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Friday, June 23, 2006
Dial J for horror
Roy Lee, the Korean-American producer who brought J-Horror to the world with the U.S. remake of "The Ring," asked me about two low-budget horror films I'd reviewed for this newspaper. We were having coffee near Roppongi Hills; Lee was in town to meet with his business partners, and scout ideas for new films. I replied by simply rehashing my review when he stopped me mid-monologue with a question. "Was it scary?" That was all he really wanted to know -- and that is really the only question a horror pic has to answer. The story can be tripe and the acting ripe, but if the on-screen action somehow raises goose bumps, the film basically works -- and the rewards can be great indeed. Remember "The Blair Witch Project?" That patchy little frightfest that was shot like a home video, but made $250 million worldwide. Nothing horrific about that.
J-Horror also scored big numbers, here and abroad, because the scares struck viewers as fresh -- and were grounded in something more than old Hollywood schlock, be it Japanese folklore (the inconsolable female ghost of "The Ring") or the filmmaker's own nightmares (almost anything in the horror vein by Kiyoshi Kurosawa).
But J-Horror has since developed its own cliches, which are on abundant display in Manabu Aso's "Chakushin Ari Final (One Missed Call: Final)," the last installment in a horror trilogy that started with Takashi Miike's 2004 "Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call)" and continued with Renpei Tsukamoto's 2005 followup.
The biggest cliche is the series' central gimmick: Cell phone messages that not only predict the owner's horrific demise to the minute, but include a video clip of the fatal event. This is a rip from the deadly videotape of the "Ring" series, but the "Chakushin Ari" series has added a creepy ring tone -- a sort of lullaby from hell -- and a red candy ball that dying victims disgorge from their mouths. They give up not only the ghost, but the glop.
Feeling those goose bumps already? I did, the first time around, especially when Miike embarks on a journey into a mad, Miike-esque universe. By comparison, Aso's installment is run-of-the-mill J-Horror, teen division, with a convoluted story line that by the end becomes absurd.
A high-school class takes a trip to Korea, minus the relentlessly bullied Asuka (Maki Horikita), who has opted to stay home. She is missed by the vivacious Emiri (Meisa Kuroki), who feels guilty about not protecting Asuka from her tormentors -- and is thus the odd girl out in the class. Emiri, however, is greeted at the airport by a Korean friend (Jan Gun Sock), a dishy deaf boy who communicates with her by signing (thus obviating the need for Jan to learn Japanese dialogue).
Then one of Asuka's classmates hears the fatal ring tone -- and sees a clip of her future death by hanging. The game has begun. The game master is the supernaturally empowered Asuka, who has come up with a new twist -- if the receiver of the "death message" passes it to someone else in time, he or she will be temporarily spared.
Emiri traces the fatal calls back to Asuka and tries desperately to persuade her to give up the game. But Asuka, we see, is not the only player. Here the story shifts from a revenge fantasy to something stranger -- and dumber. It asks us to believe not only that Asuka can send her death messages as easily as an e-mail (point, click, kill), but that Emiri and her Korean friend can enlist dozens of strangers in an electronic battle with a ghost. Is that confusing? It's meant to be. Meanwhile, the victims-to-be are agonizingly slow on the uptake (Why, I kept wondering, doesn't everyone pitch their keitai into the Han River?).
Miike, by contrast, abandons standard J-Horror tropes in "Imprint" -- a period piece with a classic eroguro ("erotic-grotesque") story and look, if shot with Miike's distinctively twisted flair. Originally intended for broadcast on the Showtime network's "Masters of Horror" series and scripted entirely in English, "Imprint" was judged too extreme for even U.S. cable and never aired.
Showtime was wise -- with its stark images of fetuses displayed like so much medical waste, "Imprint," would have set off howls in certain quarters, some not to be trifled with. In Japan, "Imprint" is a familiar outrage from a director who is now a known quantity, though it has settled into a long late-show run at Shibuya's Image Forum.
The hero is Christopher (Billy Drago), a dissolute American writer who journeys to a river island populated by whores servicing the lowest of the low. There he seeks Komomo, a prostitute who gave him an unforgettable taste of pure love. Instead he finds an embittered, if intelligent, whore with a disfigured face (Youki Kudoh), who tells him tales of life and death on the island that horrify and madden him.
Miike lays on the generic atmospherics, but his shocks, including an extended torture sequence involving pins, are definitely his own -- that is, retch-inducing for the more tenderminded. Drago emotes to the rafters as the love-tortured writer, while Kudo is a shade too Dragon-Lady-ish as the whore, but the film gets the eroguro sensibility, which may revel in the kinky and bizarre, but with style and distance, not the commercial calculations of today's J-Horror.
Read the interview