Tag Archives: Asian horror

RetView #52 – Shutter (2008)

Title: Shutter

Year of Release: 2008

Director: Masayuki Ochiai

Length: 83 mins

Starring: Joshua Jackson, Rachael Taylor, Megumi Okina, David Denman, John Hensley, Maya Hazen

“From the executive producers of THE GRUDGE and THE RING,” the poster screams, in reference to Takashige Ichese and Roy Lee, who were indeed responsible for at least the US remakes of those movies (only Ichese was involved in the Japanese originals). And it shows. This film, a remake of a 2004 Japanese/Thai movie of the same name was just a little too eager to jump on the A-Horror bandwagon which was then running out of control and really could have gone awfully wrong. But it didn’t. Instead, despite some early mixed reviews, the US version of Shutter was a huge commercial success, grossing almost $48 million from a measly $8 million budget. That’s some achievement. And the numbers are justified. Though derivative at times, like a lot of Asian horror movies tend to be, Shutter is a truly exceptional piece of work.

Newlyweds Ben (Jackson) and Jane Shaw (Taylor) leave New York and head for a new life in Japan. Ben, a photographer, has lived there before. While driving through the countryside, Jane runs over a girl standing in the middle of the road and crashes their car into a tree. However, when they come to their senses and go looking for the body they find nothing, not so much as a drop of blood. After the emergency services come and clean up the mess, they try their best to put the whole sorry episode behind them. But from then on, all the pictures the couple take are ruined by some weird white mist. Ben’s assistant Seiko (Hazen) identifies the photographs as examples of spirit photography and introduces Jane to her ex-boyfriend who works on a spooky magazine. It turns out the paranormal is big in Japan. Who knew?

From there, things deteriorate further for the couple. The white mist begins to morph into what looks like a ghostly figure, Jane suffers nightmares, and Ben experiences physical pain in his shoulder, which he attributes to the car crash, that makes him a virtual hunchback. Both feel the ominous sensation of being stalked. Matters come to a head when Jane has a close encounter with the ghost. There are many kinds of supernatural entities in Japanese mythology and folklore, which we in the West group together as ‘ghosts’ for our convenience. This particular kind of ‘ghost,’ which has died a violent death or is motivated by revenge or sorrow, is known as Yurei. Jane learns that the yurei’s name was Megumi Tanaka (Okina). Furthermore, as with a lot of married couples, it turns out Ben and Jane have a few secrets from one another. Ben knew Megumi from when he worked in Japan. Intimately. When confronted, Ben admits being in a relationship with her but claims he broke it off when Megumi became too clingy, doing a runner with the help of his ex-pat friends Adam (Hensley) and Bruno (Denman). In despair, Migumi commits suicide. Hence the rather pissed-off yurei. She first targets Adam and Bruno, for reasons which become crystal clear later on, then goes after Ben and Jane who run back to New York. Little do they know, their nightmare isn’t over and the small matter of 6,500 miles isn’t going to put a damper on Migumi’s pity party. There’s one more sting in the tail. Several, actually. And at the very end, we see the real cause of that phantom pain in Ben’s shoulder. That scene alone cements Shutter’s place in the RetView series.

Shutter packs a lot into its 83 mins (90 mins unrated cut) running time. True, it features many of the classic triggers and tropes we’ve come to expect from Asian (and in particular, Japanese) horror movies; unrequited love, revenge, folklore, technology gone bad, and wraps them all together in a slick little bundle ripe to be consumed by Western audiences. It works. I think the reason Shutter was no negatively received by critics is the fact that it came so soon after Hollywood remakes of The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water, Pulse and others. In 2008 alone, Shutter arrived arm-in-arm with a slew of comparable efforts such as The Eye, Mirrors, The Echo and One Missed Call. By then, the backlash was beginning, and Shutter perhaps fell victim to that. In the cold light of day (or even better, in the dead of night) Shutter is essential viewing.

By the way, if you’re a fan of the genre you might like to check out what happened during my J-Horror movie marathon.

Trivia Corner:

Shutter does a great job of picking up actors better known for their comic ability and brought them kicking and screaming over to the dark side. Joshua Jackson made his name as Charlie Conway in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, while David Denman is best known for playing Roy Anderson, Pam Beesly’s fiancé (before she got together with Jim Halpert) in the US version of The Office.


