Friday, March 4, 2011

Ringu (Ring) (1998)
--- horror

Dir: Hideo Nakata

The film that began the international J-Horror sensation and till this day inspires countless copy cats in the popular sub-genre of horror cinema. The ghostly woman with long black dishevelled hair has been a traditional fixture in Japanese folklore for centuries, but the stark difference with the film "Ringu", is its marriage with modern technology.

The film could be seen as an essay in a nations regret in partaking in the creation of a kind of Frankenstein's Monster with advanced technology. Thanks in part to Reganomics in the 1980's, the world stood by as many leading technology firms and businesses outsourced to Japan for labor and taxation reasoning. Consumers in return bought up their merchandise such as Nintendo, Sony (who is credited with the prototype of the videocassette), Fujifilm, Casio, et al. Even today Japan looks like a futuristic wonderland. The question is, do the Japanese harbor some underlying fear or regret in that ingenuity? The answer is, probably, and as this film poses, the future may not be so much of the threat as that of the past.

"Ringu" has been adapted from the 1991 novel of the same name written by Koji Suzuki. It takes place in contemporary Japan and follows a reporter's investigation into an urban legend of a cursed videotape, that turns out to be all too real. The film opens with two teenage girls, Masami and Tomoko, gossiping about a local urban legend until Tomoko tells her friend that something similar happened to her and her boyfriend earlier that week. The legend goes, while visiting Izu, a boy wanted to record a tv show while he went out to play. When he returned to watch it, he realized the channels were different, and there should have been nothing recorded since that channel did not exist. When he did play it back, a strange woman appeared and told him he would die in one week. Tomoko and her boyfriend were also in a cabin in Izu when they watched a videotape. When the phone suddenly rings, the girls get scared, and Masami boldly goes to answer. They learn it's only Tomoko's mother, and their fears are relieved, until Masami leaves. Alone, Tomoko hears the television come on in the living room by itself, at first she's startled but goes to turn it off. Soon however, she meets her expected fate. Now investigative journalist, Reiko Asakawa, questions some school girls about the legend. They of course all have those "a-friend-of-a-friend" type testimonies, but Reiko picks up on the fact that Izu is the tie that binds. She and her young son attend the funeral of their cousin Tomoko, when she confirms the deaths of Tomoko's group of friends who all rented a cabin in Izu and died. Reiko returns to Tomoko's room, and finds a receipt from a local photolab. She picks it up and finds pictures of the kids on their vacation, except one where all the faces are warped. She realizes all clues are pointing to that cabin in Izu, so she decides to take a trip out there herself. After checking in, she discovers the infamous videotape in the form of an unassuming unmarked videocasstte. She pops it in the player and watches it.

We see the tape contains a series of very strange images, and immediately after viewing it, she sees the ghost of Sadako in the reflection of the television screen. To make matters worse, the phone rings and she answers to hear a buzzing sound. Startled at the revelation that this legend is all too real, she seeks the help of her ex-husband Ryuji, who's now a university professor. She tells him to take a snapshot of him with a Polaroid camera and sees her picture has been distorted like the kids' photo. Ryuji watches the tape, but he doesn't receive a call. He tells Reiko to make a copy of it for him for further study. Ryuji and Reiko thoroughly study the videotape, putting the pieces of the images together and discover this may have been created by someone from someplace called Oshima island. As the couple begin to unravel the mystery, they find out the source of this was a psychic girl named Sadako who died in a well on the island. Now they must find a way to evade the curse, especially when their young son has also watched the tape and time is running dangerously short for them all.

Sadako's tale is an amalgam of two very famous ancient Japanese ghost stories. One being the Yotsuya Kaidan and the other being Banchō Sarayashiki. Though the film is essentially a ghost story with a somewhat technological facet, it doesn't feature overtly high-tech infrastructure, or the spooky old house. In fact it seems to go out of its way to feature exactly the opposite from both degrees with either wide open isolation or congested interiors and exteriors. This serves as a contrast to all the cellphone, video cassettes, and Polaroid cameras utilized throughout "Ringu". There are touching moments with the son and his grandfather and some melodrama between Reiko and Ryuji. The J-Horror tropes were all first established here with the ancient ghost story, evil side of technology, cursed school girls, a single mother, and a doomed college professor.

On the sound design front, one could write an essay (as I'm sure many have) on that aspect of this film alone. It too has gone on to be highly imitated and found its textural construction in nearly every kind of J-horror since. Sure, there are the typical horror movie jump-back sounds to startle you, but underlying that is a whole storytelling device that's somewhat operatic; from the low almost long-distance train whistle for the timestamps, the buzzing insect-like noise of the phone calls, to the crackling white noise positing of Sadako's stalk. It's interesting that this film was actually directly inspired by two Western region films. Suzuki claims he was inspired to write the book after seeing the Tobe Hooper haunted house film "Poltergeist". Nakata suggested that he drew inspiration from David Cronenberg's "Videodrome". "Ringu" is a classic horror film in an era that relies increasingly on shock and gore, which lead to the appeal of J-Horror films. The film has its shortcomings like the lack of further explanation of Tomoko's or that the main characters (particularly Ryuji) clearly appear to possess psychic abilities. The film is a slow burner that allows the suspense to and mystery to build one step at a time. It is unfortunate not enough films today allow the audience to use their own intelligence to figure things out. "Ringu" was followed up by a couple of sequels that, of course, failed to engage and innovate the genre like this one little masterpiece.