Genuinely creepy for most of its length, and with an oblique approach to basically genre material, Japanese psycho-chiller "The Ring" recalls Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Cure" in its gradual evocation of evil lying await beneath the surface of normality.

Genuinely creepy for most of its length, and with an oblique approach to basically genre material, Japanese psycho-chiller “The Ring” recalls Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Cure” in its gradual evocation of evil lying await beneath the surface of normality. Pic did well enough on home ground last year to spawn an even more successful sequel, plus an adaptation of another of Koji Suzuki’s novels featuring the same characters (“The Spiral”). But its most notable success has been in Hong Kong, where it became the biggest grosser during the first half of the year with HK$ 31 million ($ 4 million), trampling Hollywood fare like “The Matrix” and causing an outburst of “Ring fever” in the territory. In the right hands, this could have some Western legs, too.

Author Suzuki is known as the “Japanese Stephen King,” and the story’s high concept and atmosphere have several parallels with the American author’s works. A myth is circulating among high school kids that if you watch the wrong kind of video late at night, a strange woman will appear, point her finger at you, and then the phone will ring, signaling your death exactly a week later.

Pic opens with teen Masami (Hitomi Sato) jokingly telling the yarn to her classmate Imako, who promptly dies in a car accident. Imako’s young aunt, TV reporter Reiko Asakawa (Nanako Matsushima), has been investigating the tall tale and becomes personally involved when she hears that Imako had watched “a strange video” with some friends, all of whom died on the same day.

Tracking down the lodge where they spent a weekend, Reiko watches the same video — a blurry collection of scenes featuring a garden well, a newspaper article in which the words float around, a woman looking in a mirror and a hooded, intoning figure — which deeply disturbs her. And then the phone rings.

Convinced she has only seven days to live, she enlists the help of her ex-husband, math prof Ryuji Takayama (Hiroyuki Sanada), to solve the mystery of the videotape, which leads them on an odyssey to Oshima island, where they learn about the mysterious death of a woman and her illegitimate daughter 40 years earlier. Adding further spice to the pie is the fact that Ryuji, and then Reiko’s young son, Yoichi, also watch the tape.

With a spooky calmness that’s part and parcel of the careful, restrained direction, captions mark the passage of the days as the mystery unravels and Reiko’s date with death draws nearer. And just when the picture seems over, an extra reel springs more surprises.

Classically shot, with effective use of stereo sound effects, the movie is almost entirely free of visual horror and the usual Eastern ghost cliches, managing to suspend auds’ disbelief in the hokey story through pure atmosphere. Matsushima holds the screen as the devoted, working mom, and her chemistry with Sanada, as her all-wise ex, is palpable and, in the latter stages, moving.

Though largely from the same team, the follow-up, “The Ring 2,” is a very different beast, with less atmosphere and more genre shocks, as Ryuji’s assistant, Mai (TV/pop star Miki Nakatani, very glammed-down), sets out to solve the mysteries left over from the original. Pic notably fails to build on the first movie’s wonderfully nasty final scene, and becomes progressively more conventional, with no special visual style or under-the-skin frissons. The door is left wide open for a further follow-up.

Nakatani, seen briefly in the first film, is OK as the dogged investigator but builds no rapport with her co-stars, thanks mostly to the script, which lacks the original’s tautness and growing tension. Tech credits are fine.

The Ring

Japanese

Production

A Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. production. (International sales: Kadokawa Shoten, Tokyo.) Produced by Shinya Kawai, Takashige Ichise, Takenori Sendo. Executive producer, Masato Hara. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Screenplay, Hiroshi Takahashi, based on the novel by Koji Suzuki.

Crew

Camera (color), Junichiro Hayashi; editor, Nobuyuki Takahashi; music, Kenji Kawai; special effects, Hajime Matsumoto. Reviewed on videodisc, London, July 28, 1999. (In Brussels Fantasy Film Festival.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Miki Nakatani, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato, Yoichi Numata.
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