Friday, May 20, 2011

The Ring (2002), Ring (1998)

Now, almost a decade removed, it is fairly certain that The Ring (2002) stands at the pinnacle in the West of a brief cinematic movement, which the West dubbed as, J-Horror. Gore Verbinski's film, starring Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson, would, to most Western viewers, eclipse the influential film that it remade: Ring (1998), directed by Hideo Nakata and starring Nanako Matsushima and Hiroyuki Sanada. Both films share an exceedingly yet effectively simple premise: a VHS cassette, once viewed, causes its viewer to die in seven days. Watts and Matsushima play investigative journalists who witness the VHS cassette and are forced to investigate the circumstances surrounding its creation. Why? It is the only way to find a solution, they believe, to stave off the impending death at the end of seven days. To compound matters, the only clues to begin the investigation are the images from the cassette, which, at first blush, appear nonsensical and incoherent. Watts and Matsushima eventually elicit the help of their exes, played by Henderson and Sanada, respectively, who, in turn, also witness the tape and become entangled in the mystery. I watched both films recently several times and find neither wholly satisfying. They are a lot more interesting to watch in close proximity to each other, because each polarizes the differences of the other. The differences between each reveal the other's uniqueness, where the artistry within each resides.For two films with nearly an identical plotline, the discrepancy between the two films' run times is notable: The Ring runs closer to two hours in length while Ring runs closer to ninety minutes. The discrepancy results from the rendition of the investigation. From a script from Ehren Kruger, Verbinski's film presents a much more traditional investigative narrative. The images from the VHS cassette within The Ring are much more accessible to both Watts's and Henderson's characters. Each is capable of dissecting an image and creating a lead out of it to further the investigation. Watts's Rachel can pinpoint a location of interest from an image whereupon she can learn the identity of a person of interest, etc. The video cassette in The Ring is really a puzzle and the subsequent film plays out like a mystery. Watt's Rachel is more than quite capable of making logical associations and identifying relevant clues. Assuming, also, that the seven-day time limit is also motivating her, she is truly diligent. A first viewing of The Ring is compelling, and Kruger and Verbinski deserve praise for their well-structured, meticulous story: it's an engrossing mystery. During subsequent viewings, however, the story reveals itself as tired: lots of characters populate this mystery, and the actors giving the performances range the spectrum: Brian Cox is a fine actor and shines. Most of the other actors, save the leads, range from competent and effective to holy-shit bad. For those in the latter of this spectrum, to their credit, their dialogue is often clichéd and comes off as grating.

To be fair, I must reveal after a couple of viewings, I stopped paying attention to the myriad characters, their dialogue, and the story; and I still found The Ring compelling. Gore Verbinski is, along with Ronny Yu, one of the most underrated commercial film makers who is innovative and creative visually. (I believe that Freddy vs. Jason (2003) is an amazing film on a visual level: daring, audacious, and intoxicating.) The lengthier script from Kruger allows for Verbinski to paint a picture of a dead America. A green hue clouds the entire film as a background color (and evokes the associated negative feelings, like pain and sickness.) The Ring is littered with imagery of old technology, old architecture, and other knick-knacks, like toys, of another era. All of this imagery seems organic within the film, whether it's images from the VHS cassette, events of the past in flashback, or the present world of Rachel and Henderson's Noah. Words like "ghost" or "curse" rarely, if ever, come from the lips of characters. I don't know how to adequately explain it, but a VHS tape that kills people in seven days seems quite appropriate for this world. In The Ring's best visual sequence, Rachel is riding upon a ferry from the mainland to an island (to investigate a clue.) The following scene initially seems nonsensical, although a shot of a newspaper clipping before the sequence and one line from actor Brian Cox both tie this sequence into the narrative. Rachel walks towards the cars and sees a horse carrier, hitched to a vehicle. She chooses to touch the horse within, and it becomes agitated. She attempts to touch it a second time, and the horse becomes animated. With a third and final attempt to touch the horse in an effort to now soothe it, the horse breaks free on the ferry and races between the cars. Rachel backs up to the ledge of the ferry and the horse darts towards her. She ducks, and the horse attempts to hurdle over the ferry's ledge. It violently knocks its legs mid-jump and tumbles into the water. Rachel looks over the ledge, and from her p.o.v., the horse is shown drowning amongst the white-capped waves. It's a horrible image but a beautiful composition, like a Salvador Dalí painting.

At seemingly the opposite end of the spectrum, Nakata's Ring is a humble and quiet production. If The Ring is a superior mystery to Ring, then Ring is superior to The Ring in horror. Both films have their main characters acknowledge the fact that despite an investigation into the creation of the VHS cassette, learning who created it or why it was created does not necessarily mean that anyone can stop the impending death after seven days. This sense isn't felt in The Ring. In addition to its longer run time, The Ring shows Rachel and Noah interact with so many people and go to so many places and are able to complete so much research. You'd think they had a month to work on it. Matsushima's Reiko and Sanada's Ryuji appear a desperate couple straight from the start. Aiding this sense of dread is an absence of exposition and the inclusion of sparse dialogue. Nakata only uses dialogue seemingly to advance his plot. Perhaps this technique, at times, makes Ring seem cold. Perhaps not. Take for example this composition from Nakata and compare it with Verbinski's reproduction:Nakata's composition is simple and is pure visual storytelling. Notice the symmetry between the two males, each holding an umbrella, with the only difference being their height. It's a peaceful meeting but a confrontational one. No words are spoken and none are necessary--this entire relationship is defined by this frame. It's a powerful sequence, and it's obvious why Verbinski wanted to reproduce it for his film. In The Ring, emotion comes from the characters and the actors' performances and the dialogue. Within Ring, emotion comes from the composition. How close or how far apart Reiko and Ryuji are from each other in the frame reveals their feelings. Undeniably, these characters grow closer towards the end of Ring, and it's just as effective as Verbinski's rendition. Static shots and natural lighting dominate Ring, and ghosts and curses are real within this world. It's the opposite effect of Verbinski's world: the idea of day-to-day living, loudly disrupted by an idea, a VHS cassette that kills after seven days, which becomes a frightening reality. How would you take care of your child? This is what Reiko has to face. Sanada's Ryuji dispenses with any regret over his former relationship to Reiko, and whole-heartedly attempts to help her. The ending in Ring is a lot more powerful than in The Ring, because it's more tragic. Also, Ring shows its viewer how short seven days truly are. I first fell in love with Naomi Watts in John Duigan's wonderful Flirting (1991). (I also fell in love with Thandie Newton and Nicole Kidman from the same film. This trio was a little too much for fifteen-year-old me.) With roles in Mulholland Dr. (2001), 21 Grams (2003), and Eastern Promises (2007), for example, Watts has become one of the finest English-language actresses currently working. Her talent is immediately visible during her first sequence in The Ring, and even when bad dialogue is served to her, she still shines in her performance. I anticipate, despite what I've written today, that The Ring will be memorable far into the future, because of her performance. As for Ring, it has certainly earned its memory with film buffs, as it not only kicked off a brief film movement but also became influential for that movement. Ring is not Hideo Nakata's best film, as Chaos (2001) currently holds that title. Ring is also not the best film to come out of this period of Asian cinema, as Kairo (2001), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, holds that title. Both The Ring and Ring aren't perfect, but they are perfect for each other: The Ring shows how remakes should be done (with some creativity), and Ring shows a willingness to be creative, innovative, and risk-taking, despite the result.