Snake Woman's Curse (1968) – Film & DVD Review

This 1968 effort is the last in a series of kaidan eiga (ghost story movies) filmed by director Nobuo Nakagawa during a classic period that began in 1956 with THE VAMPIRE MOSTH (Kyuketsuki-ga). SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan Hebi-Onna, literally, “Ghost Story of the Snake Woman”) is frankly not quite up to the standard of his earlier work, which includes the classics THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan – i.e., “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido,” 1959) and JIGOKU (“Hell,” 1960); however, the film does include many of the stylist elements that established Nakagawa as Japan’s premier director of horror films. Fans of Japanese cinema, particularly Japanese horror cinema, should find it interesting; others will be put off by the slow pacing and occasional cornball moments.
The story is set during a period when Japan was undergoing a period of “Westernization” – a process that does not extend to the small coastal village where the action takes place. After the death of a poor farmer (who vowed he would work all his life and “even eat dirt” to retain his land), an indifferent overlord repossesses the farm and puts the dead man’s family to work in his house as servants. The widow (who previously nursed a wounded pigeon back to health) objects to the killing of a snake, is kicked down by the lord, and dies from a crack on the head. The daughter is raped by the lord’s son, then commits suicide. The daughter’s lover seeks revenge but falls off a cliff when hounded by the lord’s men. The lord, his wife, and their son are haunted by visions of ghosts, which drive all of them to their deaths. Have achieved retribution, the ghosts of the dead peasants are seen walking across a foggy plain toward the sun, apparently heading toward the afterlife. Read More

Rasen ("Spiral," 1998) – Film Review

RASEN (which translates as “Spiral”) is the first sequel to the Japanese horror hit RINGU. Like RINGU, it was based on a novel by author Koji Suzuki; unlike RINGU, it was written and directed by Joji Iada, who took quite a different approach when adapting the material. Sadly, although the film is filled with interesting ideas derived from its source material, it is unable to complete with its cinematic predecessor as as a fascinating horror-thriller. Overall, the film feels stilted, academic, and more than a little dull as it plows through its exposition. Still, there is enough here to make the film worth watching for fans of the series. Read More

Three…Extremes (2004) – Horror Film Review

THREE…EXTREMES is an anthology by three different directors: one Chinese, one Korean, one Japanese. All the episodes are interesting and disturbing – perhaps too much so, without any clear reason for the audience to endure the suffering. Despite the Asian pedigree, none of the episodes is in the mode of recent terrors from the Far East (e.g., RINGU and THE GRUDGE). For the most part they eschew eerie manifestations in favor of twisted tales about visceral and/or psychological horror. Read More

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) – Film Review

This is one of several Asian horror movies that reached U.S. shores in the wake of RING (1998) and JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2003). Like those two Japanese efforts, this South Korean import received exposure in America around the time that rights were secured to film an American remake. Unlike its predecessors, however, it was not so obvious what DreamWorks hoped to make of the story when refashioning it for U.S. audiences. Unlike the majority of Far East supernatural thrillers to reach the our shores (including the entertaining if incoherent SLEEPING WITH THE DEAD from China and the excellent PHONE from South Korea), A TALE OF TWO SISTERS is decidedly an art house effort, rather than a popular entertainment. Writer-director Kim Jee-Woon makes use of techniques that will be familiar to fans of Eastern ghost stories (e.g., the ghost woman with long black hair obscuring her face); but the scare scenes, though quite effective, are not the film’s raison detre.
Rather, the story is a tragic family drama, in which the supernatural manifestations (when they crop up, which is only intermittently) are externalizations of dark family secrets buried in one of the lead character’s psyche. In fact, based on what is seen in the film, it is debatable whether any of the supernatural phenomena is meant to be real. As one character says:

“Do know what’s really scary? You want to forget something. Totally wipe it off your mind. But you never can. It can’t go away, you see. And… and it follows you around like a ghost.”

That pretty much sums up the film’s approach to the supernatural. Fortunately, despite his artistic pretensions, Kim Jee-Woon creates a mounting sense of dread as his tale unfolds: Two sisters return home after a stay in a mental hospital. Readjusting to “normal” life is not easy. Dad is distant and ineffective. Mom is dead, replaced by a step-mom whose attempts at looking cheerful seem almost psychotic in their forced exaggeration — until she drops her happy face and harasses her stepchildren mercilessly. As if all this were not enough, the family’s isolated house in the woods appears to be haunted.


