Saturday, September 29, 2012

#141: Kairo aka Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

Like the only other Kiyoshi Kurosawa film I've seen (Tokyo Sonata), which started out as a low-key family drama before turning into a wildly unpredictable dark comedy, Kairo begins as one type of film before slowly and gradually transforming into something else entirely. A very effective horror film about haunted websites and ghosts slowly becomes an apocalyptic sci-fi meditation on loneliness and existential dread in Japanese society. The exciting thing about both of these Kurosawa films is that the changes in tone and genre are so natural. They aren't tricks that sabotage what came before. Kurosawa is a skilled visual stylist and an exciting and unusual storyteller, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of his stuff.
Kairo begins with a cryptic scene that is not understood until the film's closing scene before following two separate story arcs. In the first, a group of young friends who work for a greenhouse haven't seen a friend and coworker for a week and are getting worried. He was working on a computer disk for them but has dropped out of contact. One of the group goes to his apartment to find him there, alone, acting strangely. He directs her to the computer disk before committing suicide. The friends check out the disk, after a surprisingly short period of mourning, and see some strange things. In the other storyline, a college kid with very poor computer skills decides to finally check out this thing called "the Internet," and pops a disk into his laptop that will help him get started. The disk, however, shows bizarre images of young people alone in rooms, moving strangely, with text popping up on the screen asking if he would like to meet a ghost. He freaks out and befriends a pretty computer science major in an effort to try to understand the bizarre disk and its strange effect on his laptop. These story strands eventually converge in the film's final third.
The film's first third follows a familiar pattern of Japanese horror films from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s: vengeful ghosts inflicting harm on people, using technology to transport themselves to their victims (VHS tapes in Ringu, cell phones in One Missed Call, a computer virus in this film). Unlike Ringu, One Missed Call, Ju-On (this one leaves out the technology angle), and their many knock-offs and sequels, Kairo's hauntings are not happening because of a curse. Instead, these hauntings are occurring due to what Kurosawa sees as an isolated, lonely culture, a culture so isolated and lonely that this existential alienation continues after death. The afterlife is simply running out of space to put all these undead sadsacks, so they have to go somewhere else. Why not use the Internet and a computer virus to head back to Tokyo? There are some problems for the living population, however. If your computer gets the virus and you encounter one of these extremely creepy ghosts, you become a shell of a human yourself, shuffling depressed through your day until you commit suicide or fade into the wall or floor, leaving a black smudged outline of yourself where you once stood. Needless to say, this virus spreads like a virus and Tokyo soon becomes an apocalyptic ghost town. This world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
The film's first half contains some real jolts and suspense. The Japanese do a creepy, unsettling ghost better than any other country, and Kairo is a great piece of evidence to back up this claim. The weird shuffling contortions, the pace of the gait, the long black hair. I love this shit. The second half is more contemplative and distanced and uses dread more than shock and suspense. The characters are a lot less interesting than the unpredictable, multifaceted people in Tokyo Sonata, but Kurosawa's visual skills and ability to tell a compelling story without relying on standard cliches kept me riveted.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has directed film and television since 1975, but it wasn't until 1997's Cure that he received worldwide distribution. That film made him popular with horror fans, and his other horror films have been among his most successful, but he's also directed crime thrillers, dramas, comedies, and indescribable films like Tokyo Sonata, and he's currently working on a science fiction film and a historical epic. Despite some international successes, most of his films are unavailable in this country, which is a shame. Kairo/Pulse and a handful of others are available, however, and I recommend you give him a try.
Apparently, an American remake of this film starring Kristen Bell and co-written by Wes Craven was released in 2006. Anyone seen it? Is it garbage?   

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