Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.
Where to start with this one? First off, it’s a mess. Not necessarily an unenjoyable mess, but a mess never the less. Comparisons to Barbarella are, at least for me, inevitable since this is once again director Roger Vadim constructing a film around pop art, outrageous fashion, and his sex kitten obsession of the week. This time around it’s French bombshell Brigitte Bardot. Granted, constructing your movie around Brigitte Bardot wearing outrageous outfits (or nothing at all) and parading around a series of equally outrageously designed space-age pop sets is certainly not a bad thing, but where Barbarella was freewheeling fun and campy enough to make the darker moments seem palatable, If Don Juan Were a Woman is possessed of a grubbier, perhaps even sleazier feel that makes the cynicism and nastiness of the characters difficult to bear. It certainly lacks the sexy-yet-innocent perverse glee of Jane Fonda’s space opera.
Bardot stars as Jeanne, a self-proclaimed man-destroyer who recounts her deeds to a young priest. Her goal in life, after deciding that men are contemptible creatures is to seduce them, then drive them to ruin and, from time to time, suicide. She does this all while living on a partially submerged boat that looks to be the end result of a fight between interior designing mods and those weird 1970s people who dressed in flowing, shiny “future wear.” Mod meets Freddie Mercury, I reckon. The script has a tendency to be so bland that this orgy of campy fashion and décor becomes the main reason to keep watching. Well that and the fact that, even a few years past her sex kitten prime, Brigitte Bardot is still a wonder to behold. She need only look at the camera to make you understand why men are willing to destroy themselves for her. Heck, I like her more for being “a bit past her prime” and showing that yep, older women can indeed still be one hell of a sight. Still, if you’r elooking for a movie to discover Brigitte Bardot and discover why so many of us old farts are, even today, prone to wobbly knees and dreamy eyes at the mention of her name, this film is a pretty bad place to start.
As I said, the movie has a real nasty streak. The woman who is abused by men to the point that she seeks to extract revenge on as many of them as possible should be a sympathetic character, but the script never really gives Bardot’s Jeanne a chance to do much that is likeable. She fancies herself, as the title suggests, something of a reincarnation of the famed 16th century lover, Don Juan. In the end, as befits a broadly drawn morality tale, she gets her comeuppance, but not before the film has indulged in numerous saucy moments that are, in reality, fairly tepid even by standards of the day. BB shines in a few erotic moments, but most the film lacks any real sexual charge. It all feels a bit…I don’t know. Tired, I suppose. I think the movie would have been better played as a farce with more drive and spirit. Instead, it takes a more serious approach and sinks under it’s own attempts to be important. Vadim was never a good director, but he had a great eye for the absurd, both in art design and storytelling. He should have indulged that predilection more in this film. Instead, it wallows not so much in its own mean-spiritedness as it does in its own tedium. It was meant to be sort of a autobiographical stab at the audiences from BB, the fading arthouse sex symbol who saw her life ravaged by tabloid attention. I guess the main problem isn’t so much the darkness as it is the fact that everything unfolds in such dull fashion.
Actually, I guess the fashion is the one thing that isn’t dull about this film.
Chalk it up to this being a French production. Where Vadim under the guidance of the Italians was wild and free, here as part of the French New Wave he is morose and dreary, a hipster whose hippest moments are behind him in the same way Bardot’s best days were behind her. He goes about making this movie devoid of joy, passion, or insight. It is clinically dry, even when Bardot is reclining naked in her big furry bed with another woman. Vadim was a stylist, and this movie relies too much on storytelling from a man who can’t really tell a story. We are left with a train wreck of a film, too listless to be pleasurable, too silly and broadly drawn to be intellectual.
But it’s not all drudgery here. There’s enough eye candy on display to keep a viewer like me marveling at the tacky beauty of it all. And while they call her over the hill or past her prime, the way I see it Bardot, then age 39 or 40 is still plenty in her prime. This was, however, her last film, but I guess my taste for older women biases my views. Give me a woman in her thirties any day over those babbling young things, especially if that woman in her thirties looks like, say, Brigitte Bardot or Nicole Kidman. Even with her icy, detached performance here, Bardot still can’t help but smolder. Too bad for this film that nothing every actually ignites. There’s plenty to dicuss when it comes to Brigitte Bardot, and God knows we love her even in a bad film, but I think I’ll hold off on that discussion until we get to one of her better films (we have both Contempt and And God Created Woman coming up soon).
Of course when it comes to eye-popping art design, Vadim was an ace, and this movie, despite its failings elsewhere, is still quite beautiful to behold. Nice cinematography helps highlight the truly cracked vision of this world that exists somewhere between the swingin’ sixties and the self-destructively indulgent seventies. The look of the film is enough to merit slogging all the way through to the end, but just barely. And when you get there, the end is pretty goofy anyway.
Still, I can’t help but defer to the quirkiness of it all. As big a mess as it is, as haggard and confused and tired as it may seem in some parts, there is still something curiously alluring about the film. It’s like probing a cold sore with your tongue. You know it just hurts, but you can’t stop doing it. Of course, I’d much rather probe Brigitte Bardot with my tongue but then, well, I’ve crossed the line, haven’t I?
I’m no Christian. This is probably pretty obvious to anyone who’s been with us for a while. I don’t believe in God. Not any of them. Well, maybe God of Gamblers, but that’s about it. However, while this would place me firmly in the camp of the atheists, I’m much happier not camping with anyone based on religious beliefs or lack thereof. Where I confuse people is that I like to discuss religion and religious evens, the sociology and history of religion, religious and Biblical archaeology, but I have absolutely zero interest in debating the existence of God. It bores me to tears utterly and completely. I don’t want to be argued at by people trying to convert me any more or less than I want to hear atheists hurling their arguments at believers. I’m a laid-back kind of non-believer who doesn’t care what you dig, at least not up until the point where you start executing people for religious reasons.
The horror boom in Japan didn’t have any one cause, but it did have one big ingredient that made it a success: young girls. Under normal circumstances, saying that young girls were a key to the success of anything horror related would mean that young girls, possibly in wet white shirts, were prominently featured in the film and probably died gruesome deaths. In this case, however, the young girls weren’t the ones doing the dying; they were the ones doing the buying. Someone somewhere had the bright idea to start running horror comics as a regular part of some very popular manga magazines (big, thick comic books the size of telephone books) aimed at teenage girls. What they found was that teenage girls love horror stories. It goes against conventional wisdom. In the West, horror has always been marketed to males roughly between the ages of thirteen and thirty. It was never seen as a genre for girls, most likely because the woman-hating misanthropes behind the films delighted in tormenting and degrading women every chance they got as a way of getting some weird little sort of revenge for having been snubbed at some point in their lives. Even when women were featured prominently as a story’s protagonist (as was often the case), most films were peppered with plenty of other female characters to shoulder the brunt of the film’s viciousness.
Horror in Japan was really no different, unless you see something positive in teenage girls getting raped by demons with forty-foot long multi-headed penises. It wasn’t exactly the kind of stuff that had young girls flocking to the theaters going, “Yeah, this really inspires me.” But where as the West continued to rake the ladies over the coals in horror, writers in Japan started trying something a little different. Chief among them was Junji Ito, who wrote horror comics in which teenage girls were the central characters but were not treated like or written as idiots and victims. Nor were they unbelievable super-women. They were regular girls, a bit on the smart side, and very believable. He placed these characters in the middle of wonderfully conceived and plotted tales inspired by the likes of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe rather than the RL Stine tripe Americans were getting. In short, he target audience and his main characters were girls, and he didn’t treat either one like they were simpletons.
Added to the rise in horror manga popularity was the popularity of X-Files, which at its peak at least attempted to be smart and well-written. It inspired a legion of imitation shows in Japan, and all these ingredients combined in 1999 to form the horror classic Ring. It was a smash hit, and a new Golden Age of horror was born in Japan. Many of the films took their cue from Ito’s work (and many were in fact adaptations of his stories), featuring strong and believable female leads that would give girls in the audience someone for whom to root. Titanic proved that young girls are starved for movies that cater to them without belittling them, but that was a lesson completely lost on American movie makers, who went right on ahead making movies as if young, intelligent girls did not exist, or at least did not buy tickets to movies. Well, someone made Titanic one of the most successful films of all time, and it sure wasn’t me.
What really sets these Japanese horror films apart from the pack is that, while many are aimed at teenage girls, very few of them suffer as a result. A girl can watch Uzumaki and appreciate the young heroine, but it’s just as easy for a guy and for hardened horror veterans to appreciate the movie as well. Why? Because it’s simply a good movie, as are many of the films that came out in Ring’s wake. Although targeted at girls, that’s not their exclusive audience, and there’s nothing girlie about the movies. All they did in Japan is learn that if you make a good horror film that doesn’t degrade women, then girls will be interested in it, and girls have a lot of money to spend. It’s not so difficult a concept to grasp. Boy and girl slumber parties are exactly alike in that they always boil down to two things: talking about which member of the opposite sex you like, and swapping ghost stories or doing those “Bloody Mary” type party games. Boys have had their horrorlust indulged for decades. Now, at least in Japan, girls are finally getting the same chance.
Since Ring really started the boom, it was a given that there would be a sequel, not to mention plenty of rip-offs. Hot on the heels of the original’s stellar success, production began on a sequel called Rasen, aka The Spiral (not to be confused with Uzumaki, which is often given the English title Spiral). The film continues the ghost Sadako’s story as a friend of Ryuji’s (again played by Hiroyuki Sanada. Miki Nakatani reprises her role as his assistant from the first film as well) discovers her attempts to be reborn into the human world. Hideo Nakata, director of the first Ring movie, didn’t care for the development of the story in this direction. As a way of protesting this offshoot film, he set about making his own official sequel. Not too long after that, Ring 2 was born and Rasen lapsed into relative obscurity, never enjoying the overseas popularity of the two “official” Ring films, partly because no subtitled DVD, VCD, or VHS has yet to be released.
Ring 2 sustains the same clinical, George Romero style direction, but takes the story into fairly wild new ground as Mai Takano (a role reprised by Miki Nakatani) investigates the bizarre death of her teacher and possible love interest, Ryuji (played again by Hiroyuki Sanada). Aware that Ryuji was working on a strange problem with his ex-wife, and also having seen the expression on his corpse’s face, Mai’s curiosity is further piqued when Reiko, Ryuji’s ex-wife, disappears with their young child. Matters get even stranger when Mai learns that shortly after the disappearance, Reiko’s elderly father died under mysterious circumstances similar to those surrounding Ryuji.
