“Turn off the electricity!” screams a nascent environmental activist in Kim Ki-duk’s “Stop,” his words falling upon deaf ears in the aggressively lit streets of Tokyo. It’s a pretty muddled, irrational rant, though one hour into this shrill, grievously inept eco-thriller, viewers are likely to share his wish. Less grisly than most provocations from the tireless South Korean auteur, the story of a Japanese couple whose relationship is thrown into drastic disarray by the Fukushima nuclear disaster is instead a peculiar hybrid: a stodgily earnest PSA with moderate body-horror leanings. With its erratic, illogical narrative arriving at no conclusion more complex than “nuclear power is really bad, you guys,” the pic offers few compensatory pleasures in its dashed-off style and uncertain performances. Given that distributor interest has waned over Kim’s last few superior features, “Stop” looks a commercial non-starter.
Following three consecutive visits to Venice, Kim’s latest was unveiled in more low-key fashion at the Karlovy Vary fest — suggesting that the film’s sprocket-opera trail, too, may be shorter than usual. Green-themed sidebars and showcases perhaps rep its best shot at international exhibition, however tacked-on and seemingly ill researched its ecological agenda. “If the nuclear plant explodes again, we’ll become monsters,” a character solemnly intones; such is the depth and sensitivity with which Kim portrays the devastation wrought by the Fukushima Daichii meltdown of 2011. “Monsters” is a term the script tosses around frequently to describe radiation victims, while Kim resorts at multiple points to images of deformed newborns for a swift jolt. If “Stop” is chiding its characters for their ignorance, it does so very tacitly indeed.
Perhaps it’s also the change in locale that has the helmer out of sorts; for a film based on a significant regional disaster, “Stop” suffers from a markedly cursory sense of place, while its characters are wholly featureless everypeople until all-caps hysteria sets in. Young marrieds Sabu (Tsubasa Nakae) and Miki (Natsuko Hori) live in a state of beatific wholesomeness in a suburban settlement near the Fukushima plant, photographing local foliage and awaiting the imminent arrival of their first child. After the meltdown places their house in the radiation zone, however, they’re forcibly evacuated to Tokyo — where a mysterious MIB of sorts begins harassing Miki, convincing her that her fetus has been critically exposed and that abortion is her best course of action. (The actual identity or motive of this handily placed agent of conflict is, it would seem, outside the script’s remit.)
When Sabu, adamant that his child be born no matter what, ties up his wife with duct tape to prevent her taking action, things seem to be heading into more assuredly twisted territory for Kim. (“This isn’t Chernobyl — we’re different!” he yells, helpfully.) It is, however, a mere detour: After embarking on a fact-finding mission (enabled by implausibly suggestible security guards) to their abandoned home, the formerly dedicated dad-to-be pushes family concerns to the back of his mind, effectively donning a tin-foil hat as he’s seized by a questionable surge of environmental awareness. Thus ends the pic’s brief, intriguing dalliance with pro-choice rhetoric; subsequent inscrutable reversals in characterization advocate a more conventional definition of “nuclear family.”
Unfolding in scattershot fashion across a relatively merciful 85 minutes, “Stop” switches tack mid-breath too many times to add up either as drama or as issue-based parable: The balance of sanity in the couple’s marriage effectively seesaws from scene to scene, making them less than convincing as human-interest case studies. With Kim uncharacteristically pulling his punches at the film’s greatest points of distress — one crucial act of violence takes place offscreen — the film gains little emotional nuance from this restraint. Nakae and Hori, both potentially appealing performers, are cast thoroughly adrift in the pic’s soupy subtext, not always coordinating their individual shifts in register from naturalism to shrieky melodrama.
At least Kim seems to have taken his film’s own resource-saving tips to heart. With the director working as his own producer, d.p., editor and production designer, the pic gives every appearance of having been shot in frugal haste, while its washed-out palette and dingy lighting schemes surely kept the production’s own electricity costs down. If Kim’s shooting and cutting are merely scrappy, other tech credits — notably some very tinny foley work — are stunningly amateurish from the formerly refined maker of “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter … and Spring” and “3-Iron.” After churning out six variably ragged features in five years, it might behoove Kim to follow his new film’s eponymous instruction, and take stock.