★★★ / ★★★★
Hideo Nakata’s “Ringu,” based on the novel by Kôji Suzuki, is a horror film more interested in telling a strong story and establishing a consistent feeling of doom than delivering standard scares in which viewers are compelled to jump out of their seats. What results is a work that one cannot help but peer into, like gazing inside a crystal ball where a number of figures can be discerned but making sense of their meaning requires patience and an appreciation of how, for instance, a person’s trauma can have a ripple effect throughout one’s inner circle and eventually one’s community.
The plot revolves around a “weird video” in which, according to high school gossip, those who watch it have seven days left to live. Journalist Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima) decides to investigate if the urban legend is true considering that her own niece was supposed to have seen the video in question along with three friends—all of them died on the same day, exactly a week later since their trip up in the mountains. The expository sequences are fascinating because every scene provides curious information—necessary foundation to be able to ask the right questions which may then help to solve the mystery at hand. In a way, it is a classic detective story in that our protagonist must meet and talk to all sorts of people so that she—and we—can try to put together some puzzle pieces before the story goes into full gear during the second act.
Not only is there terrific patience in storytelling, the film is not afraid to envelop us in silence. The niece’s funeral scene is a standout. From the moment Reiko and her young son (Rikiya Ôtaka) step into the funeral, there is no score. We barely hear shuffling of bodies moving about. We do not even hear the cries of mourners. When people speak, they tend to whisper—as if going above a certain decibel might wake or disturb the dead. It is very creepy, but at the same time it underscores the sadness of—and trauma from—lives taken way too soon. It genuinely feels like we are in a place of grief. Even when Reiko’s son makes his way upstairs, notice the picture does not revert to cheap scares. The emphasis is on how much the boy misses his cousin. He looks at her room differently now that she’s no longer alive.
Another important player in the story is Reiko’s ex-husband, Ryûji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who possesses a sixth sense when it comes to detecting surrounding auras. I admired screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi’s decision in downplaying the idea that the likely reason Reiko and Ryûji divorced is due to his gift (or curse—depending on how one looks at it). There is a poetry shared between this man’s personal torment and the person responsible for the cursed VHS tape. I enjoyed the small moments when Ryûji finds himself relating to those who possessed special abilities but found themselves being rejected by society. “Ringu” is a story of outcasts.
The film can be criticized for lacking overt action. Its minimalism is precisely what I liked about it, which reminded me of the most humble but extremely well-written episodes of “The X-Files.” To inject chases, apparitions making direct contact with the living, a parade of jump scares, and the like would have taken away from the ruminative tone of the project. How can these elements fit when the point is to consider how one’s tragic pain can lead to lashing out at others? It asks us to empathize with “evil,” if that’s what it really is. That’s challenging. There is a confidence and focus to this work that not many horror films from the west can offer.