‘The Booth’ review

26 10 2010

[written by author, editor and reviewer, Robert Hood]

With a running time of just over 70 minutes, The Booth is a small J-Horror gem — though without “dead wet girls” or any of the other post-Ring stereotypes. Set almost entirely inside an old, disused radio broadcast studio, it uses its closed environment and bleak settings to full advantage, focusing attention not on startling (or otherwise) SFX, but on the main character and his struggle with guilt. As a ghost story, it has the occasional scare, but more to the point it is an unsettling supernatural drama that uses its fantasy elements to focus our attention on the emotional realities it explores rather than to overwhelm our imaginations through violence or creepy spectacle. The one time it does seem to draw on the “spectral woman” trope, it ends up undermining our expectations to good, and somehow even more creepy, effect.

Shogo (Ryuta Sato) is a personable but emotionally selfish and arrogant DJ, host of a late-night call-in radio program called “Love Lines”. On this particular night the show has been moved to a disused studio — a studio with a reputation (it turns out) for being haunted. A DJ from decades before had hanged himself in the studio — in an incident that begins the film and sets the groundwork for what is to come — though that is not to say the dead man is responsible for the haunting. Now, in the midst of his broadcast, Shogo finds himself having flashes of memory, memory of culpable behaviour — and being interrupted by odd noises and a female voice saying: “Liar!” As callers ring in to tell him embarrassing or humiliating things that have been said to them by loved ones (the show’s theme for the night), and he dishes out somewhat fatuous advice in response, we become aware that one way or another all the examples of humiliating put-downs or ill-treatment that he hears can be laid at his own door. It all seems to be about him. Worse, lying behind it all is the possibility that he has been responsible for the death of a female co-worker. As his fear and guilt grows, Shogo begins to face the reality that his past may be catching up with him in more ways than one …

The Booth is tightly and elegantly written, with back-story well integrated into on-screen events, and perfectly structured to draw us inexorably through the experience. Ryuto Sato is engaging as Shogo, skirting around the edge of the “arrogant star” stereotype without ever becoming a caricature or making him hopelessly unsympathetic. As we learn more about Shogo’s past behaviour, we find ourselves approving of him less and less, but it is always against a background of personability set up in the initial scenes — so we “stay” with him during his dilemma. Meanwhile, director Nakamura proves expert at deflecting us, of leading us artfully astray. Truth becomes elastic, and Shogo’s interpretation of events more and more subjective, reflecting his basic self-loathing. In the end, reality becomes so internalised that there is really only one path open for the emotionally bankrupt DJ to take …

In a not-insignificant way, the power of the film lies in the fact that we are never quite sure who or what is haunting the studio. In fact, it is as though it is not haunted in the ordinary sense at all, but rather draws to the surface the ghosts that those entering it bring with them.

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