Review : Ringu / リング (1998)

Ringu, directed by Hideo Nakata, was released in 1998 and catapulted Japanese Horror (now know as J-Horror) on the international scene.

The film opens with two teenage girls discussing a videotape one of them saw. The legend says anyone who watches this tape will die seven days later. It just so happens that it has been  a week since the girl and three of her friends watched the cursed tape. The next day, all four teenagers are found dead, under mysterious circumstances. Reiko, a reporter whose niece is one of the victims, decides to investigate these strange deaths. During her research, she finds the tape and watches it. The phone rings and Reiko’s seven days begin. She must unravel the mystery of the cursed tape to save herself, helped in her quest by her ex-husband.

The opening sequence works perfectly at establishing the essence of Ringu. The premise of the film is brilliant in every way : a tape, one of the most common items found in the house,  is the object through which terror is unleashed. Ringu (as well as Pulse) established the link between technology and horror, a subject which is more than relevant in today’s society. Thankfully, Ringu is a product of the 1990’s ! I cannot imagine Ringu having the same impact if the VHS was replaced by a digital file (it sure didn’t work in Rings, in my opinion).

The film is very quiet and slow-paced. It takes its time to set up the characters and develop its story. The general atmosphere is unnerving throughout the entire film. The director made the smart choice of not showing much, making you paranoid and scrutinizing the screen. Ambiance and sound rather than jump scares are what make Ringu such a creepy experience. There is a constant sense of dread and the low lights and cold colors convey a sort of sadness.

The only flaw of Ringu is the character of Ryuji (the ex-husband) who knows too much about everything. He almost ruins the mystery by solving it with such ease. You are left a bit frustrated when he reveals everything. But what permanently ruined his character for me was his psychic abilities. I thought it was completely out-of-place and an absolutely unnecessary addition to the plot.

Ringu is a very important film in cinema history and it introduced a wider audience to Japanese horror films. With no gore or jump scares but a spooky vibe that you feel  even in slower parts, the film gets under your skin. I also recommend the remake which I have a new appreciation for since watching the original.

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Review : I Saw The Devil / 악마를 보았다 (2010)

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon and released in 2010, I Saw The Devil is an intense revenge story which doesn’t follow the conventional path of the genre.

On a freezing, snowy night, a young woman, daughter of a retired police chief and pregnant fiancée of elite special agent Soo-hyun, is brutally murdered by a psychopath. Obsessed with revenge, Soo-hyun decides to track down the murderer, even if doing so means becoming a monster himself. And when he finds Kyung-chul, turning him in to the authorities is the last thing on his mind.

What strikes you first with this film is the elaborate camera work. From the choice of angles to perfectly framed shots, there are numerous mesmerizing scenes which contrast with the brutality of what is happening on screen thus emphasizing the absurdity of the characters’ actions. The beauty of the scenes depicting gruesome murders is also a clever way of provoking repulsion and terror.

The violence is raw and realistic which renders the film more terrifying than any over-the-top gorefest. The sound of the weapons hitting the victims is especially unbearable. Kim Jee-Won is a master at showing horror in the most unsettling way imaginable.

The title of the film refers more to the main character than the villain (who is nothing more than a twisted, perverted, gross psychopath). His thirst for revenge leads him on a dark path, making the devil inside emerge. I Saw The Devil brilliantly shows the purposelessness of revenge as our main character leaves a trail of collateral damage and loses his moral compass as he avenges his lost love. Lee Byun-Hung’s performance is intense and very subtle as he has only a few lines but still conveys so much emotion and internal struggle.

However, I found one element of the film to be rather unnecessary as it doesn’t add anything to the plot. The killer already appears as a gruesome monster with no humanity so adding another sub-plot didn’t work in the favor of the story. Furthermore, the film is a bit too long, with a running time of 140+ minutes. It drags in the middle but the rhythm picks up again in the third act for the most intense 45 minutes of footage I have seen in a long time. This sequence had me glued to the screen, my body tensed and my mind 100% immersed in the film.

I Saw The Devil is not for the faint of heart. Full of tension and suspense, its extreme violence is never pointless and always serves the story. This film should be recommended to any horror enthusiast who wants an original revenge story with beautiful cinematography.

Review : Train To Busan / 부산행 (2016)

Train To Busan is a Korean horror film directed by Yeon Sang-Ho and released in the summer of 2016. It hit the world by surprise and its success reached far beyond Korean borders.

Seok-Woo is a fund manager in Seoul. Separated from his wife, he lives with his mother and daughter Soo-An. Seok-Woo is a workhaolic who doesn’t pay uch attention to his daughter. For her birthday, Soo-An asks to go see her mother in Busan. Seok-Woo has no other choice but to accompany her from Seoul to Busan. As they board the train, an infection spreads like wildfire turning the passengers into flesh-hungry zombies. They, along with a group of survivors, must fight for their lives, as Seok-Woo comes to realize what matters the most in life.

Train To Busan is a breath of fresh air in a genre that has become a low-budget farce. The attention given to crafting the excellent action scenes does not deprive the film of a fundamental aspect : character development. While a bit stereotypical, the main characters are worth caring about. Seok-Woo is entirely focused on his career and  emotionally neglects his daughter, believing that providing for her and buying her expensive gifts is enough. However, while an evidently flawed character, he is depicted in such a balanced way that he doesn’t come across as a bad father. He is just a confused parent who doesn’t understand what his child needs most (his attention, not his wealth). The other father of the film (a passenger travelling with his pregnant wife) is also a loveable character and the complete opposite of Seok-Woo thus creating interesting interactions between the two.

The performances are stellar, from the main cast to the extras. Gong Yoo carries the film and gives a touching performance. Soo-An Kim is also impressive, especially given her young age. She is never overracting as it is often the case with child actors. Her interations with Gong Yoo made them absolutely believable as father and daughter. The extras portraying the zombies don’t go unnoticed either. They are ferocious and their body contorsions increase their scary nature. They’re among the best zombies I have seen on screen in a long time.

The majority of the film takes place on the train (with a few scenes in train stations). This location could have presented limitations for the action sequences but Yeon Sang-Ho cleverly uses every inch of the train to deliver complex, intense and well-constructed action scenes. One of the most impressive scenes consists in Seok-Woo, Sang-Hwa and Yong-Guk (the young baseball player) making their way through zombie-infected train cars to reunite with their loved ones. The scene brilliantly balances exciting action and breath-holding thrills. All the action scenes are excellent, thrilling and intense and the third act really shines in its scope, delivering epic sequences.

The social commentary effectively enhances the message of the film but is slightly too manichaean. There is no grey area and the film portrays the rich and powerful as corrupt and only achieving a high level of success by crushing others. The best example is the hateful CEO (designed for one purpose only : being hated) who has no redeeming qualities, is selfish and evil and spends the film endangering others.

Our main character, however, is the one who goes on a moral journey. By the third act, he finally understands what matters most and watching him evolve throughout the film is very endearing.

Finally, I disagree with the critics who claimed some plot elements are purely tear-jerking tools and manipulative drama. On the contrary, I found those scenes not only well-balanced but also necessary to highlight the tragedy of what is happening.

From the opening sequence to the end credits, your eyes will be glued to the screen. Train To Busan modernized a saturated genre and might just be the best zombie film of the past ten years !