An attempt to track down the whereabouts of Reiko leads Mai to the newspaper where Reiko used to work, though Reiko’s assistant Okazaki (Masahiko Ono) confesses that they have no idea where’s she’s gone to, either. Together, Mai and Okazaki follow a trail of clues and psychic visions (like Reiko and Ryuji, Mai seems possessed of some rudimentary form of ESP) that lead them to the sanitarium where one of the only surviving witnesses to one of these strange deaths is currently residing – the girl from the opening sequence of the first film, who saw her best friend attacked and killed by the ghost of Sadako. They also meet a crackpot scientist and friend of Ryuji who shares his former colleague’s interest in the supernatural, and using the young girl in his care, he’s devised a way to draw the supernatural energy, or curse, of Sadako out and hopefully put an end to the curse that has been propagating itself through a videocassette containing the psychic imagery of Sadako’s mind.
The trail also leads Mai and the doctor back to the island where Sadako was born, and finally to the hiding place of Reiko and her young son, Yoichi, who is soon revealed to have psychic potential that dwarfs that of his mother and father. He’s also well on the way to becoming a new generation Sadako, as a rage that has been building inside him since the events of the first film threaten to warp his development in the same way the tragic childhood of Sadako was warped by her incredible powers. Mai assumes responsibility for finding a way to save Yoichi from the same fate as befell Sadako, while she, the doctor, and Okazaki, struggle to find a scientific explanation and way of dealing with something that defies science.
Ring 2 does a lot right, but it also has some flaws that keep from ever achieving the overwhelming feeling of creepiness and desperation that made the original movie such a spectacular piece of horror filmmaking. Chief among its flaws is that it throws too much at the wall and fails to develop most of its ideas in a satisfying fashion. With all the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo being hurled about, the movie soon starts to feel like an episode of The X-Files, with too many theories being offered and not enough exploration of any single idea. Where as the first film was focused with an intensity rivaling the rage of Sadako, the sequel meanders from one idea to the other with no clear idea of exactly where it’s going at any particular moment. While it does help create an air of mystery and urgency, it’s not so successful that it makes up for the feeling that too much half-baked hypothesizing is going on. At times, the movie feels as much like a police procedural as it does a horror film, not unlike Exorcist III.
This movie also lacks the nail-biting, increasingly frantic race against time that kept the first film feeling like a thrill-a-minute ride even when it was moving very slowly. The “race against the clock” cliché is one of the most overused plot devices in film history, but the first film really made it work well. With that deadline removed from this film, and with the impetus for action being curiosity and Yoichi’s eventual development into a vengeful spirit, the threat is more vague and less pressing. It does share a common thread with the forgotten Rasen in that both movies are, in a way, about Sadako seeking a new physical manifestation. In the case of Ring 2, it’s by transferring her hatred to Yoichi. It’s just not as compelling an emergency, but I guess if I was Yoichi, I’d probably feel differently about that.
The thing that irked me most, however, was the off-handed way in which Reiko was handled. I like the fact that Ring 2 takes two fairly unimportant supporting characters from the first film (Mai and Okazaki) and turns them into the main figures this time around, but given that Reiko was the central character in the first film, she deserved much more consideration than she was given here. They either should have put more thought into her fate, or they should have left her out entirely. As it is, what eventually happens to her is poorly thought-out and executed in a way that fails to illicit any of the emotion that should have been generated by such a strong character. Again, I like her as a background character while the story moves forward with new characters, but I really just don’t like the somewhat feeble stuff they came up with for her.
Foibles aside, there’s still enough in this movie to keep it solidly on the “very good” side of the fence. Mai and Okazaki are excellent leads, and they perform superbly in the very difficult position of having to take over for two characters as solid as Reiko and Ryuji. The rest of the cast performs admirably, with little Rikiya Otaka once again proving that not all little kids in movies have to be precocious and annoying brats. He’s quiet and surprising subtle for someone his age, and the reason you can tell it’s subtlety rather than lack of talent Is because when he’s called upon to express rage, he does so in a disturbingly convincing manner that consists of some hate-filled looks and silence rather than the more predictable shouting and screaming.
There are also quite a few genuinely spooky moments even if the film as a whole fails to sustain the feeling for the entire running time. The movie begins with the revelation that Sadako lived for many, many years trapped in her well rather than dying. Anything that plays on our innate fear of being buried alive works well. Other effective moments include Mai finding herself trapped in said well with the ghoulish Sadako ascending the walls after her, and a few great second-long flashes of something appearing, like Sadako’s face while a picture is being taken of a clay reconstruction of her head. Probably the most effective scene in the movie besides Mai’s ordeal in the well is the scene in which she visits the inn from the first movie that serves as sort of the keystone for solving the tragic mystery of Sadako, and she witnesses the entire “mirror and hair combing” scene that was shown in flashes in Sadako’s cursed video. Mai’s stunned inability to even scream speaks volumes without saying a word.
It’s also impressive that they manage to drum up some new revelations about Sadako to further develop her as something more than just a hateful ghost out for revenge against anyone and everyone who happens to see her videotape. She continues to develop as a tragic main character, not just as a plot device. For the third film in the series, a prequel called Ring 0: Birthday, the series would rely on Sadako entirely, as the film focuses on her childhood and the events that lead to her transformation into a rage-filled spectre. None of the revelations about her are contrived or absurd, either. We’re doing much better than all that crap about Michael Meyers being the spawn of a druidic cross-breeding experiment, or Jason Vorhees being a little screaming worm parasite thing.
The revelations continue as supporting characters return for another dose of truth and uncovering of dark secrets. Once again, the old man at the inn plays an important part in the finale of the film, as the doctor attempts to use Yoichi’s rage to draw out Sadako (who sort of becomes imprinted on the minds of those so closely affected by her, like Yoichi and the girl from the beginning of the first film). As with Sadako, none of these further revelations are goofy and all make sense within the plot.
Although there is a lot of crackpot science being thrown about in the grand tradition of supernatural films, most of it, underdeveloped though it may be, is fairly believable within the context of the film and the fantastic. There have certainly been worse offenses committed under the banner of scientific explanation in horror films. Some of the ideas are fascinating to consider, chief among them how strong emotion can be transmitted through a variety of means, making even something as coldly technological as a videotape serve as a conduit for supernatural rage. A similar theory was also presented in the Hong Kong Ring rip-off A Wicked Ghost, and it’s something worth thinking about. Leave it to Japan to take spiritless technological things like a video cassette or a website (as in the incredible Kiyoshi Kurosawa film Kairo), and turn them into some of the scariest, most effective supernatural tools in film history.
Technically speaking, Ring 2 remains stylistically consistent with the first film. Hideo Nakata prefers to let the story do the work for him, adopting a minimalist style with long, static shots and very little in the way of camera movement and no wild flare. In that sense, I keep comparing him to George Romero. Both directors take a documentary-style approach to their direction, and with a less talented director, that could be mistaken for lack of talent. Nakata, like Romero, knows exactly what he is doing, however, and uses the plainness of his direction to establish a very real and believable world in which the incursion of horrific and fantastic elements becomes all the more disconcerting. Had he filled his film with flashy editing, special effects, and camera tricks, it would have been sapped of all its power. As with the first film, Nakata continues to prove that sometimes, less is more when it comes to allowing direction to intrude on the power of the story.
While Ring 2 fails to attain the level of the first film, which was a true classic, it’s still a damn good film, and once again it’s just refreshing to sit down and watch a movie that treats the subject matter and the viewer with intelligence. It gives us believable characters, normal people in extraordinary circumstance, who actually behave similar to how real people might actually behave. It’s mercifully free of any moment where the character does something so stupid it causes you clutch your head and groan in pain. It also doesn’t rely on cheap tricks, special effects, or gore, opting instead for that old school sense of dread achieved through the strength of the script and characters. You can’t watch this film without having seen the first one, but after you have seen the first one, Ring 2 exists as a worthy but not equal follow-up to one of the greatest films in horror history.
You can’t overstate the impact Bruce has had on modern pop culture. Stars have come and gone, names like Jackie Chan, Clint Eastwood, and Jet Li are all familiar marquee names, but Bruce exists above all of them. Take a walk down any street in New York and you will see half a dozen shops with some sort of Bruce Lee merchandise. T-shirts, posters, scrolls, black velvet paintings, statues, action figures, movies — pretty much anything. I even saw one of those blacklight posters featuring the “holy trinity” of Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley.
And these aren’t just kungfu film specialty stores or Chinatown curiosity shops. Blacks, Puerto Ricans, whites, Dominicans, Chinese, Vietnamese, you name it and their culture has embraced The Dragon. No other action film star occupies the spot Bruce has obtained in our society. He is a modern day Greek hero, a Jason or Perseus, a man whose legend has grown to epic proportions. So, the obvious question from many people is “Why Bruce Lee?” What was it about this brash, good-looking young guy that made him such a phenomenon? Why Lee and not Ti Lung? Why Lee and not anyone else in the world? The answer is equal parts timing, skill, charm, and mystery.
Bruce hit the scene at a time when a lot of people in both Hong Kong and the United States were desperate for an underdog hero, especially one who wasn’t white. The world was gorged on James Bond rip-offs and sanitized Westerns full of chiseled white guy good looks. The Vietnam War, Civil Rights movement, the Native American awareness movements that became things like the Wounded Knee siege — all these cultural elements were combining in an explosive wave of disillusionment with the way things used to be. The urban communities in America, who were hit especially hard by both the Vietnam War (since so many soldiers were minorities) and the frustration faced by the Civil Rights movement. With real-life heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. being gunned down, people were looking for heroes somewhere. Up until then Hollywood hadn’t been providing them with anything.
Then came Bruce Lee. It’s no coincidence that Lee hit the scene around the same time that black action stars like Fred Williamson, Richard Roundtree, and Pam Grier were starting to make a big impact on the scene. People were fed up with Bond and John Wayne. They wanted someone more modern, more bad-ass, and most importantly, they wanted someone to whom they could relate. Bruce wasn’t white. He wasn’t big. His characters were not rich or influential or successful. He was an everyman for all other men who could not see themselves in the previous set of American heroes. He was different, and he was the underdog.
In each of Lee’s characters, there was plenty for the disillusioned to identify with. The condescension and racism hurled at him in Fist of Fury, having to take shit from a corrupt boss in Big Boss — there were things people recognized, and things people loved seeing Lee overcome. His biggest film in the United States, Enter the Dragon was a wild James Bond type action-adventure film where the Asian was the hero rather than a silly sidekick or devious villain. It was also a movie where the black character (Jim Kelly) is a noble and heroic man of principle, while the white guy (John Saxon) is a sleaze. A lovable sleaze, but a sleaze never the less.