One must emphasize the word “appears,” because most of the supernatural phenomenon is observed by the older daughter, whose stay in a mental hospital renders her perception of reality suspect. Kim Jee-Woon wants us to see the “haunting” as symptomatic of her state of mind and of the tensions within the family. The phantoms may be real, or they may be hallucinations; either way, their root lies in events of the family’s past that everyone would rather forget, and the supernatural intrusions are like literal examples of Freud’s “return of the repressed,” visualized as ghosts rather than neurotic symptoms
The result is an ambitious horror film that was taken seriously by American critics who had dismissed THE GRUDGE only a few months previously. To be fair, one must acknowledge that Kim Jee-Woon’s serious approach has its merits, but it also creates some problems that mar, without ruining, the effectiveness.
This is a movie that is in no hurry to get going. The editing lingers over long takes of the gorgeous photography — either because the images are supposed to be imbued with hidden meaning that takes time to figure out, or just because it all looks so pretty that no one had the heart to pare things down to a faster pace.
The story is also built around a double surprise twist that you will see coming if you pay close attention. The problem is not the surprise — the film plays fair, dropping clues so that you can make sense of what’s happening after the revelation hits — but that the whole point of the story seem to be to build up to this revelation and then stop. In effect, the story keeps its premise hidden from the audience until nearly the end. Then, the revelation of that premise is treated as the climax, even though the revelation does not resolve the story. (Imagine THE SIXTH SENSE if the ending had simply revealed the truth about Bruce Willis character without the character himself realizing it.)
Equally disappointing, after the truth is revealed, Kim Jee-Woon does not leave his viewers on solid ground. The final sequence may be a flashback revealing the source of the family’s grief, or it may be the distorted memories of an institutionalized character — even her wish-fulfillment revenge-justification fantasy.
The film is clever enough in its deceptions to remain an interesting intellectual puzzle that feels as if it is worth sorting out, but that is all it is. Once you have put the pieces in place, you may feel you know what happened. What is, unfortunately, missing is the answer to the obvious question: now that we know what happened in the past, what will happen next?
Presumably, the American remake will tag an upbeat happy ending onto the story. It’s to Kim Jee-Woon’s credit that he did not go for this easy option. It is nice when a director gives his audience credit for being able to sort things out on their own. But it would have been even nicer if he had dropped laid more groundwork for us to extrapolate into the future.

TRIVIA

At least one other character (besides the one who has been in a mental hospital) claims to see a ghost in the house. The dialogue takes place during a car ride, during which a colorful tent is somewhat improbably seen, pitched in the middle of the road. The surreal juxtaposition of images seems to indicate that this scene is meant to be taken as another fantasy, imagined in the mind of the mentally disturbed character.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (a.k.a. “Hanghwa, Hongryeon,” 2003). Written and directed by Kim Jee-Woon. Cast: Kap-su Kim, Jung-ah Yum, Su-jeong Lim, Geun-yeong Mun

The Ring Virus (a.k.a. "Ring," 2000) – Film & DVD Review

Derived from the Japanese film RING (a.k.a. RINGU, 1998) and the novel that inspired it, this 2000 film from South Korea is more or less an equivalent of America’s THE RING (2002): that is to say, it is a remake that does little artistically to justify its existence; mostly, it simply rehashes the original with a new cast speaking the language of its target audience. THE RING VIRUS has some good moments, along with some of the novel’s plot points that were omitted from the previous film, which are enough to make it interesting for fans of the franchise (or for cinefiles interested in seeing how the same story is filtered through the lens of a different set of filmmakers), but overall it is a negligible achievement.
As in RING, the lead character is a female reporter Sun-Joo (Eun-Kyung Shin) who investigates the mysterious death of her niece, uncovering a fatal videotape that kills all those who watch it, after seven days. In RING VIRUS, Sun-Joo is aided not be an ex-husband with psychic powers but by an obnoxious doctor/coroner who likes to make snide, sexist remarks.
There is a little bit more scientific-sounding dialogue (mention of viruses) that is perhaps supposed to seem more realistic, and the cinematography opts for colorful pastels, instead of foreboding shadows, downplaying the element of supernatural horror that always seemed prevalent in RING (even when nothing overtly scary was happening).
The result is a film that looks good but which often lacks tension. To be fair, writer-director Dong-bin Kim does pull off some nice scenes, including a quiet exterior (sort of the calm before the storm) filled with beautiful swirling snow (which is probably the work of a CGI team).


