Friday, November 27, 2015

Classic Movie Review Duo: Cure (1997) & Pulse (2001)

Cure (1997)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa based on his novel.
Starring: Kôji Yakusho (Kenichi Takabe), Masato Hagiwara (Kunio Mamiya), Tsuyoshi Ujiki (Makoto Sakuma), Anna Nakagawa (Fumie Takabe), Yoriko Dôguchi (Dr. Akiko Miyajima), Yukijirô Hotaru (Ichiro Kuwano), Denden (Oida), Ren Ôsugi (Fujiwara).

Pulse (2001)
Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Starring: Haruhiko Katô (Ryosuke Kawashima), Kumiko Asô (Michi Kudo), Koyuki (Harue Karasawa), Kurume Arisaka (Junko Sasano), Masatoshi Matsuo (Toshio Yabe), Shinji Takeda (Yoshizaki), Kenji Mizuhashi (Taguchi), Teruo Ono (Doroningen), Masayuki Shionoya (Ghost).

The late 1990s and early 2000s were a boom time for Japanese Horror (creatively referred to as J-Horror) – with films like Ringu and Ju-On finding international attention, and eventual American remakes in The Ring and The Grudge. Most of these movies were ghost stories of one kind or another – with curses, and death, etc. spreading from one person to another. The genre pretty much ran its course – in both Japan and America – by the mid-2000s, although the roots of Japanese horror ghost stories date back hundreds of years, and never really goes away. Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a director who is somewhat related to the genre – but also somewhat removed. He has done some films that are straight ahead dramas – like Bright Future (2003) and Tokyo Sonata (2008), and has ventured into sci-fi and action filmmaking as well. He perhaps remains best known though for his horror movies – in particular Cure (1997), which isn’t a really in the tradition of J-horror (no ghosts), and Pulse (2001), which certainly is. Kurosawa has been on my radar for years – I particularly loved Tokyo Sonata – but somehow, I never went back and saw his two early horror films to recently.

Kurosawa’s 1997 film, Cure, predates the J-horror boom slightly (for the record, searching for J-horror on They Shoot Zombies Don’t They? Top 1000 horror film list has the first being Hideo Nakata’s Ringu from 1998, the last being 2005’s Retribution by Takahsi Shimzu from 2005 – and although Cure is on the list, it’s not listed as J-horror. Pulse however is), and is actually much more in line with the serial killers films of the era (which, in America, probably started with The Silence of the Lambs in 1991, and includes films like Seven, Copycat, etc.). In the film, a police detective, Kenichi Takabe (Koji Yakusho), investigating a series of brutal murders – all of which are connected, even though they are each committed by someone different. What connects them is a giant X on the victims who usually have their throats cut, and the fact that none of them remember committing the crime. Takabe teams up with a psychologist, Sakuma (Tsuyowshi Ujiki), who helps to give him insight into what is happening. Eventually, they figure out what the audience has known from the beginning – he mastermind is a young man named Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), who uses hypnosis to control the murderers. Mamiya appears to have no short term memory – constantly asking what is happening, what day it is, where he is, and frustrating Takabe – while also possessing some surprising knowledge about him – especially about his mentally ill wife.

Cure is neatly divided into two halves – the police procedural of the first, giving way to something darker in the second. Plotting has never really been Kurosawa’s strong point – and it isn’t here either. The movie certainly requires one to make some big leaps in logic, and buy some pretty big twists and turns in order to make the story work – including far too much about the history of mesmerizing things in Japan. What Kurosawa does excel at is building atmosphere, and terrifying set pieces – something Cure has in abundance. It may not need all the time it takes (nearly 2 hours) to tell its rather slight story – but there is more than enough to make the film worthwhile, including a perplexing climax, which leaves audiences reeling.

For me, the better film is Pulse from 2001 – perhaps simply because there is nowhere near as much plot as in Cure,
which as mentioned, isn’t Kurosawa’s strong suit anyway. The film is, in some ways, a techno-phobic horror film. Interestingly however, the film never really blames technology for humanity’s downfall as much as seeing it as tool that we use to destroy ourselves. The film tells two parallel storylines – both centering on a character who is trying to figure out why everyone around them is killing themselves – sometimes in bizarre ways. They are draw to the internet – websites that load onto their screen automatically, and promise a connection to the dead. After this, there are overly complicated rules about the dead, and what precisely they are trying to do – and how – and a lot of talk about ash, and literal red tape. Yes, like Cure, Pulse is somewhat confusingly plotted – although this one at least has the excuse of being about ghosts who use the internet, so perhaps stretching credibility wasn’t really high on Kurosawa’s list of concerns.

What Pulse does brilliantly however is create atmosphere. There are a lot of scenes of creepy websites – perhaps a few too many, since they are all kind of similar, yet they are all so effectively creepy it hardly matters. Pulse is a terrifying movie because of all that atmosphere – because of those creepy ghosts coming to get you. I’m on record as saying ghost movies don’t often scare me – but this one did, in part, I think because it so brilliantly brings the ghosts into the real world – and also because the real villains in the film aren’t ghosts at all, but us.

Both Cure and Pulse have their flaws – both could stand to lose 20-30 minutes, which would result in tighter, less repetitive movies with less downtime in them. They could have also used someone else at the screenplay stage just to tighten up the plot a little bit – just to ensure it actually makes sense (I’m not sure it really does in either film). What both films do accomplish – brilliantly in the case of Pulse, is to be deeply unsettling, and downright scary. Pulse, in particular, does this – mainly by following its premise to its logical conclusion. Pulse has aged a little bit in the past 14 years – the first sound we hear in the movie is a dial-up modem, which I think we can all agree is scarier than a circle saying “Buffering” for minutes on end – but it’s still very much relevant and terrifying. Kurosawa seems to want to move away from horror films – so be it. But while he was making them, he made at least two that won’t leave you alone.

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