An entomologist on vacation is trapped in a sand pit by local villagers
and forced to live with a woman who lives only to shovel sand for them.
Woman in the Dunes (1964)
Directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara
Written by Kôbô Abe
Starring Eiji Okada and Kyôko Kishida
Based on the novel by Kôbô Abe
Oscar Nominations - Best Foreign Film, Best Director
I don't know what I expected from Woman in the Dunes, but I certainly didn't think it was going to be a psychological horror film. I love exploring films from other cultures, and so far my favorites have been Japanese horror films. Typically, their approach to horror begins and ends in the mind, with the body being almost secondary. It keeps things terrifying, confusing, and uneasy. It also makes for a great film-watching experience. This film is a very conceivable nightmare, and it's so simple. Just a sand pit, surrounded by villagers who don't want to help you.
Our hero is an entomologist (Okada) exploring the sands outside Tokyo for new species of insects. When he misses the bus home, he asks the villagers if he can stay overnight. They agree, but he has to stay in the sand pit with the sand lady (Kishida). She's odd, but seems to be well-meaning. The next day, he wakes up to find the ladder is gone, and the villagers have trapped him there to be the sand lady's helper. He spends the next three months shoveling sand out of the pit and trying to escape to no avail. Watching his sanity unravel and his relationship with the sand lady grow stronger by necessity is a wild ride. I don't think the film needed to be as long as it was, but what we got was very good.
Woman in the Dunes isn't widely available unless you subscribe to the Criterion Channel. But if you can find it, I recommend watching it for yourself. It's unlike anything else I've seen. The two lead characters are fascinating, and you can see hints of later films to come that deal with isolation and imprisonment.