“This hospital is…abnormal” according to locum doctor Hayami (Kentaro Sakaguchi) as he begins to discover dark goings on while trapped in a former psychiatric home after being taken hostage by a man in a clown mask. Based on the medical mystery novel by Mikito Chinen, Masked Ward (仮面病棟, Kamen Byoto) is partly a meditation on guilt and grief and partly an attack on backroom eugenics in an often judgemental and potentially corrupt society, if wrapped up in a wilfully silly B-movie crime thriller.
Still on a temporary sabbatical following a bereavement, Dr. Hayami is recruited by an old friend, Kosakai (Ryohei Ohtani), to cover a night shift at a long term care hospital mostly catering to patients living with dementia. It has to be said the hospital itself has an instantly creepy aura, the police who later arrive describing it as looking like a prison which is apt because no one ever thought to remove the bars from the interior intended to keep “dangerous” patients from escaping. Even so, Hayami is repeatedly assured that nothing ever happens here and most likely he won’t need to come out of his room. Unfortunately that proves to be bad advice because not long after he settles in, a man in a clown mask turns up with a young woman he apparently himself shot but now wants patched up thereafter taking everyone present hostage while hiding out from police who have instituted a manhunt after he robbed a convenience store at gunpoint.
You’d have to admit it looks a bit suspicious that all of this happened the very night that Hayami is in charge, especially as it’s suggested he may bear a grudge towards head doctor Tadokoro (Masanobu Takashima) as he was the one who refused to admit Hayami’s late girlfriend Yoko (Izumi Fujimoto) who was killed in a car accident in which Hayami was driving. Then again, as Hayami says, what would be the point in that? Suffering frequent flashbacks he subconsciously links the young woman, Hitomi (Mei Nagano), with Yoko determined in a sense to save her instead while trying to figure out what exactly is going on in this very weird medical institution and what the clown is trying to achieve with his random siege.
The creepiness of the hospital is already well established with its former psychiatric institution vibes, something only enhanced on the discovery of an apparently disused operating theatre which is no grimy basement filled with rusty equipment but appears to have been refurbished recently and is sparklingly clean. It doesn’t really take a genius to figure out what’s been going on in there or why evil head doctor Tadokoro doesn’t want to call the police, but it does call into question not just his own ethics but those of the wider medical profession as he advances a series of eugenicist justifications for his decisions insisting that some lives are not worth saving while those of the elite who “can’t bear to wait” obviously are. Many of those in their beds have no names, taking those only of the area in which they were found supposedly with no identification, and are receiving only basic care otherwise forgotten by an indifferent society while hypocritical politicians offer platitudes about equality, superficially insisting that every citizen should have the right to live, to be protected, and to have a future.
Even so Kimura can’t quite decide how seriously he wants to treat the darkness at the film’s centre, embracing the outlandishness of the material through a series of B-movie cliches from eerie handheld photography in the creepiness of the of the empty hospital corridors to literal lightning effects and foreshadowing so heavy it almost feels ironic. Yet the tone is at the same time earnest and slightly naive, the police apparently minded to cover the whole thing up due to pressure from above while Hayami is otherwise free to blow the whistle by getting the media involved with a press conference beamed directly onto a big inner-city screen in the middle of a presidential campaign speech all of which seems faintly unlikely given how far they were prepared to go keep the conspiracy secret while one wonders if he’d really be able to get so much attention so quickly even having recovered the secret documents proving his claims are true. In any case, his speech is only really intended for an audience of one as he says pretty much the same thing as the duplicitous politician only he really means it while urging those who’ve been irreparably harmed to give up their hate and try to move on sharing feelings and hopes rather than anger and resentment which is a nice message but perhaps also not especially helpful in holding those who’ve misused their power to account.
Masked Ward streams until 27th February in several territories as part of Japanese Film Festival Online 2022.
Original trailer (English sutbtitles)