Posted by Holly
Directed by: Mari Asato
“Have you heard of a curse that affects only girls?”
With this opening line, Fatal Frame draws us into its mythos almost immediately. A dark, brooding boarding school for girls sets the stage. And from there on, the mysteries only intensify.
The story begins with Aya, who is attending an all girls high school, and is quickly approaching graduation. Aya is charming and talented, so much so that many of her classmates begin to fall a little bit in love with her. When Aya shuts herself in her room and doesn’t emerge for weeks, rumors begin to spread about what has become of her. The obsession grows so intense that a ritual forms; girls bring her photograph to a certain part of the school and kiss it at midnight. However, an apparition resembling Aya begins to torment these girls, and after a short time they begin to turn up dead.
Fatal Frame is a movie that takes inspiration from a video game series of the same name; beyond that, you will not find that the two have much in common. It’s best to know that right off the bat, as it is sure to disappoint some people who are fans of the games. The film takes on a life of its own, and whether or not it manages to live up to the quality precedent set by the games is up to individual assessment. The use of cameras in the film is perfunctory at best, and it’s really only one photograph that sets the story in motion, eventually leaving that part of the concept behind entirely.
Now, this is a story that plays with expectations and various depictions of sexuality, but I’m not sure it’s always to the greatest effect. Even the basic premise of the story has an undercurrent of punishing women for their sexuality, especially with its emphasis on homosexuality. And while twists throughout the film prove that this is not exactly the reason for their deaths, it’s hard to ignore the strong invocation of the Bury Your Gays trope being used here.
What you ultimately end up getting in Fatal Frame is a story with competing narratives, which creates something of a mess. You have the story of the curse, brought forth by a woman who was persecuted and separated from her lover due to her society’s feelings on homosexuality – a story that would be quite interesting and thought provoking if allowed to flourish. However, halfway through the film, it is replaced by a more generic ‘ghost of a sibling trying to send a message’ storyline, and the social commentary about homosexuality is completely buried under that in the second half of the film.
The ghost story itself isn’t a bad one, though it is a little more derivative than the one we’re initially promised. The reveal of Maya and her tragic fate is relatively surprising – though the choice to make her ghost age makes the set up more than a little misleading. That said, her scenes are among the best in the film, able to convey an eerie, ethereal quality that comes across as truly menacing. In fact, the strongest quality of this film overall really lies in its layered characters, who sell the emotional value of the, at times, flimsy and confusing story.
Our main character, Michi, is who anchors us in that first narrative and allows the LGBT themes to remain present throughout the whole movie. She is the only one whose romantic feelings for Aya survive the fear of the curse and remain strong, growing throughout the film’s events. She speaks to Aya about her feelings, and even her rejection does nto dissuade Michi from helping her. She’s a very positive portrayal of a lesbian character, who not only avoids death, but also avoids being cast as a villain. She’s vulnerable, loyal, and clever; watching her character progress makes you feel the absence of the initial ghost storyline, something that her arc could have supported.
Because of Michi’s story, the final scene feels particularly sad and melancholic. There is, of course, the context of it being their high school graduation, a day traditionally used to depict people going their separate ways and moving on with their lives. Michi and Aya discuss their plans for the future, and how they look forward to growing up. So when Michi tells Aya that she will wait for her, and leans forward in hopes of finally having her affections reciprocated, it’s heartbreaking to see Aya stand perfectly still, refusing to meet her kiss.
There are a few ways that you can potentially interpret this scene. It is not an unexpected turn of events – Aya’s lack of interest in women had been discussed previously. In this way, her rejection of Michi is nothing more than a show that while their experience bonded them, and caused their affection to strengthen, it did not change Aya’s sexuality. But there is an uncomfortable undertone to this scene, caused by the preceding conversation about moving forward in life and growing up. As Michi promises that she will come back to take a proper photo of Aya once she’s an adult, there is a sentiment that Michi’s same-sex attraction is rather a sign of her own immaturity, something that she needs to grow through in her journey to adulthood.
This is supported by the fact that, by the end of the film, Aya seems to be the only character who truly still seems to have an active interest in women. Most of her classmates seem to have passed through the “phase” of their attraction to Aya/Maya, seeing it as an enchantment or curse, rather than a reality. As they graduate high school, they leave these feelings behind. The worst case, however, must be the headmistress. The final piece that melds the two ghost stories together, she is also the most wicked character. Unable to deal with the haunting of her former lover, she denounced all relationships and became a nun; she allows herself to become truly locked in the past, never able to mature or grow.
Ultimately, if you’re looking for a ghost story that features LGBT themes, you could do worse. This is a well paced, thoughtful ghost story, which takes turns that are unexpected and has some strong character building. However, it does present some problematic thinking about same-sex relationships, which dampers an otherwise interesting and sad story.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. Flawed but enjoyable.
Violence level: Pretty low – murder by drowning is the most violent image depicted. Some images of suicide as well.
Scariness level: Some of the apparitions of Maya are actually pretty eerie, but nothing beyond your standard Japanese ghost film.
Bechdel test: I don’t think most of the characters even mention the one or two male characters in 90% of their dialogue, so passes with flying colors.
Mako Mori test: Very much a pass for Michi and Aya.