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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2004
Be doubly afraid
In January 1998, two horror films, both based on novels by Koji Suzuki, were released as a double bill -- then considered a risky box-office tactic, since theaters could sell tickets for only three screenings a day instead of the usual five. The films, "Ringu (The Ring)" and "Rasen (The Spiral)," became hits, while the former launched the worldwide "J Horror" boom and was later made into a high-grossing Hollywood film starring Naomi Watts.
Now the producer of "Ringu," Takashige Ichise, is back with another twofer -- entries in his new six-film J Horror Theater series. The films, despite their similar titles, are quite different in both story and treatment. "Yogen (Prediction)" is a mind-bender in "The Sixth Sense" line while "Kansen (Infection)" is a house (or rather, hospital) of horrors shocker, reminiscent of the Takashi Miike hit "Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call)."
Also, while "Ringu" offered a fresh take on genre conventions -- its most memorable character was a vengeful female spirit who inhabited a videotape -- "Yogen" and "Kansen" will both look familiar to J Horror fans. If you've seen one character drooling green slime, you've seen them all, no?
I am an old J Horror hand, having seen all of Ichise's biggest hits, including "Ringu" and "Juon," but "Kansen" still gave me the willies, along with a giggle or two. (The above-mentioned slime, which figures prominently in the film, reminded me of Miike's superhero spoof "Zebraman," whose cute alien villains were like beakers filled with green goop.)
Scripted and directed by Masayuki Ochiai, whose credits include the early J Horror shocker "Parasite Eve" (1996) and the hit "Saimin (Hypnosis)" (1999), "Kansen" is set in an understaffed, undercleaned, dimly lit hospital that looks more like a roach hotel than a temple of healing. In other words, a medical establishment familiar to many members of the audience (including this reviewer).
It is, however, an extreme case, with patients hovering between life and death, and the doctors and nurses, on the brink of collapse. The tipping point is a patient who dies horrifically because of miscommunication in the operating theater. The newbie nurse (Mari Hoshino) who gave him the fatal injection is distraught, while Dr. Akiba (Koichi Kato), who led the operating team, and the hot-headed Dr. Uozomi (Masanobu Takashima), who made the verbal slip, propose a cover-up to save the hospital and their own jobs. Meanwhile, the newbie's sharp-tongued superior (Yoko Maki) and the tough head nurse (Kaho Minami) are less than sympathetic.
Before a staff civil war can erupt, however, an emergency-room patient begins to disintegrate in a way so revolting that even Akiba, who has seen and done everything, ethical and otherwise, cannot bear to look (neither can the camera, which intensifies the horror). Then the spectral hospital chief, Dr. Akai (Shiro Sano), appears -- and suggests that they investigate the virus that has caused this distressing mess. First, however, they have to find the patient, who has apparently disappeared into the ventilating system.
"Kansen" is like an "X Files" episode, minus Scully and Mulder, that strains credibility while trading on irrational fears of the sick -- and the undead. Ochiai, however, stresses Grand Guiginol atmospherics more, rational-sounding explanations less. His hospital breathes with a menace, madness and despair so pervasive that only a huge, obliterating explosion could bring escape -- in this life, at least.
As the hospital head, Sano is the film's scariest effect, with a stone face and lizard eyes that exude evil with the barest nod or flicker. Christopher Walken will play his part in the remake.
Based on a popular 1970s manga by Jiro Tsunoda, "Yogen" has a harder-to-swallow premise: A mysterious newspaper that suddenly appears, with an article predicting a horrific death (or deaths) -- and then dissolves into the air. Similarities to the deliverers of fatal tidings in "Ringu" (videotape) and "Chakushin Ari" (cell phone) are obvious, though the concept behind "Yogen" arguably came first and is certainly the most fantastic.
Norio Tsuruta, who made straight-to-video horror flicks in the early 1990s and helmed "Ring 0 -- Birthday" (2000), sensibly does not try to persuade us of his story's literal reality. Instead he takes us deep inside his hero's disturbed mind -- or perhaps I should say, spirit. What follows makes sense only if you accept that time and space are mental constructs and that life and death are two sides of the same existential coin. (Which means it helps if you are either a Zen adept or have sampled the right sorts of drugs.) The film's third act is like reeling though a hall of mirrors. Vertigo is a danger, even for those who can explain "The Sixth Sense" shot by shot to baffled friends.
"Yogen" begins, however, as a family melodrama with a strange, tragic twist. Hideki Satomi (Hiroshi Mikami), his wife Ayaka (Noriko Sakai) and their young daughter Nana (Hana Inoue) are driving blissfully through the countryside when the workaholic Satomi stops at a roadside phone booth to send an e-mail from his laptop. In the booth he discovers a smudged scrap of newsprint with Nana's picture on it -- and an article describing her death in a traffic accident.
Fast-forward three years. Satomi has not recovered from his failure to prevent the accident, while his marriage has ended. Meanwhile, Ayaka has joined forces with a psychological researcher (Mayumi Ono) to unravel the mysteries of prophecy. They interview a psychic who has the ability to take Polaroids of the future with her mind -- but becomes suspicious of the researchers' motives. Then another new "newspaper" arrives at Satomi's flat -- saying that one of his students (Maki Horikita), a girl with piercing eyes and an uncanny presence, will die. Can he save her and himself?
Mikami, who worked with Ochiai on "Parasite Eve," has a great intensity as Satomi, as though he has been riding the edge of insanity too long and is about to drop the reins. This performance, which approaches the over-ripe in the film's early scenes, seems right for its later ones, when Satomi's world (not to mention the time-space continuum) shatters. As Ayaka, Sakai overdoes the hysterical mother bit, but her core of cold rationality grounds the film -- until it spins out of mere human control.
"This is not really a horror movie," a Toho publicist explained after I left the screening. Just as "2001 -- A Space Odyssey" is not really a science-fiction movie, I suppose. Baffling doesn't begin to describe it.