Film Reviews

Familiar Ring

The press notes for Pulse would have you believe that it predates many of the recent Japanese horror films that have been remade for American audiences, but that doesn't seem to be true. It predates the U.S. remakes, yes; but according to the Internet Movie Database, Pulse came out in Japan in 2001, while the first Ju-On originated in 2000 and Ringu in 1998. So claims to originality here need to be taken with a few grains of salt. Pulse director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Cure) has been making movies longer than the directors of those other "J-horror" films, but that doesn't mean he hasn't appropriated a trick or two.

By focusing on two different sets of protagonists, Kurosawa actually gets to have it both ways. In the Ju-On/Grudge-style story line, a group of young people find one of their friends dead in his apartment and slowly realize that ghosts are entering the real world in contagious fashion. In the Ring-style story line, an awkward teen (Haruhiko Kato) finds that his computer keeps turning itself on and logging onto a Web site that promises communication with the dead (Kurosawa can at least claim that his movie predates 2002's Feardotcom).

Ghosts enter both stories in various forms: Some are just like regular people who make big, stylized movements, while others remain permanently out of focus, even when witnessed up close. When both types disappear, they leave permanent black shadows behind them on the wall and sometimes disintegrate into ash, just like the bodies at Hiroshima.

It's almost an hour into the movie before we get any kind of explanation as to why the ghosts are here and what they want, and it's not a satisfactory one. Someone speculates (rather authoritatively) that the afterlife is full and ghosts are overflowing into our world, but this simply doesn't make sense when the spirits are clearly quite active in emptying the real world of people. Nor does a later theory, that the ghosts want us to live forever, jell with what actually happens--they're quite effective at inducing suicides, it seems.

Miramax purchased the U.S. remake rights to Pulse in 2001, and that film is slated for release in March 2006. The preview, just released in theaters, contains more explanation and exposition than the entirety of Kurosawa's film--it also, inexplicably, appears to reuse the actual footage from one of Kurosawa's best scenes. Perhaps the American version will explain why simple red workman's tape can apparently make a room ghost-proof. It's tempting to suggest that this device is a parody of the plastic-sheeting-and-duct-tape advice given by the government post 9-11, but the timing makes that unlikely. (If "red tape" has the same connotations in Japan as here, it could also be a swipe at bureaucracy.) Mostly, it feels like an abstract decision that isn't necessarily grounded in any kind of logic.

Pulse's major new twist in the J-horror canon is that it takes the notion of a Ring or Grudge curse to its logical conclusion, which is that if there is a lethal ghost curse out there that's distributed via casual contact, it only makes sense that it would be like a viral pandemic with no cure and eventually spread all over the world. The second half of Pulse, in which it becomes clear that the entire planet is being rather swiftly depopulated, is worth the build-up. Already the movie has maintained a perpetually overcast look, but throw in some pollution, dead bodies and a strong sense of isolation, and you've got some primal fears truly tapped.

The first half, on the other hand, could stand some serious pruning. Other than the ability to rip-off two existing franchises at a time, why do we need two individual groups of protagonists? Yes, one person from each group survives and meets the other, but the thread involving the guy with the computer is strong enough to stand alone, and the rest is so much baggage. It's arguably more "artful" to move at a snail's pace, but at the risk of tedium?

Unfortunately, the clips from the U.S. remake shown so far make it look terrible. There's a real opportunity to build upon the strong elements of Pulse, but that doesn't appear to have happened.

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Luke Y. Thompson