Credit: NYAFF/Sweet My Home
by Chris Mello Featured Film

Sweet My Home — Takumi Saitoh [NYAFF ’23 Review]

July 25, 2023

Few locations are more central to the scares of a haunted house film than a basement. Perpetually underlit, unfinished underground spaces make for strong centers of spectral activity. They are foreboding places, usually descended to on a creaky staircase, each landing threatening to snap with every footfall and every gap between steps exposing ankles to unseen dangers. As the genre often operates as a metaphor for domestic trouble, a scary basement is an easy, fitting suggestion of trouble in a home’s foundations. Going into the basement, dredging up what lies beneath, disrupts the domestic sphere above, and is a necessary climactic step in a haunted house horror film’s arc, a moment of confrontation with the entity. Sweet My Home, actor-turned-director Takumi Saitoh’s latest, is indeed a haunted house film with another unnerving basement that refracts familial trouble, but neither its basement nor the film’s form are typical.

The basement in question is that of the Kiyosawas’ new Magic Home, a sleek smart home designed and sold on the promise of perfectly temperate air at all times. There are vents in every room, and they all lead back to the claustrophobic basement space that controls the air conditioning. Apart from the darkness and the low ceiling, it’s not a particularly creepy basement, but it has an immediately ominous effect from the moment that Kenji (Masataka Kubota) steps into the model at the realtor’s office. He has a panic attack and passes out with only the hazy memory of someone kicking him repeatedly. While Saitoh does not indulge in the usual scare tactics of a ghost movie — there are no slamming doors or objects flung across rooms — it’s clear from the moment the Kiyosawas move in and that there is something wrong with their home. Their new baby seems constantly disturbed, and visitors report seeing ghosts themselves.

Like their home, the Kiyosawas’ idyllic family life is hiding deeper secrets too. Their realtor describes them as the ideal family, but Kenji is unfaithful to his wife, Hitomi, and has a strained relationship with his brother, who suffers from mental illness rooted in a traumatic past. As the film progresses, Hitomi becomes increasingly uncomfortable in the house, more certain that it is haunted, while characters on the periphery of Kenji’s life start turning up dead, each successive victim hitting closer to home. Eventually, this leads to an investigation and a satisfyingly creepy dramatic reveal of what’s really going on in and around the Magic Home. But as the end creeps closer, this film also begins to become less fulfilling.

Saitoh deserves credit for his patient directing, never succumbing to easy tricks or genre tropes. Sweet My Home is confident work, conjuring up a few novel images when it needs to scare — like an apparition reflected in the eye of a child — but otherwise letting the material unfold naturally. This relative lack of traditional horror elements and reliance on offscreen incident might make the film feel bold for a while, but eventually, it starts to feel a little flat — and by the time its climax starts to fizzle out, Saitoh reveals that he was saving his cheapest shock for last. While compelling for a good while, Sweet My Home is ultimately one-note, even if that note is mostly a welcome one.

Published as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2023.