Just four-and-a-half minutes into Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s Kuro (2017), we begin to notice its signature gap. Up to this point, we see and hear protagonist Romi (played by co-director Noriko, who also composed the film’s textural ambient score) performing a number of menial tasks: washing clothes, applying makeup, browsing racks of discount clothing and taking care of her paraplegic boyfriend, Milou. We know Milou’s name because we hear Romi whisper it over a long take of his unblinking, unwavering face. But the next time Romi speaks, it is clearly out of sync with the image. “Describe something about yourself,” she murmurs, while the screen reveals an image of an instructor leading a small class, where one of the students is an unspeaking Romi.

At first, this gap—between voiceover sound and image content—seems miniscule or even comical, in the same, uncanny way that any delay between sound and image is funny. It’s as if Romi is narrating the previous occurrences and interactions of the class as we watch parts of it occur in the present. The voiceover begins to follow her own instruction (“describe something about yourself”), recounting how her mother removed the first part of her name (initially Hiromi) to accommodate Californian English speakers. She notes how Romi sounds like Romy, as in Romy Schneider, the acclaimed German-French actress. We imagine that Romi made this same observation to her classmates, by way of introduction, and we accept this as part of the exposition, as we are finding out key factual details about our central character.

But soon, a widening commences, and across its 84-minute runtime, the chasm between narration and image opens its gaping mouth in a kind of silent scream. The entire thing consists of Romi’s gently spoken account of a time when she and Milou—on and off, together and separate—offered in-home care for one Mr. Ono, an elderly man with limited autonomy. Over time, the tale grows ever more disturbing and surreal: Mr. Ono stuffs his mouth with soil from his favorite plant, covers his entire body in black tape and eventually turns into another, perhaps inanimate figure, the “Kuro” of the film’s title. Not that we witness any of this—because of its central gap, we only hear about it.

The images tell a different story, if what they’re giving us can be called a story at all. “Poem” seems closer to their tenor, for they are as pensively composed and meticulously structured as an elegy. They show us, among other things, the inner petals of a chrysanthemum in close-up, yellow-lit windows observed in the distance from a passing train, photographs stacked on the laps of two figures, two blood-like rust marks on an otherwise white rail, black residue around a yellow bathtub drain. If it wasn’t for images of Romi and Milou, who still appear at various moments, Kuro would be an experiment in just how much of a movie can consist of pillow shots, the transcendental, setting-centric cutaways common to the works of Yasujirō Ozu.

Achingly, Kuro draws attention to a number of additional rifts beyond that between narration and image. In its opened-up spaces, we begin to question the nature of all things: names, identities, buildings, nations, bodies, existences, plants. If Ozu’s pillow shots alert us to the particular cultural and temporal milieu of his environment, the content of Koyama and Noriko’s shots—many of which exhibit mold, mildew, waste and emptiness—threaten to collapse this into untamed and indecipherable sprawl.

The overall effect is chillingly visceral and utterly mysterious. What happened to Mr. Ono? Where is Kuro? Are Romi and Milou still living in his apartment? Also, why is there no mention of Milou’s paraplegia in the narrative, when it’s clearly a central feature of the relationship that we witness unfolding through imagery?

Kuro didn’t garner much notice when it premiered at Slamdance and is the kind of cinematic experiment that naysayers called “arduous,” but it’s a work of art that is prepared for exactly this response. “The rain beats heavily on the discarded plants,” speaks Romi in the voiceover’s concluding line, in acknowledgment of cyclical continuation. Having watched the film, we know that these overlooked plants will crawl forth from their containers to overtake an already-rotten infrastructure that merely provides an illusion of stability and comfort.

A perfect double feature partner for Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), it suggests that mutation only appears destructive if we cannot see we are one with every alien force. The gap at Kuro’s heart directs us to consider the terror of this oneness, as well as its strange, material beauty.

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