Bruce Lee gave people hope, goofy as that might sound, that they too could overcome the odds facing them in everyday life. They could rise above the poverty and hopelessness of their situation. When Lee died under mysterious circumstances, it cemented his place not just as a star, but as a legend. His mark on society, from his face on a t-shirt to the popularity of martial arts training as a way to cope with growing up in the inner city, will remain in place long after the names of hundreds of other stars have been forgotten.
So which of these films should be the first Bruce Lee film we review? His biggest, Enter the Dragon? How about his first, Big Boss? Or the one most everybody considers his best, Fist of Fury (aka Chinese Connection). I think we’ve explained the whole Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Chinese Connection thing, but just in case you forgot, here’s the deal: when Bruce Lee’s Hong Kong films were brought over to the US to capitalize on the success of Enter the Dragon, someone screwed up and got the titles confused. Big Boss, Lee’s first film, was mislabeled Fist of Fury. Realizing the blunder too late to fix it, distributors took the actual Fist of Fury (Lee’s second, and many say best) and retitled it Chinese Connection, probably to capitalize on the success of French Connection as well as Lee.
Since they were on a roll, they decided to also retitle Way of the Dragon, calling it Return of the Dragon and marketing it as a sequel to Enter the Dragon despite the fact that it was made before that film.
But that brings us to where we want to be, which is the movie we’ve chosen to be the first Bruce Lee film we review. We chose it because it seems to slip through the cracks a lot, and because it’s the only complete film that was written, directed, and choreographed by Lee himself. It’s an excellent movie that allows Lee to showcase not just his incredible martial arts skill, but also his ability as an actor. Most people like to write Lee off as a one-trick pony, perhaps the best martial artist to ever live but a pretty rigid actor. Those people obviously go along with hearsay rather than actually investigating the matter themselves. People who claim Lee could only act enraged and couldn’t handle comedy should pay closer attention to this film, in which Lee gets to shine as a comedian as well as an all-around kungfu bad-ass. Bruce even gets to do stuff that results in that “wah wah waaaahhhh” comedy music!
We begin at an airport in beautiful Roma — that’s Rome to you non-cosmopolitan types out there. Bruce, playing Tang Long, is something of a country bumpkin from the rural land outside Hong Kong. Right away, Lee is great at invoking a sense of sympathy for his character. I mean, we all know Lee is the baddest man to ever walk the planet, but he plays his scenes here so realistically awkward and embarrassed that you feel bad yet amused for his fish-out-of-water character. He goes to an airport lounge and, not being able to read the menu, end sup ordering about six bowls of soup. Of course, he is still Bruce Lee, so he saves face by finishing them all, which allows him to launch a series of “must go to the toilet” jokes that will be a sure-fire comedy hit with the kids for years to come.
Lee also mines comedy gold in the “goofy effeminate guy with bad toupee” department. Bruce was, in fact, a huge fan of the Dean Martin – Jerry Lewis comedy team and the many films they did together. While Bruce’s sense of humor is not quite as slapstick (and far less annoying) than Jerry Lewis, you can still see the influence it had on him. The main difference here is that Bruce is both the goofy, out-of-place Jerry Lewis and the suave, competent Dean Martin, depending on what the situation called for. Bruce definitely had a lot more depth than people gave him credit for.
After the soup skit, Bruce meets up with his cousin, played by the lovely Nora Mao (Fist of Fury, Big Boss), his frequent co-star. Nora had written her uncle back in Hong Kong to explain that they were having a lot of trouble with thugs at the restaurant in Rome. She expected him to send a lawyer, and instead he sent Tang Long, which Nora isn’t exactly happy about as Tang is ignorant of big city culture, especially in the West. Tang Long explains that, while he may be a bit dim, he can help out in other ways.
He gets to show everyone his “other ways” when the thugs show up at the restaurant to smash things up and convince the Chinese to sell their land. It’s always something like that, isn’t it? The Man and The Mob are always trying to build malls on land owned by kungfu schools, community centers, and restaurants. It’s a tried and true film formula, but it’s also a comment on gentrification. In my old neighborhood, you could make a movie about The Gap trying to buy up land belonging to community gardens and outreach centers. Same shit, different era. I think The Gap stuck mostly to financial strong-arming, though, rather than sending thugs to beat up a guy named Pops.
Realizing that the thugs, one of whom I swear is Oliver Platt, won’t listen to words, Bruce decides to speak with kungfu. He thrashes them soundly in a great sequence. Great not just because Lee is so fast and crisp with his art, but also because Lee’s character undergoes a wonderful transformation. When dealing with the restaurant and the city of Rome, Tang Long is lost and vulnerable. But when he steps into the back alley to beat the shit out of the no-goodniks, he immediately becomes confident and in control. Ass kicking is a universal language, after all.
In between visits by the thugs, who keep arming themselves heavier and heavier only to still get the shit kicked out of them by Bruce, the film takes full advantage of its Rome locations. Hong Kong movies that filmed outside of Hong Kong were still very rare in the 1970s, so Lee takes in as much of Rome as can be crammed into a few “travelin’ all around” montages. Then it’s back to the alley behind the restaurant to kick ass on some more thugs. This is a pretty weak-ass mafia, I must say. But I guess they’re not the big-time guys we see in films like The Godfather. After all, those guys are controlling international drug trafficking, arms smuggling, and resort casinos. These guys are trying to muscle out a restaurant. It’s sort of like how most leprechauns get to guard gold and countless treasures, but Lucky the Leprechaun has to guard a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal.
In a theme that is present in all of Lee’s Hong Kong films, he teaches other Chinese — other minorities — not to be ashamed of themselves or their heritage. When he arrives in Rome, the staff at the restaurant is practicing Japanese karate because they feel Chinese martial arts are weak and embarrassing. Once they see Lee in action, however, it fills them with pride and reinvigorates their interest in their own culture. This was an important theme for a film in 1972, and it’s a large part of why Bruce Lee became so popular. He fights for the right not to be ashamed of the color of your skin, and he shows that minorities can survive the pressures put on them by the established white majority. They can rise above racism by learning, relying upon, and believing in themselves.
Once the boss finally catches on that his thugs are a bunch of fat-ass losers, he hires some karateka bad-asses in the form of Bob Wall and Ing Sik-wang (Stoner, When Tae Kwan Do Strikes, Young Master). Wall is best known for his role as the right evil O’Hara in Enter the Dragon. After a while, Bruce gets sick of beating up the thugs, who just never seem to learn their lesson. So he goes to their headquarters, beats them up there, then does a very impressive kick in which he leaps up into the air and smashes an overhead lamp, completely without the use of tricks or wires. To accomplish the same simple but impressive kick these days would require Yeun Wo-ping to use ten miles of wires, pulleys, and CGI effects.
Pissed off about their light, the thugs hire their own kungfu bad-ass in the form of Chuck Norris. I know, I know. You guys here Chuck’s name and it makes you grimace and roll your eyes. Great. Now we gotta watch Lone Wolf McQuade. But take heart, li’l buckaroos. There is a vast difference between Chuck Norris the Bruce Lee opponent and Chuck Norris the Texas Ranger. For one, bash him all you want, but Chuck Norris was an amazing martial artist at his peak (which is when this movie was made, and why Bruce chose Norris). Legit martial artists and kungfu fighters all recognized Norris as possessing one of the fastest, deadliest spinning back kicks in the world. Judging Chuck’s abilities based on his American films is like, well, judging Cynthia Rothrock by her American films or Sammo Hung by his work on Martial Law.
The finale sees Lee face off against Norris in the maze-like arches of the Roman Coliseum, invoking the not-so-subtle image of modern-day gladiators. The ensuing battle is one of the best kungfu one-on-ones ever filmed, with the Benny Urquidez – Jackie Chan fight in Wheels On Meals being a distant second. Part of why the fight between Norris and Lee is so great is because it hurts. In 1972, kungfu film choreography was still pretty basic outside of Lee’s films, and a lot of the over-choreographed fights, while looking spectacular, lacked any sense of injury or power, especially when the guys would hit each other over and over with no real sign of damage.
When Lee and Norris hit each other, you can feel it. Their blows carry weight, and the weight shows. It’s obviously a result of two legitimate martial arts bad-asses being involved rather than two guys trained in Peking Opera, dance, or stage fighting. Of course, despite all the flesh-pounding-flesh action, the most painful scene comes when Lee uses Norris’ thick, Piltdown Man-esque coating of body hair (it’s possible he was one of the cavemen laughing at farts I talked about earlier) as a weapon, ripping out a big chunk of chest hair (he could have used a little off the back as well). Of course, ripping out a man’s chest hair makes you bad, but then proceeding to blow it into the man’s face makes you bad-ass. It’s the little things, you see.
There’s some end-of-the film shenanigans after the fight before Lee wraps everything up and heads back to Hong Kong. The film is absolutely superb. Lee shines as both an actor and a fighter, and his skill and charm should be more than enough to win over pretty much anyone. Watching this movie, you’ll have little question left in your mind why Lee has become to celebrated by so many different types of people. One could even take the Civil rights slogan “We Shall Overcome,” and apply it to the work of Bruce Lee.
Bruce’s direction is good. Nothing overly inventive or unique, but more than competent for a first-time director. It’s a bit raw at times, though he really shines at filming the fight scenes, which probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Sammo Hung, in many ways a student and master of Bruce Lee’s, would be the one director more than any of the others who would realize Lee’s ambitions in filming and directing kungfu films. What Lee began in Way of the Dragon and never finished in Game of Death, Sammo would carry to fruition in films like Knockabouts, Prodigal Son, and Project A. Makes you wonder what the “Three Brothers” of Sammo, Yuen Biao, and Jackie Chan would have been like if it had been four brothers, and one of them was Bruce Lee.
Way of the Dragon, aside from being some of Lee’s finest stuff, is notable for launching the film career of Chick Norris as well. I don’t actually know if this is a good thing, but I guess it was good for Chuck. He went on after this film to play a bigger role in another Hong Kong actioner, Slaughter in San Francisco, aka Yellow-Faced Tiger. That movie gave him ample opportunity to throw back his head and laugh in an evil fashion while he stood with arms akimbo. He also got to kick people. From there, it was the big-time, as he went on to play heroes in one crappy film after another, thus endearing him to the American public. If you have to watch any Chuck Norris film besides Way of the Dragon, make sure it’s The Octagon, because that at least has some ninjas in it.
