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Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2000

'RING 0'

Back to the roots of loose-sock horror

Two years ago this month I reviewed a double bill with a difference. Based on two novels by Koji Suzuki -- the Stephen King of Japan -- "Ring (The Ring)" and "Rasen (The Spiral)" were a pair of linked horror films targeted squarely at the teenage audience. It took, I wrote, no little chutzpah on the part of uber-producer Masato Hara to expect this notoriously squirmy age group to sit still for what was essentially a four-hour movie, with an intermission.

The loose-sock set, however, not only sat, but made "Ring" and "Rasen" a must-see event. "Ring" (not "Rasen" for some reason) was also a big hit in Asia and was later sold to Fine Line for North American distribution.

The inevitable sequel, "Ring 2," and the unrelated lower half of the double bill, "Shikoku," were an even bigger smash, earning 2.1 billion yen in film rentals and finishing second in last year's domestic box-office rankings. (Only the second Pokemon movie did better -- and we all know how huge that was.)

Now we have "Ring 0," which resembles "Star Wars Episode I" in explaining what happened before the first movie, in which a mysterious video tape killed anyone who watched it, and the second, in which the vengeful female spirit who inhabited the tape, Sadako, wreaked even more havoc. This, I was assured by the film's publicist, is "the last of a trilogy."

Based on a Suzuki novel of the same title, "Ring 0" tells of the birth of a monster -- "The Bride of Frankenstein" in modern guise. This monster, though, has the face of an angel and is a victim as well as a killer. Is Sadako really as horrible as everyone, save one hunky defender, seems to think she is, or is she just horribly misunderstood?

The script by Hiroshi Takahashi, who also adapted Suzuki's two previous "Ring" novels for the screen, and the direction by horror specialist Norio Tsuruta ("Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi"), keep us guessing about Sadako to her pre-ordained end. Yes, we know she is headed for a dive down that abandoned well, from which she emerged to such goose-pimpling effect in "Ring" and "Ring 2," but did she deserve such a terrible fate? Many horror movies are just one danged scare after another -- "Ring 0" aspires to something like tragedy.

No, it doesn't reach the heights of "Frankenstein," James Whales' cracked classic, but it does rise above the run of the Japanese "horror boom" films. The main reason is the performance by newcomer Yukie Nakama as Sadako. While drawing on the long tradition of Japanese horror, whose fright formulas are often fueled by female rage, Nakama seems to be inhabiting her confused character moment by moment, instead of merely letting go with the usual glass-shattering screams. Through her eyes, we can experience Sadako's desperate struggle with her dark side -- and her clutching terror that she is losing.

When the film begins, the year is 1969 and Sadako is already 18. As a child she became aware of unusual powers, inherited from her psychic mother, and their destructive potential. In 1957, her mother gave a public demonstration of her supernatural talents on Oshima island. When a reporter accused her of being a fraud, an enraged Sadako struck him dead, without lifting a finger. In the aftermath of this shocking incident, she developed a split personality. Not long after, her mother committed suicide by throwing herself into an Oshima volcano and a severely shaken Sadako was brought to Tokyo.

Now she is a trainee in a small Tokyo theater company -- and still wrestling with her demons. She also happens to be strikingly beautiful and entrancingly ethereal -- as though she'd been beamed from another dimension. The company's lecherous middle-aged director is attracted, as is Toyama (Shinichi Tanabe), a handsome fellow trainee who is working as the company's sound man.

Sadako resists the former, while beginning to fall in love with the latter. The female members of the company, however, are less enthralled with her, especially when the star of their new play dies in mysterious circumstances and Sadako is chosen to take her place.

Then the fiancee (Yoshiko Tanaka) of the dead reporter -- now a reporter herself -- becomes interested in the "accidental" death of the troupe's leading lady and begins her own investigation of Sadako. The director reveals an interest of another kind when he sexually assaults his new star and dies in agony.

Convinced that Sadako is responsible for the two deaths, a young wardrobe mistress (Kumiko Aso) produces an impromptu onstage horror show that display Sadako's powers to a shocked cast, crew and audience, vengeance descends on the girl, despite the efforts of Toyama to save her. Is Toyama, besotted by love, blind to the evil that lurks within Sadako -- or are her tormentors persecuting a girl in thrall to forces she cannot control?

Under Norio Tsuruta's direction, the film plays like television writ large with everyone acting to the semi-dozing couch potato across the room. The exception is Yukie Nakama, who may have the voice of an anime heroine -- spacy sweetness and light -- but also has an unforced empathy with her double-jointed character: all baffled innocence one moment, all implacable rage the next. Though it may mark the end of a series, "Ring 0" heralds the beginning of what may be a brilliant career.

"Ring 0" is playing at Nichigeki Toho and other theaters.

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