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Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2004
Press M for murder and Miike
Suzuki Koji has a lot to answer for. Called "the Stephen King of Japan," Suzuki launched the "Japanese horror" boom with his best-selling novel "Ringu (The Ring)," whose narrative hook is a mysterious video that kills anyone who watches it. Hideo Nakata's 1998 movie based on the novel became a big international hit and inspired two sequels. In 2002, Gore Verbinski's Hollywood remake grossed more than $100 million in the United States. That success generated a spate of remake deals for Japanese films, horror and otherwise.
In Korea, "Ringu" inspired not only a remake, but Ahn Byung Ki's 2002 hit shocker "Phone," which substituted a cell phone for a video as the bearer of fatal tidings. Released in Japan last year, "Phone" found favor with Japanese audiences as well. The Kadokawa-Daiei studio took notice -- and hired industry bad boy Takashi Miike ("Audition," "Dead or Alive") to make "Chakushin Ari (You've Got a Call)," whose English title may stir warm memories of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but whose central gimmick is -- you guessed it -- death-messaging keitai. In other words, we've come full circle -- or rather over and back across the Japan Sea.
When I interviewed Kadokawa-Daiei president Kazuo Kuroi last spring, he insisted that "Chakushin Ari" was not, to put it crudely, a rip-off of a rip-off: "We're doing a different take -- more modern and high tech," he said. Well, I suppose a cell phone is more modern and high tech than that museum piece, the videotape -- but the real difference between "You've Got a Call" and its predecessor is director Miike.
Many of Miike's more than 50 films have horror elements. He has even made a horror musical, "Katakurike no Kofuku (The Happiness of the Katakuris)," complete with dancing and singing corpses. "You've Got a Call," however, is his first straight-up horror film for the mass audience.
Based on a novel by Yasushi Akimoto, "Chakushin Ari" has many of the standard tropes of the Japanese horror genre: ordinary girls as victims, the use of everyday technology as a conduit for evil and a protagonist who, though an ordinary girl herself, becomes determined to solve the deadly mystery.
For the first hour or so, Miike's combination of those elements is workmanlike, with little in the way of a distinctive style. However, in the final act, when the scene shifts to an abandoned hospital and evil comes out of its closet (or rather oozes out of its vat), we are suddenly in "Miike World," where the dead are not only stereotypically implacable but scarifyingly plastic. Rationality takes a holiday as Miike sends the film hurling into a surreal universe. For Miike fans, all this will be familiar. For those expecting a generic horror flick, Miike's imagination may be too out-there for comfort -- or understanding.
The opening scenes are conventional enough, however. Two college students -- Yumi (Ko Shibasaki) and her friend Yoko -- are at a gokon (singles party) when Yoko sees that she has a voice message on her keitai. She is surprised to discover that the call is from her own phone, dated three days in the future. She is even more surprised when she listens to it -- and hears herself screaming. Creepy, no? Especially, when three days later, Yoko leaps (is thrown?) to her death.
Another gokon attendee gets a similar message with a similar scream -- and three days later meets a similar end. Soon after, Yumi meets Hiroshi (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a funeral parlor operator whose own sister has died in the same mysterious way. Together they try to break this chain call of death -- but not in time to save a third victim. Then, as we might have guessed, Yumi gets a voice message.
Ko Shibasaki is hot now following her breakout role as Yosuke Kubozuka's love interest in the 2001 romantic drama "Go." I haven't always been her biggest fan -- in my "Go" review I described her as "supremely full of herself" and coming across as "18-going-on-28." In "Chakushin Ari," however, Shibasaki not only looks and acts her age, but delivers a solid performance that make the bizarre goings-on at least emotionally credible, if hardly logical. While letting loose with the obligatory screams, she remains commendably focused on the task at hand -- making the madness stop, even when asked to embrace the unspeakable in a hospital of horrors.
One day Miike may make a film that, from beginning to end, is as maniacally gripping as the last 30 minutes of "You've Got a Call." In any event, he's given us a new, plausibly scary locale for horror. An old hospital ward is as likely a place for angry ghosts as any -- especially after they've gotten the bill.