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Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2005

Killer calls just keep coming

Chakushin Ari 2

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Renpei Tsukamoto
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Is there anything new under the sun of Japanese horror? Once thought innovative by foreign critics and fans for its subtle use of atmosphere and its unique mix of modern technology and traditional folklore (including female ghosts with white faces, long hair and bad attitudes) the genre has become as formulaic as the "Nightmare on Elm Street" films.

News photo
Mimura in "Chakushin Ari 2"

Among the most successful of recent J-horror films was "Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call)," Takashi Miike's 2004 reworking of a Korean film, "The Phone," that was in turn a rip-off of -- you guessed it -- "Ringu" (1998). Instead of videotape, that oh-so-'80s technology, the transmitter of ghostly grudges was the cell phone. Save for a few scares in the third act that were unmistakably Miike, the film had little else that was new, but fans lined up and "Chakushin Ari" earned 1.5 billion yen at the box office.

All three of the "Ringu" films as well as "Chakushin Ari" were released at this chilly time of year. So, on Feb. 2, was "Chakushin Ari 2 (One Missed Call 2)," which continues the haunted cell-phone saga, albeit with a new director, TV veteran Renpei Tsukamoto, and a mostly new cast, headed by TV drama star Mimura.

The only really new twist are the Taiwanese locations where much of the action unfolds. Otherwise the script by Minako Daira, who also co-wrote "Chakushin Ari," follows the narrative tracks laid down by previous spooks-in-the-plastic films, including a back story, set in the misty past, to explain the present-day goings-on. Also, many of the scares, including shadowy black ghosts sidling about in the background and gray hands suddenly gripping wrists with demonic strength, are J-Horror regulars.

In directing this material, Tsukamoto makes little pretense to Miike-esque originality. Instead he serves up what he and his producers think their teenage audience mostly wants: big shocks and plenty of them. In other words, welcome back to Elm Street -- or rather the Japanese stretch of it.

Tsukamoto, however, delivers with a force that compels attention and with a persistence that gets under the skin. Also, he is neither slumming nor clowning. Instead he creates the illusion of conviction that gives Japanese horror so much of its power. Tell yourself it's nonsense all you want, but after walking out of the theater you won't be in the mood for cherry candy balls.

The heroine is Kyoko (Mimura), a daycare-center teacher who is studying to be a child therapist, and consequently has little time for boyfriend Naoto (Yu Yoshizawa), an aspiring photographer. One of her charges is a gloomy little girl whose mother suspiciously hides her face under an umbrella. She is not a spook, per se, but the little girl sees one, hovering near Kyoko.

Soon after, at a Chinese restaurant where Naoto works as a part-timer, Kyoko and a co-worker are enjoying a rare night out when they hear a melody on her cell phone that sounds creepily familiar. In "Chakushin Ari" it played whenever a message appeared, dated three days in future, that foretold the death of the cell phone's owner, down to the recording of the death scream. This time, the fatal event arrives sooner, with equally horrific impact -- and the victim is not Kyoko. The curse is abroad again, spreading like a virus. (Real cell-phone viruses now exist, making the sequel perhaps more timely.)

The series of unfortunate events unleashed by the curse attract the attention of Takako (Asaka Seto), a reporter who has been investigating similar incidents. The cops, lead by the veteran detective Motomiya (Renji Ishibashi), are surprisingly sympathetic to her search -- and her suspicion of a supernatural cause.

Meanwhile, Kyoko, having by now received her own death message, is terrified for her life. Takako and Naoto vow to protect her and together they journey to Taiwan, where Takako's Taiwanese husband (Peter Ho) is living after their separation. He has had his own dealings with the curse and offers to help them get to the bottom of it. Instead, they find themselves facing the ghost behind it.

Tsukamoto makes good use of his Taiwan locations (which is actually Yubari in Hokkaido), including a sinister, abandoned mine and a decrepit-looking electrical grid. Some of his effects are cliched or absurd, including a gallant sacrifice that wouldn't have been out of place in "Ghostbusters," but he keeps them coming, with a nightmarish implacability.

He gets able assistance from Mimura, whose smile lines turn into an uncanny rictus whenever she screams, which is often. Also, the cell phones are all the latest models, with big screens and streaming video that make the looming ghosts and panicking victims all the more scary.

Why not, I wondered as I watched with my own keitai in my pocket, ditch the damned things altogether? But that, to the film's characters, is unthinkable. Better off horrifically dead than without a cell! In that respect, as in others, "Chakushin Ari 2" is a movie for our times. To future generations, with their now-unimaginable techno horrors, it will probably look as silly as "The Mummy" and its Pharaonic curse does to ours.

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