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Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2003

Juonna be spooked again?

Hollywood-bound Takashi Shimizu hits target

Juon 2

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Takashi Shimizu
Running time: 92 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Aug. 26
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Juon (The Grudge)" was one of the great Japanese movie success stories of 2002. Directed by newcomer Takashi Shimizu and released in two theaters, in Tokyo and Osaka, this low-budget shocker about a murdered mom and son wreaking vengeance on the living was soon packing out the venues. The overjoyed distributors rolled out the film to more than 100 screens nationwide, while foreign buyers snapped it up for release in more than 20 countries. Finally, "Spiderman" director Sam Raimi bought the U.S. remake rights and asked Shimizu to helm the Hollywood version.

News photo
Noriko Sakai in "Juon 2"

First, though, Shimizu has given us "Juon 2," which is actually the fourth installment in the "Juon" series, the first two entries appearing only on video. Though acquaintance with the previous films helps unravel a few narrative tangles, "Juon 2" works well enough as a stand-alone. Whether it works well enough as a cinematic spook house is another matter.

"Juon" did the job for me. Despite the cheapness of the effects -- little more than white makeup and a generic cacophony of bumps and creaks -- Shimizu kept hammering away with the creepy persistence and sadistic skill of the true horrormeister. His film finally got under my skin -- and made it crawl -- even as I was smiling at its cheesier scares and puzzling over its scrambled chronology.

"Juon 2" is more of the same, which means that several of its shocks are by now familiar and thus less gooseflesh-producing. Also, some of the new ones, such as a crawling wig, verge on the ludicrous.

Meanwhile, now knowing how big their potential export market is, the film's producers have ladled on the exoticism. They reason, probably correctly, that a wall lined with spooky old photos of dead ancestors or a dark, moldy kitchen equipped with ancient appliances will creep out foreigners. Natives, however, may wonder if they have time-slipped into a 1970s home drama.

Nonetheless, Shimizu retains his talent for going over the top -- into a realm where the living and dead meet and reality and dream merge -- causing hearts to palpitate and sweat to run cold. "Juon 2" may skimp on character development, but Shimizu does an insidiously good job of drawing the audience into his film and allowing them to see its world through terrified eyes. True, it helps to be 14 -- or an adult still half-convinced that demons lurk in dark shadows. I suppose I fall in the latter category.

The heroine is Harase Kyoko (Noriko Sakai), an actress who has become known as a "horror queen" for starring in hit shockers. After appearing in a television documentary about deadly goings-on in a haunted house in Tokyo's Nerima Ward, she is riding with her fiance, Masashi, on a deserted highway when his car hits a black cat. As Masashi inspects what is now a lifeless mass of fur, Kyoko sees a little boy, dead white, standing next to him. An illusion? Perhaps, but a few minutes later, back on the road, Masashi looks down and . . . it's enough to say that, frightened out his wits, he crashes the car.

He is left in a coma and the three-months-pregnant Kyoko has a miscarriage. Then, several days later, she learns that, incredibly, the miscarriage was a mistake. She and the baby are doing fine, the doctor says, but she remains haunted by what she saw that fateful night.

Switch to the apartment of Miura Tomoka (Chiharu Niiyama), the bubbly reporter from the television show Kyoko appeared in. Every night at about half-past-midnight she hears noises -- bumps against her wall. She calls in her no-nonsense boyfriend (Kei Horie), but he hears the bumps, too. Then after being further spooked by a strange sound on a shoot with Kyoko, she returns to her apartment . . . and another appointment with terror. Similar incidents multiply, all revolving around the same ill-fated program and involving the director (Shingo Katsurayama), the makeup girl (Megumi Yamamoto) and Kyoko herself. Then there is the strange case of the teenage extra (Yui Ichikawa) on one of Kyoko's films, who sees the star and starts screaming. She's been having bad dreams about being trapped in a haunted house -- and encountering Kyoko there. Meanwhile, the death toll keeps rising, as the curse of the house's ghostly occupants spreads like a killer virus. Then Kyoko's delivery day arrives. A blessed event? Or the curse come to horrifying life?

Viewers of the first film and even newbies will have no trouble identifying the ghostly perpetrators -- newspaper clips detailing their deaths are considerately provided. Also, despite chronological hiccups, the storyline is easy enough to follow. The thrills come less from the unraveling of who did what and when, than the unrelenting attacks on the audience's sense of reality -- and finally its sanity. Skeptics, especially those who demand state-of-the-art effects from their summer entertainment, will repel these attacks fairly easily. Even series fans will probably leave with the feeling that, after four times, Shimizu has drawn from the same well -- or spook house -- enough.

I agree that there is no need for a "Juon 3," though I'm interested in seeing what Shimizu does with his "Juon" remake. I have a feeling he will use fewer ghosts in white pancake makeup (or rather, nondigitalized ghosts in white pancake makeup). I hope, though, he sets the new film in Tokyo. Seattle may have as much rain, but Nerima has creepier mold. And a kotatsu is by definition scarier than a coffee table. What lies beneath? Rotting mikan peels -- or something more?

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