Monday 18 February 2019

Dark Eyes Retrovision #9 - Ring (Japan 1998: Dir Hideo Nakata)

The twentieth anniversary of the release of arguably one of the most important horror movies of the late twentieth century (it made No. 12 in The Guardian's list of the 25 best horror films of all time back in 2010) is an opportunity to revisit the film that caused all of the fuss, courtesy of Arrow Video's new restoration.

Like much 'weird' Japanese cinema, Ring was based on an ancient folk tale, Banchō Sarayashiki,(translated as The Dish Mansion at Banchō). The story, dating from the eighteenth century, centres on Okiku, a maid who resists being tricked into sleeping with her master. After being fatally thrown into a well as punishment (some versions have her killing herself), her ghost rises and seeks revenge.

Nakata's version, which was adapted from a 1991 novel by Kôji Suzuki (an earlier made for TV adaptation, Ring: Kanzenban, was released three years earlier), develops the story, adding touches of MR James into the mix, specifically 'Casting the Runes.'

A reporter, Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), investigating a mysterious series of deaths - including that of her niece - is led to a rented cabin, where she finds a video cassette. The tape contains a series of strange images which triggers a revenge curse delivered via a phone call, giving her one week to live. Enlisting the help of her ex husband Ryūji, Reiko searches for the truth behind the tape, which leads to her finding out about Sadako Yamamura, a girl with psychic powers whose rage at her death reaches out from beyond the grave. With Reiko, Ryūji and her son Yoichi in mortal danger (all three who have now watched the tape), it's a race against time to find the body of Sadako and lift the curse, which, it is finally discovered, can only be achieved by copying the tape and passing it on to someone else.

While Nakata's film is to some extent a triumph of mood over logic (why the phone calls? How did Sadako's rage physically manifest itself onto the videotape?) Ring succeeds for a number of reasons. First, it's a great 'daylight' horror film. The trappings of the movie may be gothic, but the stylings are remarkably prosaic. Here a telephone replaces the ouija board and the television is the medium for conveying the haunting; for most of its running time Ring doesn't rely on darkness and shadows for its mood. The look and basic premise of Ring was later borrowed for a number of movies, most notably David Robert Mitchell in his 2014 movie It Follows.

The story plays out in the grand 'onion skin' tradition, gradually unravelling the story, leading to the film's big payoff scene - the appearance of Sadako out of the TV set - only after much exposition and careful character building; even if the premise requires suspension of disbelief, the people in the story feel real.

Also, the film's horror is largely implied. In the source novel the revenge deaths are described explicitly, but in the film it's suggested by the agonised faces of the victims that they may in part have died of fright, and it's this subtlety which connects Ring to the golden age of Japanese horror, and directors like Nobu Nakagawa or Gorô Kadono. In the novel Sadako is hermaphrodite, a fact emphasised in the 1995 version, in which the ghost spends an inordinate amount of time topless. Sadako's appearance in Nakata's version, with her white dress and long, straggly black hair obscuring her face, is straight out of the pages of Japanese folklore; although Nakata has disclosed in interview that the reason he his her features was simply because he had shown too much of the spirit's visage in his earlier Don't Look Up (1996) and been criticised for it.

There's a very good overview of the Ring franchise courtesy of the online version of Empire magazine here. As a postscript, Nakata has returned to Ring for his latest movie, Sadako, due out later this year, wherein the director has promised a ghost for a new generation of fans. Let's hope it's better than the appalling F. Javier Gutiérrez directed 2017 US movie Rings or the 2016 Toho styled face off flick Sadako vs. Kayako, directed by Kôji Shiraishi, which pits the ghost from Ring against the child spirit from Ju-On:The Grudge. Bizarre indeed.

Ring will be re-released in UK cinemas on 1 March 2019 and on Steelbook, Blu Ray, DVD and Digital HD on 18 March.

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