Fantasia kicks off its opening night with an atmospheric, if slightly muddled, entry in the Ringu series.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)
Fantasia International Film Festival stakes at least partial claim to the Western popularity of The Ring, after showing Hideo Nakata‘s original 1998 film Ringu at the festival. It makes sense, then, that this year’s fest would open up with the North American premiere of Sadako, Nakata’s long-awaited return to the series after some disappointing entries in the J-horror staple series (see: Sadako vs. Kayako).
Whether through the Japanese originals or the Gore Verbinski remake, any self-respecting horror fan knows how the Ring Girl works: you see her image in a terrifying piece of media, which curses you to a terrifying death days later. While the mythology itself has gotten incredibly convoluted in recent years, Sadako feels like a soft reboot of sorts, stripping back the layers and practically reinventing the raven-haired spirit for a new audience. While it’s got its fair share of decent spooks, it’s hard to say whether Sadako‘s muted appeal is worth the twenty-year wait for Nakata to get back in the director’s chair.
This time around, Sadako returns courtesy of an unnamed young girl with telekinetic powers (Himeka Himejima), whose terrified, paranoid mother burns the apartment down to kill her. You see, she thinks the girl is the resurrected form of Sadako, and killing her will banish the demon for good. However, Sadako has other plans: the mother dies, and the amnesiac girl ends up in a hospital wing supervised by young psychologist Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda, whose expressive eyes and Uma-Thurman-in-Pulp-Fiction haircut make her a perfect J-horror protagonist), who strikes up an unlikely connection with her.
Of course, Sadako arrives in Mayu’s life from another angle as well: her fame-seeking brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), a wanna-be Youtuber who spends time struggling to build an online following with an escalating series of Jake Paul-like pranks. In search of thrilling clickbait, he decides to visit the girl’s charred apartment to capitalize on the Internet’s love of “scary, urban experience videos.” Predictably, he goes missing soon afterward, and Mayu endeavors to find out where he’s gone while reckoning with Sadako’s hold on her young charge.
The idea of updating the Ringu mythos to expand Sadako’s reach from VHS tapes to YouTube videos is a scintillating one — talk about ‘viral videos’ — but Sadako doesn’t quite dig into the implications of this new issue as deeply as one would think. Kazuma’s videos are delightfully idiotic, recalling the lo-fi production values and gormless enthusiasm of Eighth Grade, but they turn full Blair Witch in his final installments. I’d easily watch an entire found footage film geared toward Sadako’s mythos; it sounds like the perfect vehicle for that, right? Alas, apart from some admittedly-poignant moments in which Mayu pores over her brother’s videos for clues, gaining a kind of horrific understanding of him in the process, the viral video angle barely finds purchase.
Not only that, the nature of the curse gets a bit muddier in this installment, the third act conjuring up some mysterious origin story for her that ties back to old-school government experiments and a mysterious cave whose round entrance forms the titular ‘ring’. As if that weren’t enough, Sadako is also concerned with the battle over the soul of Himejima’s little girl, with Mayu serving as a surrogate mother. As a result, there’s a lot of thematic ground being glanced at here — the paralyzing shock of loneliness, the responsibilities of motherhood — but the script can’t quite land on one.
As muddied as the subtexts may be, Nakata still has an incredible command of horror atmosphere, and the scares are as effective and subtle as ever, even if it takes us forever to get there. Sadako remains a deliciously atmospheric presence on par with Linda Blair in The Exorcist, a hollow girl made of practically-living jet black hair and gnarled digits who snaps, cracks and crawls with the best of them. Nakata uses her sparingly in the film’s first half, but by the fifty-minute mark, an encounter at the hospital unleashes Sadako’s (and Nakata’s) full power. From there, tense encounters with she of the long black hair are interspersed with half-baked heart to hearts with Kazuma’s agent (Takashi Tsukamoto), who suddenly becomes Mayu’s partner in crime despite having no real connection prior to this point, to mixed results.
Sadako will hardly bring the Ring franchise back from the dead; it’s far too muted and psychological for that. But while the found-footage YouTube video format feels like a missed opportunity, Nakata at least uses this opportunity to showcase the incredible command of creaky horror tension that makes his return to the series so exciting. Unfortunately, those moments feel a bit too little, too late, making this a shaky start for Fantasia 2019.