[ Ring ][ Rasen ][ Ring 2 ][ Ring Virus ]
All right: bear with me for a moment, because this is complicated. The Ring phenomenon got its start with a novel by Japanese author Suzuki Kôji. Suzuki's atmospheric ghost story was extremely successful, and was soon turned into a TV miniseries. The series was also wildly successful, so Toho studios decided to turn it into a feature film. Knowing they had a hot property on their hands, Toho decided to film a sequel to Ring while the first film was being shot. The sequel, Rasen / The Spiral, featured some of the same cast members, but was helmed by a different director; it took the story in a different and unexpected direction, and apparently left many viewers disappointed. So the director of the first movie made his own sequel, called Ring 2, again featuring many of the same actors. In the meantime, the Japanese and Korean film industries collaborated on yet another adaptation of the original novel for Korean audiences. So we have two different feature film adaptations of the original story, as well as two entirely different sequels, each of which takes the same source novel and the same inital premise and takes it in a radically different direction.We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission... Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation... If the idea catches on, it can be siad to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: '... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell...'
Still with me?
The basic idea behind the Ring saga is this: there is a videotape, containing a bizarre succession of abstract images, which has the power to kill anyone who sees it. After the viewer has seen the tape, the nearest telephone rings, and the cursed viewer is informed that he or she will die in exactly seven days. Invariably, after seven days to the second, all those who see the images on-screen die of mysterious heart attacks, with expressions of horror frozen on their faces.
On its own, it sounds like a very typical legend. What teen hasn't heard campfire stories like the one about Bloody Mary, whose name you must never speak into a mirror at midnight? This is the sort of myth that Clive Barker used as the basis for Candyman; similarly, those popular, whispered tales of horror that everybody seems to know inspired the awful Urban Legend series of slasher films. But the difference between these approaches and that of Ring is substantial: where other films use this basic premise to build their entire narrative, in the case of Ring this is only one small detail. The real meat of the film is much more complicated, and much more interesting.
There has to be a source for this mysterious tape, and a reason for its lethal power. That source is eventually revealed -- but here again, this is not the entire reason for the film's existence. The films, especially the original Toho production, work on many different and nuanced levels. As a result, they are more than conventionally frightening. They have the power to create a tremendous emotional response in the viewer, in much the same way that the mysterious video has the power to affect the life and soul of the hapless people who come into contact with it.
The tape turns out to be a recorded series of images taken directly from a human brain. The brain in questioin is that of a young girl named Sadako, the daughter of a controversial psychic from the late fifties / early sixties. Sadako's tragic history is given a different color in each of the versions, and I'll try to explain more about her in the details of each film. But what I think makes her unique is that her "supernatural" manifestations are really grounded in plausible science fiction -- specifically, in the theory of the meme. Sadako seems to represent a theortical, nightmarish possibility for the future evolution of humankind. She has the remarkable ability to infuence the brain patterns of other people. This is not only manifested through the usual stock of psychic phenomena so dearly loved by Japanese popular culture... she can not only see the future or make things happen by the power of thought: she can simply will a person to die from a distance. She can take over their minds and literally frighten them to death. She seems to be a creature who exists primarily as a memetic, rather than a genetic entity, and her survival is determined by her abilty to infect as many people as possible with the memes she carries in her brain. In fact, it's even suggested in the two films by Nakata Hideo that Sadako's true father may not have been human, or that she may not have had a father in the conventional, biological sense.
There are three things that make this idea especially interesting. First -- and very importantly for those who are wary of superstition -- it allows the ghostly manifestations of Sadako to be something more than either spookery or hallucination. To the person undergoing the experience, the manifestations are absolutely real, indistinguishable from any other kind of experience. They are happening inside his or her brain, even if they have no existence outside of it. Of course, there is still no explanation how her thought patterns can continue to exist and influence people even after her death, but after all, this is a ghost story...
Second, it has a very strong resonance with the will for personal survival after death. We pass on something of ourselves in our genes to our succeeding generations, but as Richard Dawkins points out in The Selfish Gene, our genes become unrecognizeably diluted by the third generation. It is in our memetic legacy -- the songs or poems we wrote, the things we said or did, the ideas we left behind -- which endures longest. Is it beyond speculation that this aspect of ourselves might evolve to take on a separate existence? After all, the public character we present to our friends, family and enemies alike is also an idea, with which we 'infect' the minds of those around us. And that image will live as long as those people's memories continue to hold it. It's the perfect raw material for a scientifically motivated ghost story, and that's exactly how I choose to interpret Ring.
