starring Elaiza Ikeda, Takashi Tsukamoto, Hiroya Shimizu, Renn Kiriyama
screenplay by Noriaki Sugihara, based on the novel Tide by Koji Suzuki
directed by Hideo Nakata
Fantasia Festival 2019 runs July 11-August 1 in Montreal, Quebec. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Bill Chambers After ushering in contemporary J-horror with Ringu, the first feature-film adaptation of Koji Suzuki's novel Ring, Hideo Nakata directed Ring 2, which was made in response to the poor reception of Rasen, a sequel based on Suzuki's own. Ring 2 doubled the original's grosses, and Nakata tried his luck in Hollywood. But with a stated desire to avoid horror (he didn't want to repeat himself), he couldn't get a bite from the studios (which only want people to repeat themselves)--until fate conspired to put him at the helm of the sequel to Ringu's own American remake, The Ring Two. Nakata nearly quit over the producers constantly foisting rewrites on him, which did not result in a particularly coherent or cohesive film, and the eminence he brought to the project was ultimately used against him by critics. He returned to Japan, where he's bounced around in the years since between film and television, documentaries and shorts, gradually coming to accept his darker creative impulses and the public's appetite for chills. The work, sadly, has suffered from a budgetary standpoint thanks to the Japanese film industry becoming collateral damage in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and though the Ring series has persevered through these lean 2010s, it was reduced to schlock (a couple of 3D movies and a Ju-on crossover, Sadako vs. Kayako), dropping all pretense of being anything but a showcase for its black-haired, pint-sized Freddy Krueger in the bargain. For the newest entry, the approach was back-to-basics: Nakata again directs, Suzuki again wrote the source material, and the simplified title, Sadako, unburdens the picture of franchise baggage à la Rambo and Jason Bourne. Bona fides though these may be, what they aren't is a hook; say what you will about the asininity of pitting Sadako against Kayako--at least it's a foundation on which to build a movie.
Sadako opens on a derelict apartment complex strewn with graffiti warning trespassers of evil forces. One of the tenants is preparing a murder-suicide with some gasoline and a match, convinced that the little girl she's holding captive in the closet, her daughter, is the reincarnation of Sadako. Elsewhere, on rocky Oshima Island, an old woman notices Sadako may have breached the walled-up cave enshrining her spirit. These depopulated early images have a sun-scorched glaze that suggests we've finally arrived at the apocalyptic destination towards which these movies were always headed, sort of like the last few minutes of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse, but it's an empty portent, and the film soon settles into a thin retread that loosely connects to a reductive take on Sadako's byzantine backstory. Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda) is a doctor who evidently sees patients of all ages--including, now, the little girl from the prologue (Himeka Himejima), who's turned up on Mayu's ward with not just amnesia, but also telekinetic powers that only Mayu notices. Detectives inform Mayu that the "Mysterious Girl" used to live in the apartment complex that caught fire a month before, and that MG's deceased mom was the arsonist responsible. Meanwhile, Mayu's brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu) is a college dropout making a name for himself as a star of goofy online videos, though with numbers dwindling he's advised to branch out into "scary, urban experience" videos. Inevitably, he's drawn to the torched remains of MG's residence, at which he shoots an amateur forensics investigation full of creepy discoveries and paranormal interference, leading the comments section to speculate that he's cursed or doomed. Then Kazuma drops off the face of the earth, and with the lives of both her brother and her patient hanging in the balance, Mayu turns amateur sleuth.
It's odd to see a YouTube-ish platform in Sadako, a sequel to a film that helped get us all acquainted with the concept of viral media before the "share" button was a thing: What was once planting seeds in the culture is now slave to it, although this is yet another Internet-era iteration of the concept that squanders the opportunity to explore the possibilities of a digitized Sadako wreaking havoc in cyberspace. In fact, the notorious "ring" video appears only briefly in a fan-service way, hardly factoring into the plot otherwise. To be fair, there are a couple of nice grace notes: Mayu's initial encounter with a stalker ex-patient shows how difficult Japanese politesse makes extricating oneself from uncomfortable social situations, allowing them to balloon into something much worse down the line, while Mayu's discovery of the Sadako "shrine" is interesting for how she's interrupted by the police, who fear she'll injure herself trying to enter it but don't second-guess her claim that her brother's trapped inside and spontaneously form a search party on her behalf. (I've become accustomed to the American conventions of rogue Scooby-Doos and superfluous law enforcement.) Most of Sadako is tired and tropey, however--hampered, perhaps, by Nakata's fatigue with genre or his vision for the franchise being stuck in the early-'00s, when he last played in this sandbox. A well continues to be a big part of Sadako's mythology, for instance, but here it's located in the shrine, casting a supernatural shimmer on the cave's walls. Human skulls bob on the water for that metal touch. At best, the slick Sadako is a gentrification of the material basic, with all the sudden squeamishness that implies. At worst, it buffs the familiar refrains, like the usual payload of Oedipal anxiety, to indistinction. Nakata even more or less rehashes the possessed-kid gambit that made The Ring Two so logy; if vindicating himself was the aim, all I can say is: womp womp. Programme: Selection 2019