Ringu (The Ring) (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
[originally posted 3Dec2002]
Welcome to the world of Japanese New Horror (JNH), a concerted attempt by a number of Japanese filmmakers to get away from the excesses of Hideshi Hino and his Guinea Pig films on one side and the emotional manipulation that passes for drama on the other. JNH filmmakers want to do nothing but tell good, solid, scary stories. As a result of stripping away the other layers, such things as emotional manipulation are cast to the wind, leaving spare frameworks within which the directors can weave what artistry they have. Because there have now been remakes from two countries (Korea and the United States), Ringu towers over other JNH films in terms of worldwide popularity. And while it may best serve as a gateway into the neophyte who wants to discover the world of JNH, it serves that purpose well.
The basic story is simple: an urban legend exists that there is a videotape which will kill you seven days after you see it. A reporter whose cousin died under very mysterious circumstances discovers that the urban legend is real, and the tape seems to have killed her cousin; she then sees it herself, and comes to the conclusion that deciphering the dadaesque series of images on the tape will keep her alive past the seven-day deadline.
Nakata does his job exceptionally well. The casting is perfect, and the characters are astoundingly believable, given that the premise itself has enough holes in it to rival a five-pound block of swiss cheese. This isn’t about realism, though, as much as it is about artistry; the realism herein is injected solely by the characters, and they do a pretty fine job of it.
Nakata breaks the JNH mold slightly by beginning the film with something of a teaser, but then slips right back into lockstep with his fellow directors by laying off the horror angle and concentrating on the story of the reporter and her quest to solve the mystery. The story has enough of its own dramatic tension, and so (like many other brilliant films miscategorized as horror) Ringu ends up coming off as more of a straight mystery than it does a horror film for the first hour and a quarter of its existence. Again, as with every JNH film I’ve seen, however, once the horror starts, it’s Katy-bar-the-door. The last few scenes of Ringu are not necessarily as explicit as the storied excesses of Hino’s movies, but they’re more graphic than most things you’re going to see in modern gore films (and because the horrific aspects have less to do with fountains of blood and weaponry and more with subtle touches of makeup, the nastiness in Ringu is definitely of the creep-out factor type, rather than the “oh, boy, here’s a guy in a mask chopping up teens again”).
Special mention must be made of the subject of the film itself, the videotape known in film circles as “the curse film.” It is a nightmarish, dada masterpiece, a series of short gut-punches that are about the closest thing film has to an actual successor to Bunuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou, but an Andlusian dog worked on as well by Guillaume Apollinaire and Rene Char. Ringu is worth tracking down and seeing just to catch the repeated viewings of the curse film.
Ringu is a wonderfully crafted little gem, and certainly deserving of its worldwide success. (Not to say that many other JNH films aren’t; hopefully, they’ll make it across the pond in the same way Ringu and Audition have.) Well worth the extra time it will require to track down for fans of atmospheric horror tales, but be warned: there are more than a few shocks awaiting you once the film builds to its climax. **** ½