Chuck Norris and Bob Wall would reunite many years later to make the film Hero and the Terror, and even later to appear as themselves in Sidekicks, a film best left undiscussed. Bruce, of course, went on to make Enter the Dragon, the film that would become his ladder to the realm of modern-day legend and launch the kungfu craze in America. Lee’s contributions to the genre are sundry. He gave it it’s banner star. He gave it the refinement of fight choreography, which up until Lee had been stiff and stage-like. He gave it comedy and heart. He gave it international appeal. He gave it Bruce Lee. A man full of anxieties, flaws, genius, ambition, fear, and fearlessness. A man whose name and face would become ubiquitous.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been pretty hard on the whole concept of CGI in movies. Part of this, as I’m sure you can surmise, is the old crank in me who still thinks special effects should be executed with miniatures, and stunts should actually be executed by living stunt people. But more than it simply being a reactionary current running through my brain, my distaste for CGI stems simply from the fact that it is so colossally overused. Movies like that Van Helsing thing or those wretched Star Wars prequels or the new Die Hard movies stick it in anywhere and everywhere, making their films so artificial while striving for some sort of sweeping realism that the end product completely loses the ability to astound or engage on even the most basic of levels. In effect, the movies mimic the experience of watching someone else play a video game. Plus, a lot of the effects just look crummy.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve softened in some ways to certain uses of CGI. Used properly, it’s quite a potent brush in an artist’s arsenal, especially if it’s employed to detail or augment rather than dominate a scene. Alternately, some film makers have gone the opposite route and rather than making films that fail to be realistic because they employ too much CGI, they disregard any pretensions toward realism by using computer generated sets, characters, and effects to create a completely alien world in which special effects don’t have to worry about mimicking real life. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is one of the first films to employ this style of film making, and since the aim is to create a world that is pure fantasy, even if it’s based on something recognizable as some concept of the real world (or in the case of Sky Captain a well-documented future that never came to be because we were too anxious to walk around with our gigantic t-shirts and pants down around our knees), I don’t really have any problem with the CGI.
Vying for the right to claim the title of “first CGI-staged adventure” is the French production Immortel, based on a comic book by Yugoslav-born graphic novelist Enki Bilal. Bilal, who moved to Paris when he was a lad, became a mainstay in the world of French science fiction comic books during the fecund decade of the 1970s, when artists like Moebius and many others were creating something of a renaissance around science fiction and comic books. Bilal’s first substantial work as a comic artist was Legendes d’Aujourd’hui written by Pierre Christin, a trilogy that was published between 1975 and 1977. He worked steadly as an artist and in 1980 began publishing his next notable trilogy, The Nikopol Trilogy, which he both wrote and drew. As I am an illiterate, the original graphic novels are a complete and utter mystery to me (they’re on the list to read, but so are so many other things), and so I’m left to judge this computer-generated science-fiction adventure purely on it’s own merits, and let me just say that despite some truly gorgeous art design (which is becoming a staple of CGI adventures and thus, less of an excuse for glossing over other short-comings), the merits of Immortel are few and far between.
Like Sky Captain, which for the record I loved, Immortel places a cast of live actors in a CGI world, in this case the New York City of the future where city planners and automobile manufacturers seem to have been heavily influenced by the Moebius designs used in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. As is often the case with comic book adaptations, we’re given almost no background as to how the world has become the way it is or why anything that is about to happen is going to happen. As viewers can discern from holographic graffiti that shows up from time to time, there’s apparently some sort of revolution against the growing ubiquity of genetic engineering, but this conflict seems woefully underrepresented in the movie if it is meant to be some sort of motivating factor for any of the action. Instead, we seem dropped into the middle of the story and expected to either already be familiar with everything because we read the comic, or we’re expected simply not to care because hey, pretty pictures. If it’s the former, then all I can say is why bother making a movie, especially one as expensive as this one apparently was, if no one is going to care about it except people who are already fans of the graphic novels? If your defense of the film’s atrocious writing is that you have to read the comic first, then the screenplay has failed. You should be able to construct a story that covers the basics.
We learn that for one reason or another a giant floating pyramid has appeared over Central Park, and everyone wonders what it could be. Inside, three very poorly rendered CGI Egyptian gods lounge about until one of them, Horus, departs for the mortal realm for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — though they seem to mostly involve him trying to get laid. I guess that’s as noble a motivation as any. Meanwhile, a blue-haired amnesiac named Jill (Linda Hardy) who we keep getting told isn’t human arrives in the city and is cared for by research scientist Dr. Elma Turner (Charlotte Rampling). Exactly who Jill is — or who Dr. Turner is — seems not to be important enough for the film to care very much about developing. All we know is Jill can’t remember something and a guy who dresses like Darkman shows up from time to time to utter those inane cryptic statements that are supposed to pass for wise and knowledgeable. Eventually, some guy named Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann) falls out of a passing cryogenic prison barge and is revived by Horus so that Horus can use Nikopol’s body to go searching for a little sexy action.
And meanwhile still, some terrible-looking computer generated cop is investigating a series of serial murders, but I can’t remember exactly what the hell was going on with those. I think they were supposed to be people with whom Horus tried unsuccessfully to merge, resulting in their heads exploding. Horus/Nikopol eventually stumbles across Jill and decides she’s the one, which leads to a series of fairly casual rape scenes that aren’t played with nearly the gravity they should. As is often the case in movies, the woman who is raped ends up falling in love with the rapist, in this case Nikopol, who at least manages to convince her that it’s not entirely his fault since he has the lustful spirit of an Egyptian space god in his head. She falls for him despite the fact that he shows absolutely no personality whatsoever, and never once does anything interesting other than look good with his shirt off. Eventually, a hammerhead shark hitman tries to kill Nikopol, and everything ends with a big flying car chase and journey into some “cross-over point.”
The film is, to be kind, a disaster, albeit a somewhat attractive and interesting one. Sky Captain proved that you needn’t jettison a coherent story to have a beautiful movie, and it also proved that even one-dimensional characters can be fun. The characters in Immortel don’t even have one dimension. There is absolutely no depth to any of them, and we’re never given any reason to care about them or understand their motivations. They simply progress through the mess of a narrative because that’s what they have to do in order to get to the end of the movie. Who the hell is this John guy with the bandaged face? Who is Jill? What’s the deal with Horus? Don’t bother wondering, because the film never gets around to even providing a hint about any of the characters. About the biggest amount of development comes after Horus has raped Jill a couple times and, upon deciding it’s about time for him to hit the ol’ dusty trail, says something to the effect of, “Yeah, that was kind of dickish of me, wasn’t it? Oh well!” And then we’re supposed to maybe even like the man-god after that.
The best thing I can say about any of the characters is that Linda Hardy, who plays Jill, is beautiful. Not the best actress, but this probably isn’t the sort of movie by which to gauge her talent. Even experienced actors have a hard time performing in green screen CGI movies, and Hardy wasn’t a very experienced actor. But man is she gorgeous. I admit though that I have a thing for chalky white women with blue hair and lips. Admittedly, a fetish that does not find much of an outlet in the real world. I already had a thing for that gal on Farscape, a show that actually gave me two blue women. I guess that guy who plays Nikopol is all right too, but man alive is his character ever a drip. He’s the most boring and uninspiring revolutionary leader I’ve seen in many a film. He’s adept at reclining in bed and in bathtubs, which is probably what he should stick to.
One hot chick and one hot but boring guy can’t save a film this sloppy. With a hopelessly muddled and half-baked story (adapted and directed by Bilal himself, who should probably stick to writing comic books if this is an example of his skill as a script writer and film director), one can at least hope for some eye candy, and I mean besides Jill’s breast-revealing mesh top. The art design, as I alluded to earlier, draws heavily from The Fifth Element, which in turn drew heavily from Blade Runner and, given that Fifth Element director Luc Besson is French, probably just as heavily from the original Nikopol comic books. Immortel takes the same basic look and feel as the Luc Besson film but drains it of most of the color in favor of an icy blue palette. The backgrounds, vehicles, and Blade Runner wannabe costumes are all pretty good, but there are also a lot of CGI characters in this film, and they represent a major stumbling block in the overall visual impact. CGI work was apparently farmed out to a bunch of different studios, and the result is an uneven mishmash of skill levels that range from wonderful (sets), to average (the CGI detective, shark headed hitman, and a bartender) to downright embarrassing (a fat mayor and his assistant, plus Horus and the other Egyptian gods, who look like something out of an unpopular Playstation game circa 1996). Unfortunately, the worse the realization of the CGI character, the more time they seem to spend onscreen.
It probably goes without saying, but the conversion of French comic book dialogue into English language movie dialogue makes for some ripe lines, my favorite being Nikopol’s limply delivered hissy fit toward Horus. The closest thing I can think of to describe the dialogue is in some of those late 1990s Hong Kong films where they were fond of performing a lot of lines in English, but without a script written by someone with a native grasp of the language. As a result, everything sound stilted, much sounds laughable, and some things are just downright puzzling. In other words, it sounds just like that weird, awkward dialogue characters mutter to one another in video games, and is delivered with much the same listless lack of enthusiasm.
So what, if anything does this movie have going for it? Well, in its own deeply flawed way, it’s a fascinating failure. There’s certainly a lot at which to gaze, not the least of which would be the character of Jill herself. It’s an ambitious, far-reaching movie where just about nothing works. The dialogue is awful, characters are all but non-existent, and attempts at philosophy and meaning come out sounding even more half-baked than that new age hokum they spewed out in the second Matrix movie before everyone prepared for the life-or-death war by raving all night long. Immortel proves that a much-revered graphic artist doesn’t necessarily make a good filmmaker. I really don’t know what fan reaction to the film was, though I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they must have seen what a mess it was along with the rest of us. I gather that not much from the original graphic novels made it into the “story” of this film, but since the graphic novelist himself is the creator of the movie, there’s no one to blame but papa. He showcases a keen eye for design and some truly gorgeous shot composition, but it takes more than that to make a movie.
And yet, as you’ve probably guessed, I still lean toward saying you should check it out. I’m always fascinated by ambitious films that fail utterly to achieve the lofty goals they set for themselves. And what better place for poorly realized grandiosity wrapped in pompous claptrap and aspirations of greatness than a big, expensive sci-fi CGI film based on a supposedly important comic book by a French guy? But you know what? They gave it a go, and the train wreck they produced is an interesting train wreck to explore. It’s frustrating that a potentially great movie is buried somewhere amid this mess, but you can at least spend some enjoyable time sifting through the pieces. And heck, if nothing else, you can treat the whole movie as some really boss van art, or just sit and stare at Linda Hardy.