The third interesting detail is a sort of spoiler, so I'm including it at the end of this review.
Ring opens late at night, as two high school-age girls stay up to study and talk girl-talk. One of the girls is telling her friend Tomoko about a popular story that's been going around. There had been a boy, she says, who went on vacation to Izu. While he was there, he had wanted to tape his favorite TV program, but he'd forgotten that the channels were different in that part of the country. However, though he'd taped a non-existent channel, instead of an empty tape he got the image of a strange woman, who told him he would be dead in seven days. After this, the telephone had rung, and voice on the other end said: "You saw it!"
The girl breaks out laughing over the silly story, but Tomoko grows pensive: "Who told you that?" she demands. "Was it Yôko?" It seems that they'd gone on vacation, she and some friends, to a resort villa. "We found a strange video," she says. After they'd watched the video, the phone had rung, and the curse had begun. They didn't know whether to believe the strange curse associated with the video. Though they'd tried to ignore it, the seven days had now ended, this very evening... and Tomoko is worried.
There's a beat. Both girls are caught up in the spell of the story. Then the sheer improbability of it all breaks through the somber atmosphere and they begin giggling over their momentary fear...
The phone rings.
Once again frightened and uncertain, the girls go off to answer the phone. Sure enough, the call turns out to be harmless, and once again the girls are relieved. As her friend goes back to the bedroom, the girl who had seen the video notices that the television has suddenly come on in the living room. She goes to investigate...
The curse turns out to be very real indeed.
This setup gives the viewer a good idea about what to expect from the film. It starts by establishing a mood of intimacy, of friendly conversation between two close friends. Then, into the comfortable atmosphere creeps a hint of something horribly wrong. The bad feeling builds, only to be relieved at the last moment. But the relief is false; there's still something awful waiting just out of sight, something that will doom the innocent people we've shared a warm moment with.
The story proper focuses on Asakawa Reiko, a reporter who is the aunt of Tomoko, one of four teens who died mysteriously seven days after their vacation. Understandably troubled by the senseless deaths, she is even more disturbed when she makes the connection, after speaking to her late niece's friends, between Tomoko's death and the swiftly-spreading legend of the cursed video. She finds the last roll of photographs that the kids took on their trip, and has the roll developed. The early photos turn out to be normal vacation snaps, but the last pictures are all horribly distorted. Off she goes to the resort, where she rents the same room she saw in the photographs.
The resort has a small video rental office in the lobby. Though the proprietor doesn't remember anything about the kids who were there a few weeks before, he lets Reiko look around. Sure enough, there amid the brightly colored rental boxes, Reiko finds a plain, unlabeled videotape.
She watches; we watch with her. We see the disturbing series of images we've been coming to dread. There is what seems to be the view of the sky from the bottom of the well, with a man's head looking down into the depths. There is a bried vision of people crawling in agony across the ground, and a man standing with his head covered, pointing at something indistinguishable. There is an image of Japanese words swimming across the screen like tiny organisms under a microscope. There is a close-up of an eye, across which the kanji character SADA passes. And under it all was a strangely distorted voice... When the images fade into static, all the clocks in the room stop. And the phone rings. Reiko will be dead in seven days.
She now has no doubt that the curse is real. She must think not only of saving her own life, but of providing for her young son in case anything does happen to her. She has only one person to turn to: her estranged ex-husband Takayama Ryuji, a mathematics professor.
Takayama agrees to watch the video, too, even at the risk of his life. Together the two of them begin to piece together the story behind the video. By following clues in the succession of seemingly random images, they begin to understand the origin of the curse.
It seems there was a controversial psychic named Yamamura Shizuko, who apparently had the ability to foresee natural disasters. After her successful prediction of the eruption of Mt. Mihara, she had become involved with a noted doctor, Ikuma Heihachiro, who had attempted to research her strange abilities. He had also become her lover, a fact which did little to endear them to the public or the scientific community. Much later in the film, we find out that Shizuko had had a daughter, Sadako, though no one was really sure who her father had been.
When Sadako was a little girl, the Doctor had presented a press conference, at which he hoped to prove Shizuko's psychic abilities publicly and beyond dispute. However, the press got out of hand during the demonstration, calling Shizuko a fake and denouncing her stridently. At that point, Sadako, a shy little girl whose face is always hidden behind her long hair, had become violently agitated. All at once, a heckler in the press corps convulsed and fell dead.
