chat room — its inherent function to make people and their problems seem bigger and more tragic than they really are, while at the same time inevitably diminishing and cheapening their offline selves. What a quandary. No wonder that these days, parents are more likely to scream at their kids to get off the computer and watch some good-old harmless TV.