Release Year: 2004 | Country: France | Starring: Linda Hardy, Thomas Kretschmann, Charlotte Rampling, Yann Collette, Frederic Pierrot, Thomas M. Pollard, Joe Sheridan, Corinne Jaber, Olivier Achard, Jerry Di Giacomo | Screenplay: Enki Bilal, Serge Lehman | Director: Enki Bilal | Music: Goran Vejvoda | Cinematography: Pascal Gennesseaux | Producer: Charles Gassot
Our rock and roll albums teach us that Hell is one big party town, but Jack Chick comic tracts would have us believe otherwise. Hell can take the shape of many different places. In one movie, it is an oppressively hot tropical village where b-grade made-for-television movie actors sweat profusely. In other movies, legions of the damned march pointlessly to and fro while a killer red robot stands on a mountain. My personal hell, of course, involves frequent broadcasts of Brat Pack movies and a stereo that only plays adult contemporary hits and that “Our God is an Awesome God” song.
Some people don’t even believe in Hell, and I guess I’d have to be among them since I’m not a religious fellow. But still, Hell is fun to talk about. It’s a lot more interesting than Heaven, even to Christians. Fire and brimstone sermons are a dime a dozen, and each one goes into graphic detail regarding the eternal sufferings one endures in Hell. When Dante wrote his epic Divine Comedy, he spent about five pages on Purgatory, a couple of pages on Heaven, and about a million pages on Hell. Everyone wants to describe Hell, but no one seems all that into Heaven. About the best we get is people wear a lot of robes, and maybe it’s foggy. Other than that, who knows? The problem with Heaven is that it’s a place where everything is basically going all right. While that may not be a bad way to live, it doesn’t make for very dramatic literature.
This is why filmmakers, much like Renaissance poets, tend to dwell on Hell while dashing off Heaven scenes with little imagination or consideration. But Hell — now there’s a place worth writing about. It’s miserable, fiery, evil, and full of sin. Actually, I don’t know if it’s full of sin or just full of sinners. Seems like if you were a big time sinner in life, then Hell would be a place where you don’t get to do any more sinnin’. I know I like me a good sin every now and then, and I’d be pretty annoyed if every time I tried to commit a sin, the Devil popped up to make me stop. Likewise, Heaven is a place where, if you didn’t sin in your life, you get to sin like mad for all eternity. I don’t know. This theory is probably why I’m not a preacherman.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on Hell, of course, and lots of other religions serve up their own particular brand of post-mortem eternal suffering. One of the most wild and creative visions of Hell comes from Japan, and more specifically from the gloriously twisted imagination of famed horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. Nakagawa, one of the most respected names in the history of classic Japanese horror cinema, became an instant favorite of mine after I saw his stunning samurai ghost film Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, a film that combined the more traditional slow build-up with some truly shocking gore scenes the likes of which were unheard of in 1959. A year later, he completely outdid himself with the film Jigoku, also known as Sinners of Hell.
People generally credit HG Lewis’ outrageous 1963 film Blood Feast as the first splatter or gore film, a claim that betrays a lack of knowledge regarding horror and shock cinema on a global scale. Nakagawa not only beat Lewis to the punch, but he did it with a movie that is both far bloodier and far better than Lewis’ ridiculously cheap but enjoyable romp. Jigoku is splatter that also manages to maintain a high production value, outrageous imagination, and a truly warped surrealism that sets it far apart from the legions of splatter films from all over the world that would follow in its wake. Part of the reason the film probably isn’t as widely known as Lewis’ film, apart from it being Japanese, is that while it delivers the grue, it’s all reserved until the final third of the film. Up until that point, the movie is fairly slow in its pace, allowing time for the development of characters, the explanation of situations, and other aspects of basic storytelling that the kids these days seem not to have the patience for.
We begin things with a credit sequence that is positively James Bond in nature, or at least Seijun Suzuki. Scantily clad, curvatious femmes in weird shadows and blue light populate the sequence, which then leads into a montage of hellish images that will be revisited during the film’s finale. Having thus shocked the viewer right out of the gate, Nakagawa continues with the story proper. A college professor is giving the typical movie professor lecture on concepts of hell, the kind of lecture that never actually takes place in real classrooms. One of the students, Shiro (Shigeru Amachi, who also played the wicked samurai lead in Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan), is especially interested for a couple different reasons. First, he’s about to marry the professor’s daughter, but more influentially, he and a shady acquaintance named Tamura were recently involved in a hit and run murder. As a result, damnation, sin, and guilt have been weighing pretty heavily on Shiro’s mind.
He and Tamura had been out for a drive that night when a drunken petty criminal stumbled out in front of their car. Though it was clearly not their fault and the police would probably write the matter off entirely as an accident, Tamura – who had been at the wheel – convinces Shiro not to report the incident since no one saw it. Though he is uncomfortable with such a course of action, Shiro is eventually persuaded by the darker, somewhat mysterious Tamura. Shiro begins to question why he even hangs out with this thoroughly creepy individual. “Who is this guy Tamura?” Shiro thinks to himself. “I know I don’t like him.” I guess everyone has one of those people in their lives who you really just absolutely do not like, and yet you always seem thrown together with them regardless of how much you strive to avoid them.
The big hole in Tamura’s plot is that the crime did not go unwitnessed. The gangster’s aging mother actually saw the whole thing, but rather than go to the police and settle for a court battle that will probably not end too horribly for Shiro and Tamura, she gives the license number to the recently widowed wife of the gangster, a fiery woman who immediately vows to hunt down the men who killed her man and extract horrible revenge on them. As if having the sexy but murderous widow of a gangster your creepy acquaintance killed after you isn’t enough of a hassle, Shiro is soon involved in another car accident, this one resulting in the death of his fiancee, the professor’s daughter.
Spurned by her relatives and obviously not getting a passing grade in the professor’s theology class, Shiro seeks solace in the embrace of a young hussy named Yoko, who we immediately recognized as the vengeful widow. Before she can stick an ice pick in the back of his skull, however, he gets word that his mother is dying and so decides to pack up and leave town, his destination being to visit his ailing mother out in the countryside.
Upon reaching the Tenjoen Senior Citizens Facility where his mother lies dying, things hardly improve for the troubled young man. His mom, of course, is at death’s door. His father is an unrepentant asshole who ignores his dying wife in the next room in favor of getting it on with a young harlot from the city. He also runs into the friendly and proper young Sachiko, who happens to look like his recently deceased fiancée. Oh, and there’s the insane artist who spends all day working on paintings of Hell, a corrupt cop, a criminally negligent doctor, a seedy reporter, and a couple other rakehells and ne’er-do-well. Put it all together and you have one hell of those “gathering of lost souls” type things. Suffice it to say that this motley gang of sweaty sinners is hardly the pick-me-up Shiro was needing.
Shiro is at least happy hanging out with his dead fiancee’s doppleganger, but the determined advances of his father’s mistress are unwelcome. Equally unwelcome is Tamura, who shows up to taunt everyone and expose their secret shameful pasts. Slightly more welcome is the old professor, who is ready to reconcile his differences with Shiro, at least until Tamura starts talking about how the old man was a jackass during World War II and stole his wounded buddy’s canteen, then left said buddy to die. It’s really one of those parties that involves too much alcohol and “truth or dare.”
Not one to have a moment of good luck, Shiro’s life is further complicated when both Yoko shows up. She reveals her background then attempts to shoot Shiro. A struggle on a bridge results in Yoko accidentally plunging to her death. Maybe Shiro should just stay home. When Tamura shows up to taunt Shiro and generally act like an asshole, the two get into a fight and Tamura falls off the bridge, too! All this is witnessed by Yoko’s crazy old mother-in-law, who also witnessed the hit and run and apparently spends entire weeks hiding in the bushes around various towns hoping to catch a glimpse of some knavery.
During a party to celebrate the center’s tenth anniversary, everyone gets drunk and belligerent and generally behaves like those old guys you see trying to punch each other out in Japanese parliamentary meetings. When the dad’s young harlot puts the moves on an exhausted Shiro, the father catches them and tries to kill her. The only reason she doesn’t succeed is because she falls down the stairs while running away and breaks her neck. Lesson learned: don’t be friends with Shiro. His dad immediately conspires to cover it up, and they both head back to the main hall where people are passed out, fooling around, or generally behaving like the scum of the earth. Not one to stay dead for long, a pale and deathly looking Tamura shows up to hurl barbs and taunts yet again, and as the clock strikes nine, Shiro finally loses it and tries to choke Tamura to death, his actions slightly hampered by the fact that while trying to choke Tamura to death, he himself is being choked to death by Yoko’s crazy mother-in-law. About that time, the clock freezes, and the fiery pits of hell open up to consume the various lost souls bickering with one another in the living room! That will kill a party even faster than breaking a lamp or getting caught staring at the hostess’ cleavage.
Shiro finds himself on the misty, barren banks of the river of death, and it is here that the movie kicks its eerie surrealism into high gear. I’d be slightly surprised if future surreal horror auteurs like Lucio Fulci didn’t see this movie. There are parts of the landscape of Hell that look very much like the hellish landscapes from The Beyond. The king of hell shows up to bellow about damnation. On the banks of the river, he is met by his inescapable load, Tamura, who tells him they are destined to burn in hell together. Not one to accept the word of a psychopath who recently returned from the dead only to quickly return back to being dead, Shiro wanders off through the various levels of hell just like the protagonist in Dante’s Inferno (as opposed to Dario’s Inferno).
He first encounters his recently departed fiancée, who is spending her time in hell stacking rocks along the riverbank. Her sin: dying before her parents, which seems like a pretty lame thing to get sent to hell for, though not as lame as being damned for driving a Volkswagen backwards into the bay, if you know what I mean (and I bet at least three of you do). She informs Shiro that she was seconds away from joyfully telling him she was pregnant, but got sidetracked by the whole being killed in a car wreck thing. As if Shiro didn’t have enough to deal with, he now understands that their baby, too, is condemned to Hell. This is pretty harsh, really.
Next thing you know, people are being dangled upside down with spikes jammed through their blood-gushing necks. They are being forced to drink from a river filled with pus and bile and other tasty treats (pus and bile custard is only slightly more disgusting than your average British fare, though). Others are forced to simply run around in a big confused circle forever, sort of like being stuck in a never-ending Limp Bizkit concert. One may provide the film’s most shocking and gruesome atrocity as his skin is ripped away, leaving a bloody skeleton covered with pulsating, dripping organs.
As Shiro searches desperately for his child, he is still tormented by Shiro, who is revealed to be a demon and eventually tortured just to shut him the hell up. Shiro finally finds his child on a giant flaming wheel of life and struggles in vain to rescue the child and possibly achieve some sort of salvation from the horrors of hell. Needless to say, he appears to fail miserably.