After this disastrous performance, Shizuko had thrown herself into the same volcano she had predicted would erupt. The Doctor had been ruined, and he and Sadako had disappeared without trace. Much of this is revealed to Reiko in a vision, seemingly given to her by Sadako herself, as she and Takayama follow the tenuous trail of clues back through Sadako's unhappy life.
As time runs out for Reiko, it becomes clear that they must find out the truth about Sadako. They must find where her body is hidden, and hope to bring her to peace before Reiko's and Takayama's seven days are up. But there's an even more harrowing complication: Reiko's young son Yoichi has also seen the tape, at what he says was the insistance of his dead cousin Tomoko. Now not only is Reiko struggling for her life and the life of her ex-husband, but also for her son.
Ring succeeds on a number of levels. Technically, the highly-effective use of sound and lighting give the film a sense of real foreboding. The story, while complicated, is involving, part ghost story, part suspenseful murder mystery. Sadako herself is one of the best on-screen ghosts ever: she's never seen completely, most often appearing as a shadow or a reflection in a pane of glass. When we do see her, she takes the form of either a small, pale child or a slightly older girl in a long white dress, her face totally hidden behind her long, black hair. It's the hair we remember most of all, and K.M. Hazel has drawn a wonderful parallel between Sadako and the remarkably textural ghosts of M.R. James. The clearest glimpse we have of Sadako reveals only one baleful eye, and the fact that her nails have been torn off from clawing at her tomb.
Nakata is ambiguous about Sadako's true age. I came away from the first film with a sense that Sadako had still been mostly a child, no older than perhaps 15, when Dr. Ikuma threw her down the well; but the sequels all make it clear that about ten years passed between the death of Shizuko and her daughter's murder. Sadako would probably have been about 20, then. More details about her life after her mother's death are provided in the other films, and are probably present in the original novel. But I think it was wise of Nakata to de-emphasize Sadako's life story, and keep her a shadowy figure whose real existence we can barely imagine. Sadako becomes a much more human presence in the other Ring movies, and that I believe is a mistake.
But the most harrowing aspect of the movie is its reliance on character and recognizeable relationships. Reiko isn't just trying to save her life: she's trying to save her family, splintered though it is. Even the spectral Sadako is as much a tragic figure as an object of fear. Naturally, a story like this can't possibly have a happy ending; but even in its shocking hopelessness, Ring is never anything less than honest and emotionally resonant.
Ring is available in an English PAL video and DVD. For those of us with only NTSC video setups, there are two widely-available video CDs: one from Hong Kong, in Japanese with Chinese subtitles, and one from Malaysia, with erratic English subtitles. I decided to take my chances with the Japanese/Chinese version, with the result that there's probably a lot of detail I missed... my Japanese was never very good, and I'm badly out of practice. On the plus side, the VCD did come with some nifty Sadako stickers!
The chances of a US distribution for the video don't look good. Apparently Ring played in theaters for a very limited run; living in a small backwater community, I never heard about it. In the meantime, Dreamworks has bought the rights to Ring in America. Now, they had several options about what to do with it. They could have released an uncut, subtitled, possibly even widescreen version of it, either to the theatres or to video; after all, HBO video did fairly well by Godzilla vs. Biollante, and several smaller companies like ADV have done a wonderful job of releasing Japanese films in their original formats. On the other hand, they could have edited and dubbed the films, the way Tristar butchered Godzilla 2000. Unfortunately, and most frightening to me, they have chosen to shoot an American version of the film themselves.
I don't trust Hollywood to remake Ringu. There are a handful of doomed teens in Ring, but the film is not their story. Instead, it's a heartbreaking film that works off our understanding of adult relationships, as well as the effects of those relationships on young people. This is a theme which is alien to American mainstream movies, let alone mainstream horror movies.
Let's not forget (how could we?) that Dreamworks acquired the rights to remake another classic, bloodless, truly frightening horror film a few years back -- and Jan deBont's The Haunting (1998) was a total disaster. Now Dreamworks has hired the writer of Scream and the director of Mouse Hunt to recreate the Ring phenomenon for American audiences. Under the circumstances, it seems like it would be a miracle if the film turns out to be even watchable.
