J-horror imagery has become so clichéd that Hollywood has appropriated it, parodied it and moved on. Infection is a nice surprise as it expands the territory of J-horror by adding psychological horror, neat set-pieces using the hospital and the green gloop of the infection itself.
Infection takes place over a single night in a failing hospital where the doctors are late getting paid, supplies are running out, nurses are quitting, and those that are staying are either inexperienced or so overworked they fall asleep standing up. There are a lot of neglected patients including one covered in bandages, a man in constant pain, a victim of a hit and run accident and a senile old woman who sees ghosts. Trying to hold things together is Doctor Akiba but when a patient with a mysterious infection appears and a fatal medical blunder occurs, events spiral out of control.
Ochiai spends the first quarter creating a convincing and disconcerting sense of decay and claustrophobia in the hospital. The set is a lobby, some corridors and a few rooms which look run-down. The place is packed with a variety of patients with a variety of maladies that look difficult to treat. Equally varied are the hospital staff who look exhausted and, as the dialogue reveals, are pushed to the edge due to various crises and personal troubles.
Patients are mishandled and ignored while the staff members bicker amongst themselves, doctors upbraid the (foxy) nurses who bully less experienced (but equally foxy) nurses.
The film carefully reveals them to be struggling to provide a service in the face of a financial crisis. Doctor Akiba and head nurse Shiozaki are martialing their dwindling supplies and a staff of burnt-out doctors and (foxy) nurses but a sense of crisis is palpable and you just know that something bad is going to happen and it’s no surprise when it does.
The mishap takes place after Akiba has been forced to accept a patient with a mysterious disease despite knowing that the hospital isn’t adequately equipped and he risks cross-infection. When he is called to attend a dying patient he enters a scene which has ringing alarms, raised voices, and controlled chaos as the staff rush in a blur of activity. These guys could be brilliant doctors and nurses under the right conditions but as the film has shown they aren’t given the resources necessary.
As Akiba races to save the life of the patient you never lose sight of the medical details so when a misdosage is applied it is a low-key but believable detail that you note. Only in the lull of that follows the chaos do they and the viewer realise their mistake and it is a powerful moment because empathy has built up. Their careers are ruined if they report this. Which they won’t. As the scene progresses we’re treated to the believable desperation of these individuals as they argue over what to do and a crackpot coverup is concocted.
Say goodbye to the ghosts what we have here is a monster film with a gooey antagonist that goes walkabout in the decrepit hospital.
The place seemed bad enough before the creature made its appearance but Ochiai now delights in giving us an elaborate hunting ground full of green goo, grue and black-comedy accompanied by a soundtrack which is a mixture of industrial noises and tortured string instruments.
If the liquifecation of internal organs sounds fun then seeing it on screen is a clammy, icky delight full of black humour, “A man dissolved before our very eyes!”. This is no ordinary infection as it creates zombies who vomit gouts of green liquid. The infection hops from host to host as the doctors’ hunt for it with Akiba uttering the lines, “Lets search. We’ll split up.” At no point does anybody think of locking doors, guarding the infected or warning others which leads to humorous and chilling moments when people blunder into the infection while the doctors stew in the staff room over their misfortune.
You may want to turn away as medical tools become torture weapons with a novice nurse practicing how to hit a vein with a needle and sterilising equipment is mishandled.
Then the film takes another turn into the psychological as we get an understanding of what the goo is. All of those carefully depicted details from earlier weren’t just for atmosphere but allow a narrative switchback as the film jumps the rails and heads in an unexpected and original direction which surprised me.
Infection has a great story that is full of surprises and made more interesting by all of the details. The characters are broadly but credibly drawn and while I wasn’t totally convinced by the explanation for the monster the film maintaines a great sense of forward momentum and delights in giving us a spectacle and a lot of laughs. I
Release Date: October 02nd, 2004 (Japan)
Running Time: 98 mins.
Director: Masayuki Ochiai
Writer: Ryoichi Kimizuka, Masayuki Ochiai (Screenplay),
Starring: Koichi Sato – Doctor Akiba
Masanobu Takashima – Doctor Uozumi
Shiro Sano – Doctor Akai
Michiko Hada – Doctor Nakazono
Mari Hoshino – Nurse
Tae Kimura – Nurse
Yoko Maki – Nurse