Ringu 0: Sadako’s Birthday

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Norio Tsuruta’s 2000 prequel to Hideo Nakata’s 1998 J-Horror classic takes on the daunting task of telling the story of Sadako Yamamura and the events leading to her murder at the hands of her father. What one sees in Ringu 0, however, is less a chapter in the Hideo Nakata-Koji Suzuki narrative and more of an homage to a favorite movie franchise. There are scenes of compelling terror in Tsuruta’s portrayal of Sadako’s ineluctably tragic life, which are unfortunately off-set by an array of uninspired plot developments. Ultimately, I felt like I was watching a movie based on a fan-created script, which relied more on the enthusiasm for favorite elements of the Ringu tradition, if you will, than on the original vision of the 1998 film, which succeeded the most at capturing the spirit of Suzuki’s psychological ghost thriller.

So, what went wrong with Ringu 0? In the 1998 film, directed by Nakata, although Hiroshi Takashi’s script strayed from the book, enough of Suzuki’s brilliant storytelling was retained, complete with superb performances and skilled editing, resulting in a horror masterpiece. In turn, in Nakata’s 1998 sequel, Ringu 2, Takashi’s script was a complete departure from the book. Nevertheless, the film still exhibited an aura of believably supernatural characters and events, demonstrating the richness of the Ringu universe. Unfortunately, in the case of the 2000 prequel, even though Takashi is once again the screenwriter, it seems that Nakata’s departure as director consequently led to a film that, regardless of remembering its narrative origins, lost its way at uncovering the truth behind Sadako’s legend.

More to the point, “Sadako Yamamura” (Yukie Nakama) is trying to escape her past by joining a theater company that is staging a production of “The Mask,” a reinterpretation of the 1960 French film, Eyes Without a Face. When Sadako is chosen for the lead, she immediately incurs the resentment of the other actors, in particular those who felt that the director, “Yusaku Shigemori” (Takeshi Wakamatsu), had chosen her more for her beauty than for her talent. When another actor suddenly dies, “Aiko Hazuki” (Kaoru Okunuki), Sadako is blamed for the tragedy. Also, because a journalist, “Akiko Miyaji” (Yoshiko Tanaka), is doing a story about Sadako’s now infamous psychic abilities, it isn’t long before Sadako’s past begins to catch up with her, instigating what, for lack of a better term, one may call a witch hunt. As Sadako’s fellow actors turn into a mob, the psychic outcast eventually winds up at the country home where her “father,” “Dr Heihachiro Ikuma” (Daisuke Ban) is awaiting her. It is here where she meets her destiny, as foretold in the original book and movie.

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The most memorable parts of Tsuruta’s film are those moments when Nakata’s filmic vision is recaptured in scenes portraying Sadako as a little girl, her mother, “Shizuko” (Masako), peering into the now iconic mirror, brushing her hair, on the brink of madness. Equally effective are the scenes in which Sadako wanders like a hungry ghost, her hair mangled from years of being submerged at the bottom of that terrifying well. On the other hand, the least satisfying parts of Ringu 0 are in the theater, which come across as a bit contrived. Perhaps Tsuruta thought that the theater company scenes ought to evoke the aura of an amateur community theater, but alas his direction went too far in making his movie seem more amateurish than necessary. There’s even a climatic scene when “The Mask” is being performed on opening night that is clearly inspired by—some would say rips off—the high school gymnasium scene in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, Carrie.

For all its flaws, Ringu 0 is an earnest attempt at revealing the story behind Sadako’s unforgettable murder. For those who have been haunted by Sadako ever since she clawed her way out of that lonely well and into our living rooms through a television screen, this was a story that many of us wanted to know. And the film might have been more satisfying, if the director and screenwriter had revisited the Suzuki narratives and realized that a large part of Sadako’s power as both a spirit and a character lies in the mystery that she embodies as an abused and forgotten child, who was made to suffer and live in the shadows of society simply because she was born different.

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