September 02, 2009

THE RING VIRUS (1999) - Asian remake of an Asian horror film

(1999, South Korea)

Celebrating (very nearly) four years of Black Hole Reviews with a blogaversary look at another film from the Ring phenomenon.

There are very few successful American remakes of South-East Asian horror films, so how do you feel about an Asian remake of an asian horror? The year after the Japanese smash hit Ring, it was remade with a Korean cast but co-produced by Japan. I'm not entirely sure why - I think they wanted to cash into the horror cycle with a domestic hit of their own. In any case, it's yet another retelling of the original story, mixing elements from both Koji Suzuki's book and Hideo Nakata's 1998 film. It also anticipates scenes from the American remake, The Ring (2002).

It begins with a young girl home alone. Her TV keeps switching itself on. She's also unnerved by a phone call from one friend and a text from another. They both seem to be in trouble. Then she hears something coming upstairs...

Reporter Sun-joo starts investigating her niece's death, becoming suspicious when she learns that three of her friends died on the same evening. The only expert who has any clue as to a possible link is the eccentric Dr Choi, whose theories are seen as far-fetched.

But as Sun-joo visits the lodge where the four friends last met, she finds a videotape and makes the mistake of watching it. It tells her she's going to die in a week unless...

If you've seen Ring or The Ring, you might not want to see another version, but it's interesting to see an Asian remake. While it starts off much the same as Ring, the accent is far more on the sexual possibilities presented in the novel. Indeed, every early scene mentions sex. Though she's never met Dr Choi before, he starts asking personal questions. The teenagers who die in the car were about to 'arrive'. The ghost, here called Park Eun-soo, is portrayed as more alluring than frightening. Her flashbacks are about her sexuality, her history is swapped from being a drama student (in the novel) to working in a seedy nightclub - a marvellous, atmospheric scene that echoes Psycho with a twist... It's the only notably different scene in this version. An early hint of the sexual aspect of the film is in an art gallery at the start, where Sun-joo is interviewing a bisexual artist about her work. It's all much more 'liberated' about sex than the Japanese version.

While the movie starts well, with some solid scares, it turns more into a mystery than a horror, even missing an opportunity with the scary videotape itself. The images are more like memories, indistinct and fading into each other. This is more 'realistic' but harder to see. The lack of clear imagery makes subsequent discoveries less creepy. In Ring, it was always chilling to see something from The Tape appear in real life. Gone too is the progressive emergence of the figure from the well that creeped me out. The flashback to the press conference, another chance for a shock moment, is also curiously changed so that no deaths occur.

So less horror and more mystery. Fair enough. But even the thread of their investigation, which started off so carefully detailed and plotted, then skips several important discoveries until we arrive back at exactly the same ending as the others. Not quite sure of what their logic is or how the curse has spread.

The special effects are just as good, but the carefully set up chain of creepy realisations drain the key climactic scenes of their power. You might not even understand some of the logic towards the end, unless you've seen another version.

This is well-acted, though Dr Choi's introduction is rather too weird. While the cast are largely unfamiliar, famous for TV rather than film, you may recognise Bae Du-na (as Sadako/Park Eun-soo), the olympic archer in The Host (2006), or the girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) and action thriller Tube (2003). It's her face that graces The Ring Virus cover art in Korea (at the top).

Beautifully photographed, with some disorientating angles and fantastic island locations, it's well-directed by Kim Dong-bin. My main problem is with his script (like making the two leads no longer ex-husband and wife), the story structure in the middle, and the fewer scares. But it's an interesting early alternate take on the Sadako mythos, with some unique dramatisations of scenes from the novel. He also made Red Eye (2005), the South Korean ghost story set on a train, not the American thriller (also 2005) set on a plane.

The Ring Virus is available on DVD in the US and UK.

My overview of the many adaptions in
the Ring phenomenon is here.

A trailer for on YouTube...

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