19 ★★★★

So one time I had a nightmare about being kidnapped by a werewolf who was also a horse thief.

After waking up and going through the usual "what the fuck did I just dream about" thing, I decided to classify the dream as a nightmare not because it felt scary, off-putting, or tense, but because it didn't. Though I can no longer recall any details, I do remember that dream me was, for some reason, completely willing to go along with this horrifying situation. It was a nightmare about being trapped in a world that refuses to adhere to familiar social scripts, about losing control and agency, about becoming entangled with your abuse by embracing it and being unable to locate yourself in the victim/victimizer binary.

This is the same nightmare logic 19 runs on. Usami's captors derive their power by refusing to make sense. Everything they do, like walking out of the grocery store without paying, they manage because their behavior is simply so unexpected that the people around them do not know how to respond. Their torment gets physical at times, but much of it is psychological; strange demands, confusing shifts between friendliness and hostility, just the whole affair of kidnapping a person seemingly without any kind of agenda.

But while how the delinquents treat Usami feels completely arbitrary most of the time, there are clear lines – the attempt to escape results in punishment. So, one must ask, if he does the hypothetical right thing, will they give him what he wants? This way, the delinquents make Usami a participant in his own abuse. They make him postulate a set of correct behaviors that will grant him his freedom and force him into being an agent of his own destiny by his success or failure to comply. This is one part of why he comes to resign to his fate and enjoy his time with the gang.

The other can be found in the deliberately light characterizations given to the cast. Usami himself is kind of an empty shell; his only real character trait is his basic politeness. It's visible in how he continues to honor the rules of society (such as not smoking in the zoo) and how he accepts the delinquents' request at the start – which, on the other hand, may also be read as a sign of how little he has going in his life, given that he wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. We know that Usami is a student (of what?), but when asked, he cannot even provide any reason for why he would want to get back to his normal life. He has no person, task, or purpose to return to.

This clashes interestingly with how the delinquents are characterized through their bonds with each other. The film's core tension is vocalized when we learn the only piece of backstory about them given to us: one of the guys joined the gang when captured under similar circumstances. Is this what awaits Usami, too?

More could be said, but I don't feel like spoiling the (pretty interesting!) conclusion the film reaches after a pretty slow middle part. Check it out yourself, I guess. For what I imagine to be a pretty low-budget production, the film is not ugly – there are some interestingly framed shots, the weird look suits the nightmarish story of psychological horror, and that one sequence is edited astonishingly well. The minimal, moody soundtrack is both good and restrained enough to not feel overused by the end. I'm still not completely sure how to feel about it, but for now, consider this a recommendation; 19 has a lot to offer.

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