THE RING VIRUS does include some elements from the source material (a novel by Koji Suzuki) that were not in 1998’s RING: the male lead is not the ex-husband of the lady reporter but a somewhat unlikable creep; the evil ghost (Sadako in the original, here called Eun-Su) is somewhat older; she worked for a time with a small entertainment group, and was murdered after a would-be rapist discovered that, despite her female appearance, “she” actually has masculine characteristics. Despite this, the Korean film clearly is a remake of RING, again featuring a single-mother female reporter (instead of the married man of the book) and using the famous ghost-out-of-the-television tube shocker at the climax. (In the book, the “cursed” characters die from heart attacks brought on by tumors, apparently created by a literal virus with a seven-day gestation period.)
Curiously, THE RING VIRUS includes a few moments not in the original RING which nevertheless found their way into the American remake: In flashback, we see Eun-Su’s mother leaping off a cliff. Later, our heroes find photographic images that were created directly on film by Eun-Su’s psychic powers, foreshadowing her ability to imprint images on the lethal videotape. And, perhaps in an attempt to portray Eun-Su as a more human character (rather than a just a threatening ghost), the director shows us her face several times during flashbacks. (This undermines the famous climax: like director Hideo Nakata in RING, Dong-bin Kim films the actress with her face hidden by long black hair when the ghost climbs out of the television set; unfortunately, since we already know what her face looks like, hiding her features seems like a pointless vestige of the original).
Despite its flaws, THE RING VIRUS does have odd unexpected elements that make it a mildly interesting variation on the familiar story; unlike the Americanized THE RING, there are one or two interesting surprises, plus a visual style that at least tries to establish itself on its own terms (even if it is not fully successful in this regard). As such, the film is of interest to fans of Asian horror films. Most casual horror fans will probably find themselves better off if they stick with the original Japanese version of RING.

DVD DETAILS 

In the U.S., THE RING VIRUS is available on DVD in two different versions.

  1. Tai Seng Video’s DVD is a bare-bones, single-disc edition that offers a decent transfer of the film, without bonus features. The cover features the sinister (though not particularly frightening) face of Eun-Su.
  2. Tai Seng’s Special Edition DVD adds some bonus features and cover art featuring the famous scene of the ghost emerging from the television set.

THE RING VIRUS (a.k.a. “Ring,” 2000). Directed by Dong-bin Kim. Screenplay by Dong-bin Kim, based on the novel “Ring” by Koji Suzuki and the film “Ring” (1998).

The Grudge 2 (2006) – Film & DVD Review

Though not nearly so ridiculous as THE HERETIC: THE EXORCIST II, nor quite so badly misguided as BABE: PIG IN THE CITY, this stands as one of the most disappointing sequels to a major blockbuster success ever made . The spooky stylization that worked so well in THE GRUDGE is carelessly recycled, chained to a pointless plot that twists together several story-lines without weaving them into a coherent thread, let alone a seamless tapestry. With no new interesting story to tell, few if any worthwhile revelations, and only a handful of decent scary moments, THE GRUDGE 2 is dull affair that, perversely, seems deliberately designed to take a successful formula and reduce it to the level of a direct-to-video franchise knock-off.
Amber Tamblyn takes the lead role of Aubrey Davis, who is the sister of Karen, the character played by Sarah Michelle Gellar in the first previous film. Her mother (Joanna Cassidy) sends Aubrey to Japan to track down Karen, but the family reunion is brief, ending with Karen’s fall off the top of a hospital building. Aubrey tries to unravel the mystery of what drove Karen to her death. Meanwhile the film intercuts other seemingly unrelated stories: one about another girl who encounters the lethal “grudge,” the other showing a famiy back in the U.S. that seems to be haunted by the “Grudge” at a later date. Read More