Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
English Title: The Ring
(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)
A decade after its original release in Japan, it is not exactly inaccurate to think that Hideo Nakata's Ringu (The Ring) is important merely for its influence. The film, after all, is the widely-acknowledged precursor (although the Japanese have been making similarly plotted ghost stories decades before this) to the pan-Asian phenomenon that sparked horror film productions in South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, and elsewhere. The explanation is rather simple: Ringu, apart from being an effective moneymaker in its native Japan, demonstrated capably the commercial viability of horror films as export products when screening and DVD rights of the film were purchased in foreign territories. Eventually, the interest in the film grew to the point of the film being remade in Hollywood. As a result of this unprecedented demand, the commercial clamor for slow-paced but effective ghost stories ballooned giving reason for Ringu's stylistic descendants like Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (The Grudge, 2000), Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse, 2001), The Pang Brothers' The Eye (2002), Nakata's own Dark Water (2004) and Takashi Miike's One Missed Call (2004) to have their own Hollywood reincarnations, for better or for worse. However, to acknowledge Ringu merely for its influence is to unfairly discredit its vast artistic merits.
Apart from its indubitable influence, Ringu is actually great horror. In the film's most famous scene, Sadako, her face covered with imposing locks of long black hair and her body by an ominous white robe, crawls out of the television. Her movements are awkward yet terrifying, pointing out to the hidden frame that is possibly twisted and contorted beyond human imagination. Nakata cuts to Sadako's immobilized victim, clinging desperately to his life in its inevitably grim end. Nakata cuts back to Sadako, this time closing up to her face where she reveals from her long hair what is arguably the film's most shocking moment: an eye, monstrously malformed yet trapped in a malevolent gaze. The gaze is lethal as her victim eventually freezes right in the middle of a hapless scream. The scene actually happens near the very end of the film and is the only time we witness first hand something supernaturally horrific happen. The rest of the film actually dwells in a simmering state of fear, where Nakata meticulously crafts an atmosphere that foretells an ominous and overpowering danger despite the scarcity of actual, visceral, and physical scares.
As it turns out, it is that penultimate scare that stuck to the moviegoing public. Ringu's heirs approximate the same visceral quality of that scene, populating their respective films with scares and shocks that may rival Ringu in trite abundance and abhorrence but never in integrity. Only a few successfully incorporated the palpable psychological mindplay that made Ringu invaluably intriguing. The rest concentrated on devising new horror gimmickry, conceptualizing and creating variations of the effective Sadako model and churning out similar long-haired female ghosts with slow yet sure murderous intentions. With a relentless bombardment of gore, shocks, and cheap thrills, the requisite atmosphere of subtle dread so expertly displayed by Nakata in Ringu is eventually neglected.
This atmosphere is perfectly captured in the Ringu's first sequence. Two teenage girls, Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi)and her friend, indulge in late night stories during their sleepover. The friend fancifully tells the story of a cursed video. The giddy mood transforms into ominosity, as Tomoko declares that she saw a similar video while in vacation with a bunch of friends. She expounds that the screening was followed by a mysterious call, stating that she has exactly a week to live. At that instance, Nakata punctures the safety of a girl's night out with a hint of danger. We learn that it has been exactly a week since Tomoko saw the video tape. The other girl breaks the fearsome silence, forcing Tomoko to admit that she's merely joking. Tomoko succumbs, and both of them continue their discussion on romance, boys, and other juvenilia. We assume safety again, at least for a while until the phone suddenly rings and the girls stop talking and the atmosphere drowns in dread. The two hurry down to answer the call. It turns out to be another friend, and both laugh at the absurdity of their fears. Assured of the impossibility of death by videotape, normalcy happens and the friends excuses herself. Tomoko goes to the kitchen. Nakata frames it in a way that we see Tomoko in the foreground, and in the background is the living room, partially covered by translucent glass. The television mysteriously turns on, its foreboding blue glow apparent through the translucent glass. Tomoko checks the living room out, turns the television off, returns to the kitchen, before her fateful death.
That initial sequence plays out deliberately, with Nakata in complete control of the mental and psychological repercussions of the scene. He blankets the opening sequence with a facade of absolute mundanity and juvenilia, before introducing, in careful trickles, his brilliant masterplan: for the audience to abandon all notions of logic and reality so that his horror, which is suggestive of an alternate universe of otherworldly deadly curses spreading through available technology, may not only be palatable but also effective. In fact, the entire film is enveloped in that same mixture of mundanity and the supernatural. Structured similarly like the first sequence, Ringu stretches allowable logic until it inevitably unhinges, where Nakata commits his masterful centerpiece (Sadako's out-of-the-television attack) which is both ludicrous and powerful, where ordinary notions of reality are completely erased to ease the plausibility of the palpable cap to Nakata's exercise of suggestive terror.
Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) and Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) are divorced couple who are maximizing their one week to live to figure out a way to cancel the videotape's curse on themselves and their son Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka). While on their time-set quest, their interactions echo their former domestic relations. Such is most evident during the sequence under the vacation cabin where Sadako's well is kept hidden. Ryuji is rushingly filling the pails with dark water, while Reiko is pulling the full pails up to the surface to empty them. Under Ryuji's physical and moral superiority, Reiko becomes subservient and domestic. As Reiko falters under the dictates of time and fatigue and Ryuji is left with the thinking and the working, we become witness to the sudden spark of domestic trouble, where both succumb to the ineptitude of their team work. Nakata never reveals the cause of Reiko and Ryuji's break-up, but we do get a glimpse, forced out by their unlikely predicament, of the perpetual aches of their marital life: a mixture of Ryuji's dominating impertinence and Reiko's servile nature. Ringu becomes something more than a mere ghost story. It starts to resemble a grim family drama, where a previously broken couple discover and rediscover themselves as they raise (or save, in this film's case) their child.
These careful subtleties in both theme and style are what's lacking in Gore Verbinski's technically apt but dry English remake (The Ring, 2002), which concentrated more on the supernatural aspect thus giving due attention to its scary little girl named Samara. Gone is Nakata's discriminating plotting, perfectly sequenced to evoke a consistent dread throughout in preparation for Sadako's memorable haunting; or the minutely flavored family mechanics which is replaced with indiscriminate characterizations of Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson's ex-spouses, spiced up with divorce-resultant indifference and angst, thus unable to open up to more contained and repressed emotions or involuntary reenactments of their former domestic life. It's unfortunate that these clones and remakes seem to have overshadowed Nakata's far more clever work. Ringu simply deserves much more credit than what it is presently given.