What Nakagawa accomplishes in the final thirty minutes of this film is truly mind-blowing. His sets are not lavish, but instead make ingenious use of smoke, multi-colored lighting, superimposition, fire, and animation to create an otherworldly and terrifying nightmare landscape. It’s the sort of thing Fulci spent his entire life trying to achieve (and did, to some degree, in The Beyond): an overwhelmingly eerie, alien world that feels like you’ve stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting. Cinematically, it seems to forecast the out-of-control artistic style of maverick film makers like Seijun Suzuki, who would apply similar color-saturated hallucinations to his yakuza films. As grisly as the effects to come are, they are overshadowed by the sheer wild imagination put into the set pieces they inhabit.
Simply put, the gore is good. The scene of the man being flayed alive, lying there screaming as his organs pulsate and spew blood, is really something else. I can only imagine how audiences must have reacted in 1960, because it’s still a very successful and bloody effect, far more shocking than anything HG Lewis would attempt a few years later with his better known but far worse Blood Feast. Part of what makes the splatter content of Jigoku so powerful is that the movie itself is a very well crafted work of art. While some of the editing during the final journey through Hell is confusing, the movie as a whole is technically sound, not to mention full of great writing, pacing, and acting. Lewis’ splatterfest is, of course, amazingly bad in all departments (though not at all unfun to watch).
Pioneering though it was, Jigoku was not necessarily alone in its move toward a more shocking, more surreal, or just plain bloodier presentation. While it was blowing the minds of unsuspecting patrons in Japan, the West was getting assaulted by Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho, which while not sharing the same artistic style as Nakagawa’s film, certainly shares the same desire to shock, amuse, confuse, and break new ground in what was a very tired and overly safe genre. Though not nearly as well-known today, even in Japan, Jigoku is every bit as much responsible for throwing open the doors to a new type of horror as was Hitchcock’s film. From the seeds planted by these films came glorious monstrosities like Blood Feast and the various Hammer horror films that continued to push the envelope of gore and sexuality throughout the 1960s.
Jigoku snares and disarms you with its very slow-paced, conventional first hour, leaving you completely unprepared for the moment when the clock stops and everyone is plunged into the depths of the underworld. Nakagawa once again proves himself a master of the classic horror film while, at the same time, defiantly showing that he is not bound by the conventions and can move the genre into bold new territory. It is a cautionary tale about the wages of sin and indulgence, yet it communicates its message without seeming preachy and its gore without seeming exploitive. Jigoku is a classic of the horror genre, and self-respecting fan with interest in horror owes it to themselves to track this horrible beauty of a film down.
This classic from the vaults of Hong Kong’s illustrious Cathay Studios begins with a shot of Golden Age screen icon Grace Chang shaking her bon-bon to a Latin-flavored mambo number while wearing cute, checkered capri pants. It’s already one of the best movies ever made in my book, as anything that gives us Grace Chang in classic 1950s form-fitting fashion is an ace. Not that I’m one to judge a movie solely on the merits of its leading lady’s rump nor on its inclusion of what is still, in my opinion, the paramount of women’s pant technology. You know me. I’m a classic guy with classic tastes, and while booty shorts and flares may be alright for some of you, I’ll take the more demure and alluring look of capri pants, a nice cocktail dress, or one of those cheongsam dresses any day over the vulgar obviousness or careless sloppiness of today’s fashion. But that’s just me, and like I said, you can’t judge a movie purely on it’s willingness to cater to my retro taste in both male and female fashion or my longing for a return to the days when we wore clothing that actually fit us.
Luckily, the film that follows the rump-shaking opening is a wonderful, breezy affair from the heyday of Hong Kong cinema. It was a time when the silver screen was ruled by the likes of Linda Lin Dai and the subject of this particular movie, Grace Chang. Grace was the reigning queen of Cathay Studios, one of the greatest and most respected studios in the history of Asian film. Few and far between were the films that didn’t feature Grace singing, dancing, and flashing her million dollar smile at the camera. She was the total package – a wonderful singer, a unique beauty, and an utterly captivating actress. Unfortunately, the bulk of her work – and indeed the bulk of Cathay’s films in general – were unknown outside of Asia. They disappeared after their initial theatrical runs, and only a few ever showed up on any home video format. When the rare film did make it to video or DVD, it was almost always without subtitles. Thus, some of the most important films and names in Hong Kong’s impressive cinematic history remained virtually unknown to new viewers.
In 2003, however, fortune smiled on fans of classic cinema from around the globe when Panorama Entertainment inked a deal to release a slew of old Cathay films on DVD complete with English subtitles. Though the deal was less trumpeted than Celestial’s similar deal to tap the hitherto hidden history of the Shaw Bros. Studio for home consumption, it was certainly no less historic or important. And while the fact that most of the Cathay films are dramas, musicals, and comedies in black and white means that western Hong Kong film fans (traditionally very action film oriented) will be paying less attention to them than to the Shaw Bros. releases, any film buff worth his or her salt knows that just because a film isn’t in color and doesn’t feature a shirtless Ti Lung getting stabbed in the belly doesn’t mean it isn’t worth watching. For fans of filmmaking from the glorious decades of the 1950s and 1960s, the tapping of the Cathay well is a glorious event.
It’s fitting that Panorama’s Cathay releases are hitting the shelves the same time as the Shaw Bros. releases. They were, of course, the primary competition for the Shaws (and both studios shared some major stars, including the impish Peter Chan Ho and the regal Linda Lin Dai), and their history is similar to that of the Shaw Bros. Like Shaw, Cathay had its roots in Southeast Asia. Studio founder Loke Wan Tho began making films in the late 1930’s when his family began establishing theaters in Singapore. As was often the case at the time, companies who made movies usually also owned their own theater chains (a practice that is coming somewhat back into vogue with the establishment of UA theaters in America. It never really went out of vogue in Asia). Loke’s theaters were state-of -the-art, and after the close of World War II he cemented a deal to distribute British Rank films in South Asia. In the 1950’s, Loke moved the business to Hong Kong, purchased a studio lot, and formed MP & GI, which would later change its name to Cathay.
As with the Shaw Studios, Cathay was keen on seeking out and developing new talent, then signing them to exclusive contracts. While the Shaws initially had a good balance of male and female superstars that, during the 1970s, eventually became primarily male-dominated thanks to the popularity of Shaw kungfu films, Cathay was always a woman’s world that was known for a stunning array of actresses who easily overshadowed their male counterparts at nearly every moment. Cathay built its success around a core group of female stars that included Linda Lin Dai, Jeanette Lin, Julie Yeh Feng, Lucilla You, Betty Loh Ti, Li Mei, and of course Grace Chang, among others. Cathay films and stars were highly regarded by critics and fans alike, and the studio exhibited a consistently high quality in the vast majority of what it produced. But, as we all know, nothing gold can stay, especially eras.
By the mid-60’s the studio began to decline. Loke died in a plane crash in 1964, and the Shaw Brothers productions began to eclipse those of Cathay. The Shaws simply had more money to throw into their projects, and they lured away a number of Cathay’s biggest stars, chief among them Linda Lin Dai. By the end of the decade, the Cathay Studio had lost nearly all direction. Whimsical romantic comedies and dramas, especially in black and white, were no longer as popular as they had once been. Cathay was sold to a young upstart studio that would eventually do to the Shaw Bros. what the Shaws ultimately did to Cathay – drive it out of business. That upstart studio was Golden Harvest, the eventual home of everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan.
But there for a while, no one could match Cathay in terms of star power and picture quality. And if your studio has to have a poster girl, you can sure do a heck of a lot worse than Grace Chang. It doesn’t take long to immediately fall in love with her and start putting her name atop your list of favorite actresses. There’s something special about her, something unique. She’s not a classic beauty, but that makes her beauty all the more memorable. Her popularity is, instead, driven by her undeniable charisma and overpowering charm. Where Hollywood (and indeed Hong Kong) was full of sultry sirens and bombshells, Grace Chang was the woman you could always trust to be your friend, to be dependable and friendly and down to earth. You could also count on her to sing you a song. Unlike many actresses who were featured prominently in Hong Kong musicals, Grace could belt out her own tunes.
Grace was born in 1934 in Nanjing but grew up in Shanghai. It was there, in what was far and away the mainland’s most cosmopolitan and swinging city, that she trained in Peking Opera. After the tumult of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, Grace and her family moved to Hong Kong in 1949. She made her film debut in Seven Sisters (1953) and joined MP & GI in 1955. Her film and singing careers soared after that, and she quickly became one of the top stars of stage and screen. Her singing talent even garnered her an appearance on America’s Dinah Shore Show. She married in 1964, and like most Hong Kong actresses, her marriage heralded her virtual retirement from show business. She still makes occasional appearances though, and she’s left us a tremendous film legacy that new fans are only just now beginning to discover.
Mambo Girl, the first of Panorama’s Cathay DVD releases (and chronologically, the earliest film), is an excellent way to get to know the work of both the studio and Grace Chang. Although for the most part it’s a breezy musical comedy, unlike most films from that particularly light-hearted genre, it has a darker, more serious current running through it that allows it to make a social comment without seeming too heavy-handed. As the story of the making of the film goes, Grace was performing for troops in Taiwan and had them so enthralled with her mambo dancing that they started calling her Mambo Girl. Scriptwriter Yi Wen was then inspired by her popularity to write a quick little film around the name. Another story, as told by Grace herself, maintains that the idea for the film came during an evening at a nightclub where Cathay founder Loke was so impresses with her dancing and singing that he decided a movie should be made. Whichever version of the story is true, the fact remains that someone somewhere saw Grace singing and dancing and simply had to make a movie for her where she could do the same.
Grace stars as Li Kia-ling, the celebrated Mambo Girl as she is known on campus. She’s the all-American (or All-Hong Kong, I suppose) gal who gets good grades, always treats her fellow students with equality and respect, and is a vastly talented singer and dancer. I guess they don’t have students like this anymore. They’ve sort of gone the way of those 1950s scientists who knew everything about history, geology, astronomy, physics, and handling various handguns and rifles. I suppose its students like Grace Change who grow up to be those professional know-it-alls like John Agar, though I have a hard time imagining John Agar busting out the mambo moves. Kia-ling’s life is pretty good. Aside from being the sweetheart of the campus, she has a cool little sister and a father who owns a toy store and, when neighbors come by to ask them to turn down the mambo music, tells the neighbors to take a hike. Rather than being the movie parent who attempts to crush the musical dreams of his child, he encourages her at every step and is just about the coolest movie dad you could hope for. Her father is played by Liu Enjia, probably one of the best male leads at Cathay and one of their only men to not be overshadowed by the ladies. He’s a big, fat jolly guy, after all, and it’s hard to overshadow big, fat jolly guys. He was Cathay’s go-to man whenever they needed a solid father figure, and he’s best known for his roles here and in the successful cross-cultural comedy The Greatest Civil War on Earth.
