Cure has the deliberate pace and austere look of an existential art flick, but it also has the straightforward plot of a police procedural and a high-concept hook that feels like it came straight out of a Hollywood board meeting. That is something of self defeating combination. As an art film, Cure is too shallow to enthrall, and it lacks the visceral energy to sustain itself as a genre piece. But it is certainly not without considerable merit.
With Cure, made in 1997, Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa has been given the honor of an early retrospective, and it doesn't take long to see why. Kurosawa, unrelated to the late master we all associate with that name, has an obvious control over the medium, with a knack for compellingly static compositions and a fine sense of timing. Character and plot information is doled out in the most elliptical of ways, and it often comes at you from directions you don't expect, which makes for a satisfyingly unsettling experience.
All we know at first is that a series of murders is taking place which befuddles police detective Takabe (Koji Yakusho). All of the murderers have been apprehended at the scene of the crime, and none of them knows exactly why they've done what they've done. And the kicker is that they've all committed the same exact act of violence, a deeply carved X from the top of the victim's throat down to the chest. Takabe searches desperately for connections with the help of his psychologist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki), and it soon becomes clear that a mysterious drifter named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara) is involved. Mamiya has amnesia, but he has much less interest in questions of his own identity than he does in the identity, physical and metaphysical, of others. Mamiya is constantly asking the question, "Who are you?" and he never means it in the literal sense. He's a calmer, more insidious version of Hannibal Lecter, with intentions just as horrifying.
It doesn't take long for Takabe to figure out that Mamiya is using hypnosis to induce people to kill, but what does take long is figuring out why. Kurosawa pretty clearly wishes Cure to act not just as a serial-killer thriller but also as a meditation on free will, but that's a much trickier proposition. Hypnosis, for one thing, is a problematic subject to use dramatically. An audience can feel and understand the cause-and-effect that comes from a gunshot, or even that which comes from Hannibal Lecter persuasively probing the mind of his victim. But the act of Mamiya taking complete control over his subject simply by holding up a lit cigarette lighter and asking "Who are you?" is quite a bit less convincing.
But even taking this leap of faith, Kurosawa fails to go very deeply into the ramifications. At one point, Sakuma informs Takabe that a hypnotist can never make a subject act against his or her own moral belief system, but that idea is never addressed again, except in the way the film constantly shows it to be incorrect. The film remains unsatisfying, despite a marvelously creepy turn by Hagiwara as the nearly catatonic villain and a passionate performance by Yakusho as the police detective trying to balance his curiosity for answers with the danger of letting the perpetrator too deep inside his head. By the end, Cure fizzles away with a series of murky, ambiguous moments in which Kurosawa seems to mistake the absence of answers for depth. That strategy can work wondrously when a more commonplace storyline is involved, but it is much less effective with the specific, contrived set of circumstances that is found here.