Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Ring



Japan 1998
dir. Hideo Nakata
scr. Hiroshi Takashi (based on novel by Koji Suzuki)
cin. Junichiro Hayashi
stars Nanako Matsushima, Miki Nakatani, Hiroyuki Sanada
95 minutes

A cracking horror thriller from Japan, Ring somehow manages to be impressively different and original while at the same time stealing elements from countless Western predecessors. Visually, there are nods to Poltergeist, Videodrome, Carrie and Salems Lot, while the plot borrows liberally from Candyman, and Casting the Runes, MR Jamess short story which formed the basis for Night of the Demon, with even a little bit of HP Lovecraft (The Shadow Over Innsmouth) in there as well.

But Ring is the exact opposite of Hollywoods recent trend towards knowingly ironic, camp comedy-horror movies. This is a downbeat, sombre picture full of a typically Japanese sense of dread and mystery, an interface between the modern, technological era and an earlier age of superstition, curses and vengeful ancestors. If Ring occasionally provokes sniggers rather than chills its hard to know what to make of a film which pivots on the phrase Frolic in brine, goblins be thine, for example – that’s mainly because the film was made primarily with domestic Japanese audiences in mind. But even this foreign-ness ends up as a plus, building up a genuinely unnerving sense of unpredictable dislocation.

Seeing Ring on the big screen is strongly recommended, especially in a full house there’s one big shock moment towards the end that, I can attest, is capable of causing a large section of the audience to scream in delighted horror but, oddly, it is probably better on the small screen. This is because the plot pivots on the malign influence of a curse video, its power the focus of a fictional, but entirely believable urban myth: after watching the video, the story goes, your telephone rings and a voice informs you that you have exactly one week left to live.

The story attracts the attention of divorced journalist Reiko (Matsushima) after four teenagers, including her cousin, simultaneously drop dead. She tracks down the tape, and watches its brief succession of bizarre, haunting images. Then the phone rings, and the film becomes a race against time as Reiko tries to to exorcise the curse, which soon extends to her surly ex-husband Ryuji (Sanada) and their young son, Yoichi (Nakatani) also they also view the tape.

Ring shows an unusual attention to detail at every level, from Takashis multi-layered, evocatively elliptical script to Nakatas no-nonsense direction. The film has a deceptively flat, everyday look that contrasts all the more strikingly with the arty experimentalism of the curse video, and the starkness of periodic black-and-white flashbacks – the rational world thus disrupted and subverted by impossible manifestations of evil. Kenji Kawais eclectic score adds enormously to the cumulative impact of the story, as does the technique of announcing each new day with an on-screen title its been done before in movies of all kinds, most notably The Shining but with such skilful ominousness.

Though it works brilliantly as an intelligent thriller and the final two scenes wrap things up with a pair of especially satisfying twists Ring isn’t just an scary horror picture. It subtly dramatises the tensions in a Japanese culture that, no matter how urgently it strides into a westernised, baseball-playing, high-tech future, can’t quite shake off the insistent ghosts of its mystical past, just as Reiko is forced to abandon her air-conditioned, neon-lit Tokyo office and head to the countryside, then to a wild, wind-swept island, then into the very darkness of the earth itself, to confront the demons that threaten her existence. And if many questions, many tensions, remain unresolved a sequel and a prequel have already been released in Japan that doesn’t mean Ring is either inconclusive or a lazy cop-out. Like all the great horror directors, Nakata is primarily a collaborator. He starts the circle we finish it.

by Neil Young