All the boys at school fawn over Kia-ling, chief among them Peter Chan Ho. If you watch enough musicals and comedies from either Cathay or the Shaw Bros., you better get used to Peter Chan Ho. He seems to star in dang near every one of them, and for a relatively average looking guy, he’s managed to romance everyone from Grace Chang to Linda Lin Dai to Cheng Pei-pei. I really wish I had this guy’s agent. Peter’s a ubiquitous fixture in the musical films of the 60s and 70s, and he’s a pretty likable guy who emanates an everyman kind of charm. He’s not always believable in his roles, especially when he plays a lady killer kind of character, but he has a certain underdog charisma about him that, while not nearly as magical as Grace’s, makes you root for the guy. When Peter and the boys aren’t studying, and they rarely seem to study, they’re following Kia-ling around and urging her to sing and dance. You know the scene. It’s been in countless musicals, and in the background is always a guy I simply know as Tennis Racket Lad. If you ever seen a musical comedy set at the beach, a college campus, or a summer resort, then you’ve probably spied the Tennis Racket Lad. He’s the guy in the chorus of nameless friends who, when song and dance breaks out, always has a tennis racket which he pretends to strum like a guitar. I’ve seen Tennis Racket lad in at least a dozen films, and I’m sure he shows up in a dozen more.
Kia-ling’s life is turned upside down when her little sister discovers the older sibling she idolizes is in fact adopted. When she confesses this to her best friend, who also happens to be incredibly jealous of Kia-ling’s popularity with the boys, the girls, the teachers, the janitors, and everyone else in Hong Kong, word gets around to Kia-ling’s friends, and eventually to Kia-ling herself. Although her rival tries to make it a point to insult our darling Mambo Girl, none of her friend seem to care. She’s much too charming, and her adopted parents are so cool anyway. Kia-ling, however, is upset by the revelation and wants to seek out her real mother. Along the way, she will discover the true meaning of family, and there will be many musical numbers.
Running just under the surface is a message about the many Chinese people finding themselves in Hong Kong, especially after the revolution and Mao’s increasingly totalitarian (and deadly) handling of the country. Multitudes of Mainlanders suddenly found themselves separated from their motherland and seeking shelter in the arms of Hong Kong. Seeing parallel between Kia-ling and the Mainland immigrants, between her choice of biological mother or adopted parents versus mother China or the adopted homeland of Hong Kong, doesn’t take a genius. But it does, as I said, lend the film a deeper quality than one usually finds in these sorts of films. Most people, however, are not going to seek out a musical comedy called Mambo Girl in hopes of gleaning insight into the mental state of Chinese people seeking to make new lives for themselves in Hong Kong. For a movie like this, what it has on the surface is just as important, if not more so, than what lies beneath. And the surface of Mambo Girl is a pure delight. Grace’s performance is wonderful, and the music is catchy and enjoyable. As one would guess from the title, much of the music is infused with a Latin vibe, something that was very popular with lots of pop music from the era. Grace’s mambo numbers swing, though the lyrics are just about the squarest things imaginable. I doubt Yma Sumac or other mambo legends belted out words like, “You’re a lucky girl. We call you the Mambo Girl. You are the sweetheart in your family. You are the queen in the school.” Not exactly lyrical spiciness to go with the beat, but the infectious tunes will stick with you regardless of how corny the words may be.
The musical numbers are nothing lavish. They’re fairly well grounded in reality and most take place in nightclubs, sporting fields, or people’s living rooms. The dances aren’t extravagant either, but instead look like something an actual person might do. Well, make that an actual person who knows how to mambo and cha-cha. If I was the “actual” person, it’d look less like a dance and more like some old man having a seizure. The fact that movie embraces these modern dances and modern modes of dress so energetically is also a mark of distinction. Many films of the era reflect old fashioned mores regarding singing and dancing, especially as a way of life. How many movies are there where a woman falls upon hard times and is forced to eek out an existence as a nightclub singer, a profession that garners her much attention but no respect? Kia-ling’s parents, on the other hand, break from tradition by enthusiastically supporting their daughter’s talents and preaching the benefits to mind and body of having some good, clean fun. It is another way in which her adopted parents symbolize the new, modern Hong Kong and new, modern ideas. By contrast, Kia-ling’s real mother is the type of lonely torch-singing forlorn woman we see in so many other movies. A product, if you will, of outdated thinking and ideals.
The supporting cast does their best to keep pace with the leading lady. Liu Enjia is wonderful as her father, Peter Chan Ho is likable as her boyfriend, and Kia-ling’s real mother is suitably tragic in true melodrama form. For an interesting Shaw Bros connection, future Shaw empress Mona Fong (who was one of the major players as a producer at Shaw Bros, and quite possibly as powerful – if not more powerful – than the brothers who lent the studio their name) makes an appearance as a singer in a nightclub Kia-ling visits in search of her real mother. The real shining star among the supporting cast is Kitty Ting Hao as Kia-ling’s younger sister. She’s cute and energetic, and her performance is superb. Tragically, she was one among many of the Cathay stars who had a rocky life and ended it via suicide. She died in Los Angeles in 1967 at the age of twenty-seven. Similar sad stories seem to plague far too many of the Cathay women.
Despite that somber footnote, Mambo Girl is an energetic, fun, pluck-at-your-heartstrings musical that will win you over solely with the charm of its leading lady. It’s a refreshing change of pace for people who know Hong Kong cinema primarily through kungfu films and more modern actioners. Mambo Girl takes the conventions of the Hollywood musical and integrates them seamlessly with Hong Kong sensibilities. Ultimately, you can’t feel sad watching the movie, especially when the time rolls around for the big musical mambo finale. Relatively low-key in comparison to other musicals, even other black and white ones, it’s a quality, retro romp that just might have you reaching for the nearest tennis racket.
When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.
Scary movies are hard to come by. Gory? No problem. Sorta cool and creepy? Sure, we got those in spades. But genuinely scary movies are rare as diamonds and, to be, infinitely more valuable. There is something wonderfully affirming about watching a movie that keeps you awake at night, that gives you eerie nightmares. There’s something wonderful about a film that makes you afraid to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or that makes you nervous about the fact that the closet door is open just a crack. It’s a delightful rush of adrenaline and apprehension, but scary movies have almost become a thing of the past. Too often, people are simply interested in delivering (and having delivered to them) flashy special effects and “style.” Thus a scary movie like the classic The Haunting gets turned into another “dazzling feast for the eyes” that leaves the soul and the brain still hungry for more. Bring on the scare, man! I can watch any hundred films for cool special effects, but the well from which to draw truly frightening films is well nigh dried up.
And then along came Japan. Ah, Japan, my salvation! Just as Hong Kong swooped in to save me from the doldrums of 1980s American action excess (and just as Korea later swept in to save me from the same thing in Hong Kong), Japan came to my rescue in the late 1990s by staging a horror revolution. While they cranked out plenty of atrocity exhibits that got by on gore and tastelessness alone, Japanese filmmakers were also rediscovering the age-old pleasures of simply scaring people, or at least creeping them out with eerie rather than gross imagery. Thanks in part to a boom in horror related manga, but thanks primarily to the discovery of the fact that Japanese girls were really into chilling horror movies, the scare revolution began with films like Birth of the Wizard and a movie that will go down in history as one of the most effective horror films of all time, The Ring.
On the surface, there is nothing especially fancy about the movie. The plot is familiar territory that has been explored countless times by other films. The direction is, for the most part, top notch but straight-forward, showcasing none of the wild innovation or surrealism of other Japanese horror films, like Uzumaki. In fact, the direction is almost clinical, documentary fashion stuff that reminds me of George Romero’s scientific approach in many ways. The dialogue, the acting, and everything else is very good but not anything that sets new standards for quality.
So what is it, you may then be wondering, that makes The Ring so damn good? For starters, it uses its simplicity to great advantage. While some writers pile half-baked subplots and digressions on top of each others like the angry and sullen clambering over one another in the muck of the fifth ring of Hell, in an attempt to give their stories some false sense of depth or importance, Takahashi Hiroshi’s screenplay (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki) keeps the story fairly straight-forward, which ultimately makes the twists and shocks that much more startling. Sometimes, as I’ve maintained before, the simplest things are the best things, and there’s no need to mask yourself with dishonest complexities when the straight-forward, honest core is so powerful.
Director Hideo Nakata also understands the concept of dramatic tension, the ability to build up an overwhelming sense of dread rather than go for the three-second shock of a spring-loaded cat popping up at the characters or the “sneaking up behind my friend to grab their shoulder” scare employed by every lesser horror film known to man. As always, it reminds me of the famous story told by Alfred Hitchcock when trying to explain the basic concept of tension, which was relayed back in the review of Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan. Sadly, it is a skill that seems completely lost on the vast bulk of horror filmmakers today, not to mention going unappreciated by fans whose only real desire is to see a head or Jennifer Love’ Hewitt’s button-down top explode. I know I sound like the old horror fogy that I am when I bemoan such events, but so it goes. It’s not like I’m opposed to sex ‘n’ gore, to which many of the reviews here will attest, but liking one doesn’t mean you can’t mourn the passing of another. The other night, I was sitting around watching Bride of Frankenstein, thinking about how no horror movie that emotionally engaging or developed would ever be made today. There’s room for all types of horror, but no one seems interested in anything that relies of character or plot development.
Well, no one but the Japanese. Nakata handles the progression of the story with superb mastery, always favoring restraint over the cheap shock, allowing the sense of weirdness and dread to build throughout the entire film until, by the end, it is very nearly unbearable, and you find yourself white-knuckled and clutching the chair in anticipation of what’s coming next. That, in my opinion, is effective horror. Any buffoon can make a teenager jump by having one of those lame “shocks” like the cat or the sneaking friend, and big deal. You can make someone jump by just sitting next to them and suddenly yelling “boo!” for no reason. The Ring isn’t as base in its approach, opting instead to go the route blazed by classic horror films like The Haunting and Psycho or even Dawn of the Dead. It’s the type of scare that stays with you for days, even weeks, after the movie is over.