Rasen / The Spiral
Rasen was directed by Iida Jôji at the same time the Ring was being filmed. It was released as a double bill with the original. It is not really possible to understand Rasen unless you've seen Ring. However, the paradox is this: if you have seen Ring, Rasen will probably leave you frustrated and annoyed.
Not only did Iida take the story in a completely different and unexpected direction, he also changed the back story quite a bit. He changed the content of the haunted video to fit better with the story he intended to tell. Also, in Rasen the ghostly Sadako is unmistakeably a grown woman -- and a seductress as well, intent on finding a way to be reborn into the world.
The principal character of the film is a young doctor, Ando Mitsuo, who suffers mightily from the accidental drowning of his son. This sense of loss fuels our building sense of emapthy with him... yet it seems forced, somehow. Dr. Ando has the misfortune to perform the autopsy on his friend, Dr. Takayama. Much to his surprise, Takayama's eviscerated corpse sits up on the autopsy table and begins talking to him. Naturally, it turns out to be a vivid hallucination, though still possibly a visit from beyond the grave. It's much more along the lines of what we've come to expect from Japanese horror, and a long way away from the restrained, bloodless approach of the original.
After the autopsy, one of the technicians finds a slip of paper in Takayama's stomach contents. On the paper are two sets of numbers, which figures are a sort of code. The first set he figures out by associating the numbers with the letters of the English alphabet. Fair enough. But the second set are encoded using the abbreviations of the periodic table (which Ando figures out midway through the film). The message is a good metaphor for the problems the movie has: it provides too many complicated explanations for a message which should not have been encoded in the first place.
Asakawa Reiko and her son are mentioned in the film, are even players in the action... but they do not appear in person. They are disposed of off-camera. Next in importance to Dr. Ando is another returning character from Ring: Takano Mai, Dr. Takayama's student assistant, who was obviously in love with him. She forms a tenuous relationship with Dr. Ando, as he tries to figure out the next step in the puzzle of Sadako's curse. Unfortunately, Sadako has plans for both of them -- alive or dead.
Rasen is a huge step down from Ring. In addition to changing the story in incomprehensible ways -- like making Sadako a sexy young (frequently naked) woman ghost instead of a shadowy child, or re-casting the story in genetic rather than memetic terms -- Iida blunders in other ways as well. He has Takayama pop up like a Greek chorus all throughout the film. He ends up with a pair of ghosts driving off in an SUV. He even brings in a sub-plot about a contagious, smallpox-like side-infection, which plagues people around those who have seen the video. It's talky, conventional and contrived.
Rasen should not be confused with Uzumaki, a film by Higuchinski whose title also means spiral. Rasen is available at present only on a Hong Kong DVD, in Japanese with Chinese subtitles. Perhaps part of my dislike of the film stems from the three or four hours it took me to watch it -- stopping every few minutes to look up something I didn't understand in my Japanese or Chinese dictionaries. The DVD has a technical issue which, like the absurd dual-code I mentioned earlier, acts as a good parallel to the film itself. While most of the movie is presented full-frame, occasionally the picture jumps to widescreen. Video companies will sometimes do this in scenes where the original composition is too important to be lost. In this case, though, there seems tobe no logic for the switch: in one case, it's just a scene of two people taking to each other. It just can't decide what film it wants to be.
Hideo Nakata's own sequel to Ring is a more satisfying continuation of the story than Iida's, but his film suffers from many of the same problems. Again, the film makers are faced with the problem of continuing a story that doesn't really need to be continued; and again they fail by trying to frind explanations for things that were better left in the viewers' imaginations.
The story picks up only minutes after the conclusion of Ring. Sadako's nominal "father" is asked to come and identify the remains found in the old well. He is unwilling to even attempt the identification, but is horrified by a vision of Sadako's hair creeping out from under the sheet. In the meantime, Asakawa Reiko's father is found dead near a video duplication setup, an expression of horror frozen on his face.
Takano Mai, Professor Takayama's assistant, is again a central figure, though she's given a much different role than in Iida's sequel. In Ring 2, we're on more familiar ground with the main characters: the late Takayama is once again a humble maths professor, rather than a would-be geneticist, and he (fortunately) stays dead for the duration. Reiko and her child Yoichi are also back, noticeably traumatized by their experiences. Reiko dies horribly in front of her son's eyes, in a bit which manages to be both oddly moving and completely mis-handled. It is left for Mai to look after Yoichi, and protect him from the next phase of Sadako's curse: she is re-entering the world through him.