RetView #12 – Ringu

Title: Ringu (Ring)

Year of Release: 1998

Director: Hideo Nakata

Length: 95 mins

Starring: Nanako Matsushima, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rikiya Otaka, Yuko Takeuchi, Hitomi Sato

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It would be a huge generalization to say that I love them all because like anything else, the genre can be a bit hit n’ miss. But I’ve spoken at length before about my fondness for Japanese horror movies. Ringu (the original version of the Ring, followed in 2002 by a big-budget and hugely successful American remake) is quite possibly the king of J-Horror. It’s without doubt the movie responsible for sparking a western fascination with Asian horror movies which was mined extensively over the next decade or so with varying degrees of success. Think Pulse, the Grudge and Dark Water, all of which were remade for western audiences.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that until Ringu burst onto the screens in all its grainy glory, western horror cinema was going through a notoriously bad time. We were still bogged down in the deranged serial killer/slasher genre, which was getting decidedly old by then. There are only so many cheap scares and bloody, increasingly imaginative kills an audience can tolerate before they get desensitized to the whole thing. We wanted something new. Something that wasn’t the same as everything else. Then came Ringu.

The film begins innocuously enough, giving barely a hint of the edge-of-the-seat creepiness to follow. Two cutesy teenaged girls, Masami (Sato) and Tomoko (Takeuchi) are messing around in an apartment and discussing a cursed videotape which supposedly kills its victims after they receive a phone call seven days after watching it, when one of them confesses to watching just such a strange tape a week earlier. Then the phone rings. Some time later, reporter Reiko Asakawa (Matsushima) learns that her niece Tomoko (Yup, thadda one) and three of her friends died under mysterious circumstances, and sets about investigating. The trail leads to a cabin in the Izu area of Japan. There, she finds an unlabelled video tape. Obviously, she watches it, thereby starting off a trail of events which might just be the death of her. She enlists the help of her ex-husband (Sanada) and together they attempt to break the spell and avoid Reiko’s imminent fate. More than two decades on, that unforgettable scene where Sadako the ghost girl climbs out of a well (and then through a television screen) remains one of the simplest yet most evocative slices of cinematic history ever committed to, er, videotape? Though many have tried to replicate the effect, it has never been emulated.

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Adapted from the 1991 novel Ring by Koji Suzuki who, in turn, based the story on an urban myth , the movie has long been noted as examining Japan’s obsession with the clash between tradition and modernity. This is only one of the many subtexts critics have pointed to, another popular one being that ghost girl Sadako is a model for the modern woman and how independence conflicts with the traditional core values of motherhood. Whether you agree with any of that or not, it’s clear that Ringu is an extraordinarily complex film that works on many levels. It is a visually stunning piece of work, so heavily steeped in Japanese culture that as a westerner it’s practically impossible to grasp all the subtleties. It draws on many aspects of history, folklore, and even theatre, to create a mash-up that is much more about fostering a pervasive sense of dread rather than going for cheap jump scares. Much was made at the time about Sadako’s jerky, twisty, hauntingly deliberate movements. These were actually based on a kind of interpretive Japanese dance called Butoh, which became popular after the Second World War. Even Sadako’s classic look is no accident, having been based on a specific species of ghost called the yūrei, which invariably feature stark white faces, long black hair, and white kimonos. The reason yūrei appear this way is because that’s how Japanese women looked when they were buried.

In fact, everything about Ringu was designed to creep the viewer out. One way it achieved this was through use of a technique called ‘Ma,’ where sound effects and musical scores are deliberately punctuated with sequences of rapid pauses or even long, drawn-out silences. This was another way the film differentiates itself significantly from Western films. While Western horror uses sound to let the audience know how they should be feeling, J-Horror (and Ringu specifically), uses Ma as a way to keep the audience thrown off balance. This is just one reason the Guardian named it the 12th Best Horror Film of all Time. By the way, you can watch it in its entirety (with English subtitles) HERE.

GO HERE for more RetView entries.

Trivia Corner:

In what proved to be a shrewd and innovative move at the time, both Ringu and its sequel Rasen (not to be confused with Ring 2), were released in Japan on the same day, January 31st 1998. Both films had different writers and directors, yet shared many of the same cast members. Shrewd and innovative this may have been, but successful it wasn’t as Ringu was an international hit and Rasen a comparative flop.


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