The Ring opens in classic horror film form, with two young girls home alone. One of them is telling a story about a cursed videotape. Once you are finished watching it, you get a mysterious phone call predicting your death in exactly one week, and then of course, one week later, you wind up dead. The second girl, Tomoko, isn’t as amused by this story as her friend, what with her and a group of friends having watched what may very well have been the cursed tape of growing urban legend fame one week ago. Tomoko tries to pass it off as nothing, but when the phone starts ringing, fear starts to rise. The entire scene, though hardly original or unpredictable, is beautifully paced. Even if you figure you know what’s going to happen, it still keeps you on pins and needles.
Enter then a sharp female reporter named Reiko, who works for what seems to be some sort of paranormal newspaper, or just a crappy sensationalist newspaper, possibly the New York Daily News. Reiko’s curiosity regarding the cursed video is piqued when one of her own relatives’ death is attributed to having seen the tape. Unfortunately, none of the other schoolgirls around can give any straight or concrete information regarding the tape. In classic urban legend form, it’s always a friend of a friend, or a friend who heard from this guy. A little investigative journalism uncovers the fact that a group of high schoolers from a nearby school have indeed all been dying off in strange, unexplained fashion, and they were all down in a rented cabin in the province of Izu.
Reiko makes the drive down to Izu to snoop around the cabin and eventually runs across a videocassette left behind by the kids. Although hesitant at first, Reiko soon pops the tape in a VCR and watches the bizarre, nonsensical few minutes of footage it contains, realizing immediately that this is the tape. Upon its conclusion, the phone in the cabin rings. What is said, if anything, is unclear, but it’s enough to freak out Reiko.
Back in the world, Reiko is increasingly upset by the video and the subsequent phone call. She enlists the aid of her ex-husband, Ryuji, a college professor who seems to have some sort of psychic ability. Ryuji is played by none other than Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the crown jewels (along with Sonny Chiba and Etsuko Shiomi) of the Japan Action Club during the 1970s and 1980s, not to mention being Michelle Yeoh’s co-star in the classic Hong Kong action film Royal Warriors. Although well versed in the paranormal, Ryuji is a natural skeptic and figures the tape to be nothing more than urban legend. He not only watches it, but has Reiko make him a copy so he can watch it over and over in an attempt to study and decipher the content. I guess he figures if you’re going to die after watching it once, you might as well annoy whatever malevolent force is behind it by watching it as many times as possible. Alleviating Reiko’s own fear somewhat is the fact that Ryuji receives no phone call after watching the video.
I wish I could say the same for me, however. In a lovely and more than a little unsettling coincidence, mere seconds after watching the scene in which Reiko views the cursed video for the first time, I got a call on the phone. Strange enough that I get a call, having as I do very few friends who use the phone. It was made more suspicious by the fact that it was around three in the morning, and even my friends aren’t rude enough to call that late without warning me ahead of time. Needless to say, I was as amused as I was scared to pick up the phone, and that’s a positive sign that the movie really managed to succeed in delivering the creepiness. Turns out it was some strung out dude calling the wrong number. Suffice it to say that The Ring will make you regard both your television and your phone with a little more suspicion.
As the week drags on, however, her fears begin to rise again, especially after her young son finds the tape and watches it himself. Determined to unravel the mystery, just in case something sinister is happening, Ryuji and Reiko follow a trail of clues to a small fishing island that was once the home of a woman with soothsaying powers. After being humiliated during a press conference meant to celebrate her powers, she and the professor who had “discovered” her went into hiding. A revelation on the island leads the duo back to Izu and the old cabin, where the final answer to what is happening lies deep underground. Or so it would seem. When doing a final bit of research to close the bizarre turn of events entirely, Ryuji discovers one more piece of the macabre puzzle that only Reiko can solve.
It’s an old story, one you’ve probably heard before, but The Ring pulls it off with such subtlety and effectiveness that it completely disarms you and keeps you guessing. Sure, you know what is supposed to happen in these sorts of ghost stories, but you’re never quite sure if the movie is going to go that route or forge off into some completely unexpected territory. It never allows you the comfort of familiarity even within a familiar type of story, and the end result is one of constant, growing fear. It truly is a beautiful experience to get this scared by such a seemingly simple movie.
It’s smart enough not only to avoid tipping its hand too early in the game and relying on horror film clichés to carry it through, but it also knows to avoid other obvious plot devices. In an American film, a story of two divorced people thrust together again by unusual circumstances would invariably become a story about them getting back together. That piece of crap Tri-Star Godzilla movie was basically a giant monster wrapping on a tired old “reconcile our past” romance with absolutely no imagination. While the characters of Reiko and Ryuji in The Ring are placed in similar circumstances, the plot never allows them to spoil things by turning into a shallow mockery of soul-searching with one of those “Why did we break up?” scenes with the predictable “Maybe we just loved each other too much” answers. There is no romance in The Ring, although it’s hinted that Ryuji may have been involved with one of his students. It keeps the movie focused on what it is supposed to be doing, which is scaring us.
The handling of psychic phenomenon is also well done. Ryuji’s “powers” are not as ludicrously illustrated as having him stand in a room and shoot wavy special effects out of his forehead or anything like that. Instead, his psychic ability is depicted realistically, or as realistically as you’d like to thing psychic abilities could be depicted. It’s nothing especially magical. Instead, he simply seems to be very adept at reading people rather than reading their minds, interpreting body language, reactions, and reading between the lines of statements to extrapolate some hidden truth. It’s nothing outside the realm of believability in the real world, and keeping the story grounded in very down-to-earth trappings is what helps elevate the horror of the truly fantastic elements when they come. Once again, subtlety and restraint prove to be two of the film’s greatest tools for constructing genuine, lasting horror.
On top of the expertly constructed plot is some fine acting. Sanada is, of course, a veteran, though here he gets to prove to genre fans that he can act as well as he can kick and shoot lasers. Actress Nanako Matsushimi, who plays Reiko, had very little experience before this film, acting in only a couple television movies. She is superb, wonderfully pulling off a character who is smart, determined, believable, and also not afraid to be afraid. And when she is afraid, you can feel it, and the palpable nature of her fright only helps augment your own fear. Despite what you may think, pulling off a strong, believable female character (or male, for that matter) is not an easy task. Sure, any hack director can plop a woman down in a scene and have her unload clip after clip into advancing bad guys without showing the slightest hint of fear, but that’s not exactly the sort of strength to which one can relate. Nor does it show very much character. And finally, it doesn’t help that this supposed bad-ass is almost always played by a model turned actress who maybe weighs ninety pounds and has all the muscle definition of David Spade.
The character of Reiko, on the other hand, demonstrates a much more believable type of strength. She’s not perfect, maybe even needs to ask for help, but she is smart, determined, and willing to forge ahead even when she’s wracked by fear. Nothing about her is overblown or of such preposterous proportions that she becomes unbelievable as an actual person. A weakly written script would have her seem like a superwoman who can solve any and everything thrown her way. Instead, we get a woman who perseveres and moves ahead regardless of her inability to answer every single question on her own. There’s a reason that this movie helped open the door for what has become known as “schoolgirl horror” in Japan, that is horror movies featuring strong but not cartoonishly infallible lead heroines. Par of The Ring’s success can doubtlessly be attributed to the fact that it doesn’t pander to not insult women, refusing to treat them as politically correct uber-women or as stumbling helpless bimbos. Instead, it gives us a very noble, believable, and imperfect heroine, and that character resonated deeply with lots of girls who saw the movie.
Reiko’s young son is also well played. Little kids in films, especially in horror films, are always an iffy proposition. More times than not, they drag the movie down with them into a kicking, screaming, whining mess. The children are often insufferably irksome, or they are in a plot where they save the day and exhibit skill and intelligence far beyond what is believable even for one of those genius super-babies. Additionally, most films with children in them never really want to upset potential parental audience members by putting the kid in any real danger, so you know that ultimately nothing is going to happen. The Ring suffers from none of these fatal flaws. The young Yoichi is rarely the center of attention, and when he is, child actor Rikiya Otaka is somber, soft-spoken, and completely devoid of the annoying traits most children in movies (and in real life, for that matter) tend to exhibit. Because of this, when his fate is called into question by his viewing the videotape, you actually don’t want to see him die a horrible and mysterious death. Funny how much more effective a film can be when you don’t want bad things to happen to the characters. I wish more horror writers and directors would realize this.
The icing on the cake is the music, which by itself is enough to illicit nightmares. Composed by Kenji Kawai, who also did the phenomenal soundtrack for Ghost in the Shell, it is perfectly suited for the film, sounding as it does like a cross between wailing souls, scraping metal, and something that Coil might have concocted on that unused Hellraiser soundtrack they did. It’s just one more difference between successful horror like The Ring, and the other crap we have out there that eschews using music to set the mood and instead uses an unrelated parade of pop hits to sell soundtrack CDs.
It’s an amazing film in every aspect, and for my money, it will remain one of the greatest and scariest horror films of all time, easily ranking among the past classics. Intelligent writing and masterful filmmaking elevate the proceedings far above the herd, and what is in one sense little more than a very good popcorn movie takes on much deeper qualities. The struggle of modern Japan and the modern Japanese against a very ancient, and traditional terror, not to mention the use of a relatively modern technology as the manifestation of this terror, speaks volumes without hitting us over the head with clumsily and heavy-handedly handled messages. There’s also a well-crafted message in the film about a generation of parents who allow the television to do the child rearing without any real regard for what it is the kids are watching, even if it’s violent pro wrestling shows or cursed video tapes. Again, the message is there but not at the forefront of the movie, never overshadowing the simple, visceral delight of being scared out of your wits by a movie. The Ring is a testament to quality horror filmmaking and should be required viewing for any fan of the genre.
The popularity of the film spawned all sorts of mildly confusing offspring. Both The Ring 2 and The Spiral are sequels, though made by different people and following different paths. Ring 2 is generally considered to be the official sequel, with The Spiral being a somewhat official sequel, but not really. Both films are quite good. Another rarity in the horror genre, I suppose: sequels that, while not quite as good as the original, are still very good. A television show was also made, and a third film, Ring 0, followed part two. Rather than continuing the story, however, part three is a prequel (thus the zero in the title), and by the time it was made, the magic (not to mention the director) had left the series, resulting in a movie that is at best a pale and distant echo of the original. On top of all that, a Korean film called Ring Virus based on the same original novel was made. That movie is also quite good.
Far and away the best thing about The Ring, and the real proof of just how solid a chiller it is, is that a week after watching it and thus watching the cursed video in the film, you’ll start to get fidgety and start thinking about how maybe you should be making copies for your friends and enemies and inviting them over for a viewing.