Monday, January 4, 2016

Killer video

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2002)

I haven’t seen the Japanese original on which Gore Verbinski’s The Ring is based, and until I saw the remake I’d never wanted to. This is a function of too many movies and too short a life span – the whole cultish Japanese thing has long seemed to me an easy area in which to turn a blind eye and avoid spreading myself too thin, cinematically speaking. But my resolve is slowly crumbling. Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away may well be a masterpiece of some kind. I was gripped last year by Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and even the Pang Brothers’ The Eye (which I wrote about in fairly lukewarm terms in my film festival review a few weeks ago) left a surprisingly vivid aftertaste.

Foreign films

I’ve been through this kind of surrender several times before. I remember a period when I was fairly certain I could ignore contemporary Iranian cinema, before a screening of Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House put paid to that. More recently, I’ve started to become much more aware of India’s “Bollywood” movies. For years, my knowledge of Indian cinema began and ended at Satyajit Ray (and James Ivory, who I don’t think really counts). Then, a few months ago, someone at the office lent me a DVD of a Raj Kapoor movie called Shree 420. It’s not a masterpiece exactly, but it’s highly entertaining, although I’m enough of a Bollywood novice to have been quite disorientated by the film’s many abrupt shifts of tone. But almost as intriguing was the promotional reel at the end of the film – a long clip montage that gave me an inkling of how huge and diverse that body of work actually is.

Talking to my several Indian-descended colleagues at the office, and realizing how they swapped memories of Bollywood actors and classics as effortlessly as I speak of Jack Nicholson and Raiders of the Lost Ark, I started to feel out in the cold. So I’m determined to make up ground there. Still, given the length of the movies (Shree 420 is 168 minutes, which isn’t even at the longer end of the Indian scale) and the volume of material to catch up on, I fear this task really will outlive me. I thought Vision TV was going to help recently by screening the classic Sholay, but I doubt I’m the only one who was appalled at the truly wretched editing job someone did on it (a 216 minute movie plus commercials, butchered into a 180 minute slot).

Anyway, the Japanese The Ring seems to be a true cult classic. Here’s a typical (verbatim) comment from the Internet Movie Database: “this is a great movie and hopefully the American version doesn’t funk it up to much cause its just about perfect the way it is, in japanese, with english subtitles, the ‘horror’ follows you after you watch this film leaving you creeped out, seriously, very very disturbed, and the only way you can overcome it, is to watch it again and again…..eeeek!” (By the way, if this raises any thoughts as to how I might improve my own reviewing style, feel free to write in). I guess another way to overcome the horror might be to watch the film’s two sequels.

The Ring

Another reason to get into this genre is to stay young. Apparently the remake of The Ring had some of the higher recent pre-release “want to see” buzz among teenage audiences, and accordingly opened to solid box office. The film doesn’t pander to that audience in all ways though. Most notably, it’s one of the relatively few thrillers built around a female protagonist. She’s a journalist investigating the recent death of several teenagers. The rumour is they died after watching a videotape that kills everyone who views it, exactly seven days later. She tracks down and watches the videotape, and quickly becomes convinced it’s not just an urban legend. After that it’s a race against time to locate the source of the tape and save herself, and her young son who’s inadvertently seen the tape as well.

The film is shot in a sombre, brooding manner that’s generally reminiscent of the movies I mentioned in my first paragraph. It’s the contrast of this unforced mood with the plot’s outlandish mythology that gives this genre its unique frisson. The Ring proceeds through a series of deductions, but these are all highly arbitrary. The ultimate explanation leaves an awful lot of loose ends. It’s never explained, for instance, how the videotape was made. Even so, this plot device draws effortlessly on vague disquiet about the underbelly of technology.

Naomi Watts plays the woman, in her first major role since breaking through in Mulholland Drive. She’s almost as good here as she was in that film, although it’s an inherently simpler role. Actually, it’s a more logical follow-up than one might think. Her role in Lynch’s film was one of the most ambiguous in memory, first painting a sunny exterior with hints of hidden depths, and then revealing those depths with startling clarity. The scene where she does an audition with Chad Everett summed up how acting and reinvention are central to the film’s theme, while also providing one hell of a showcase for Watts herself.

Face value

The Ring may work best if you see it in similar terms, with Watts’ unraveling of the story constituting an invention as much as a discovery. True, in its final stretch the film becomes so explicit that you have to take it at face value. But before then it’s plausible that the supernatural elements may just be projections of a widespread psychosis. It’s a shame though that Verbinski doesn’t make this interpretation easier. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films seem to carry a profound allegorical punch, maybe in part because his observation of young people is so quietly scrupulous that the films can’t be read as an “escape.” The Ring seems to lack that much ambition. It’s a shame, because the potential is so clearly apparent.

The film has a superb sequence involving an escaped horse on a boat, and the video itself is an appropriately disquieting piece of montage. On the whole, The Ring discharges its commercial obligations more than adequately, while preserving enough of a foreign sensibility to set itself apart. While keeping the audience content to live in the mainstream, it will surely persuade some of them to seek out the Japanese original, and then maybe to move on to other foreign films. Who knows, some may even find their way from cult movies to the accepted canon of world cinema; maybe I’ll cross paths with them as I come in the opposite direction.

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