In my introduction, I brought up the essentially scientific basis for Sadako's curse. Here, as in Iida's sequel, the film makers sieze on possible scientific explanations for the spooky goings-on, and in doing so bulldoze everything that made these possibilities so exciting. By insisting on one pseudoscientific explanation for Sadako's curse, they make it impossible for us to form our own opinions; and in the meantime, they give us such ludicrous premises for their explanations that we lose faith in the whole story. It's not simply that the mystery is ruined by explanation: it's that the explanation they give us is so convoluted that it makes no sense.
In structure, too, Ring 2 is much more conventional than the original. It all concludes with an over-the-top climax featuring a ton of electronic gadgets and a swimming pool. We also get to see rather a lot of Sadako, including her face, and I can't say the effect was an improvement on the original. All in all, while by no means a bad movie or even an uninteresting one, I think Ring 2 is a big disappointment.
Ring 2 is available on a Hong Kong VCD -- with English subtitles. That's the good news. The bad news should be obvious: the film makes no sense unless you've seen the original Ring, which is not readily available to English-speaking US viewers. Don't despair, though: there's hope yet... namely:
Called simply Ring in Korean, Ring Virus is yet another adaptation of the original novel. It was made as a joint Korean/Japanese production, for distribution in Korea... a market which has not been traditionally open to Japanese cinema. As a lucky coincidence, the final consonant -ng is symbolized as a circle in the Korean alphabet, so the title has a ring built into it.
The plot of Ring Virus is very similar to that of the Japanese version, with a few important differences both on the plus and minus sides. First, the heroine Sun-ju's child is not her son but her daughter. This adds a whole new dimension to the story: suddenly the search for the dead girl to save the living one assumes all sorts of added poignancy. On the other hand, her partner in the search is no longer her ex-husband, but rather a brilliant but reclusive neurologist. The doctor's gradually emerging humanity in the face of death adds an interesting twist to the story, but it's not as emotionally involving as the original's family dynamic.
As in Rasen, the psychic girl (whose name is Un-seo) here is presented as having lived well into early womanhood. The strong suggestion here is that she represents a new stage in human evolution, but one which has a strong sexual identity as well as psychic abilities. She is equally man and woman, theoretically self-sufficient but in fact spiritually incomplete. Her story is much more complex, but also much less frightening: we see too much of her, and get to know her too well in her complexity. As a result, she becomes more of a tragic and vengeful figure than a terrifying force.
Overall, Ring Virus is a good horror film, and a good film as well; it expands the story in ways which make it less of a shock-film and more of a human drama... even if it abandons elements of the original film which gave that film its greatest power. Ring Virus goes its own way, and succeeds very well.
Best of all, Ring Virus is available on DVD with English subtitles!! What's more, the Korean Bitwin disc is an interesting technical curiosity: it apparently plays both the panned-and-scanned version and wide-screen version from the same recorded data, with the size of the image controlled bu your DVD player's settings. I say "apparently" because I haven't been able to figure out how it's done... but I only want to see the widescreen version anyway, so to me it remains a curiosity.
I got all these movies from my favorite source, Poker Industries in East Brunswick, NJ. Of all of them, Ring Virus is probably best for non-Japanese or Chinese speaking viewers; it's fully worthy of its Japanese predecessor, but it's got some English attached.
In Japan, they've apparently released a prequel to Ring, entitled Ring 0: Birthday. It's supposed to tell more of Sadako's back story. Once again, studio heads in search of the last possible dollar seem to have turned a good movie into a bad franchise: Ring 0 is getting some of the worst reviews since Blair Witch 2. For now, I don't need a prequel to get a fresh scare from the Ring saga: I'm just waiting to see what they do with Ring in America. Now that's a scary thought.
However, Sadako's video has a different, totally ruthless way of perpetuating itself. "Spread me," says the Sadako meme, "or you will die. Anyone you show this to will die if they, in turn, do not spread it to someone else." The meme is counting on the host's innate sense of self-preservation to ensure its survival. There is, after all, a way out for the victim's victim, making it possible for the victim to choose the selfish option of survival without the guilt of knowing that the next in line is definitely going to die. In effect, the victim has simply transferred the dilemma to another person. The closest parallel I can find for this sort of transmission is the chain letter, which spreads itself via superstitious dread of a possible future, rather than the certainty of a horrible death. I'd like to see how this sort of intimidation would work in a mathematical model!Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence... The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.