Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Grudge 2, The (2006)

Suzuki! Mitsubishi! Honda!

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Only Takashi Shimizu can tell us what you get when you repeat history 3 times.

Takashi Shimizu has been making the same horror film over the past few years. It all began with 2 short films, each lasting below 3 minutes; one with 2 schoolgirls scared out of their wits by a crawling, long-haired woman in white, the other with a naked boy in Kabuki paint mewling like a cat. As far as short films go, these are pretty arresting images that – if you’ve never seen them before – could whip up a storm of goose pimples in their creepy simplicity, even if the crawling woman is a tired meme from The Ring.

Combining the two visual elements together (but not before turning the Sadako clone into the limping apparition with a broken neck) gives you the backbone of Shimizu’s horror film, Ju-on, a low budget direct-to-video release from 2000. Aside from introducing the backstory of a murder-suicide case involving a jealous husband, his wife, their son, and his cat, the movie was a study of how many different ways the director could make the limping woman and her catboy materialise on the screen. That’s fine for a low-budget film. The sequel Ju-on 2, also a direct-to-video release in the same year, rehashed the first movie and even used the same footage, with a few additional scenes and extra characters thrown in. That’s very sloppy film making, but apparently you need to repeat yourself sometimes in order to get heard – and Takashi Shimizu’s 2 videos eventually gained a huge cult following and enough profit for the director to film the theatrical versions of the same 2 films in 2003, which were scene-for-scene reproductions (with better sets and production values) of the original videos. And you might be right in thinking there has to be something wrong with people who claim to be scared out of their knickers when they watch a remake of a remake.

And you might be right in thinking that it must be sheer madness to remake the Ju-on franchise for a third time, which is what Takashi Shimizu’s The Grudge amounted to. Granted that the movie was a well-produced, faithful reproduction of the original, there wasn’t any real justification for the remake, and we begin to suspect that the director is simply a one-trick pony trying to distract audiences from his creative bankruptcy. The good news is Shimizu finally injects a silver of something new in the plot of the second Grudge film. The bad news is Shimizu’s innovation is buried under the rehash of the original Ju-on 2 plot, a virtual carbon copy down to its non-linear telling of 3 short stories (only this time, with a Tokyo populated by Anglo actors and one English-speaking Edison Chen instead of Japanese).

The worse news (you thought that was all there is?!) is the scare factor of The Grudge has steadily been worn down through media exposure, overhype, and sheer repetition over the past 6 years. The catboy figure has been parodied in more than one Scary Movie, and the limping, long-haired woman with the bullfrog croak regularly appears (together with Sadako) as a cute mascot character in the popular Japanese image forum called 2chan. At this point in time, no amount of mewling catboys can put a chill to our hearts, no matter how loud the sound effect. Similarly, I’d tell Kayako if she materialised in front of me now, that she won’t even qualify to be an office lady at the Ministry of Silly Walks.

But enough of what I think. The Grudge 2 is almost a direct re-telling of the tangled plot of Ju-on 2, which has a reputation even among Japanese fans as being inferior to the first instalment. An American family in Chicago find themselves re-enacting the events that led to the birth of Kayako’s ghost. A group of schoolgirls visit the haunted house and are hounded to death, one by one, by Kayako and her son. Because Sarah Michelle Gellar survived in The Grudge, her sister now has to rush to Tokyo to visit her and to complete the task of dispatching the ghost once and for all, since Ms Gellar exercised her “early exit from the story clause” for the sequel. Who can blame her? As with the original Ju-on 2, Takashi Shimizu weaves the 3 tales clumsily with each other, cutting from one plot to another by the appearance of the ghosts.

If you thought a non-linear story would free a director from a consistent plot, you haven’t considered that Shimizu and his American collaborator appear incapable of stringing in a credible plot. Incredibly awkward twists are subjected onto the characters, just to lay the foundation for a scare or two. Take for example how Edison Chen, who plays an internet savvy techie, uses an old-fashioned camera that requires him to develop his photos in a darkroom. As far as I know, most major camera companies have stopped selling analogue cameras in East Asia (outside China), Europe, and the United States. But he uses an old camera because the director needs to have Kayako’s head emerge from a tray of chemicals.

If you’re thinking, “well, whatever! Whoever said a horror movie had to make sense?”, you obviously haven’t factored in the incontrovertible fact that Takashi Shimizu has run out of ways to scare people. The same old ghosts appear in the same old corners of the screen. The innovations the director puts in are laughable: when the 2 schoolgirls, previously missing, reappear as ghosts next to their unfortunate friend, I almost died of laughter. Because the schoolgirls looked so fake in their makeup and were doing the most pathetic and hilarious “WOOOOOAAAH WOOOOOAAAH” moaning noises that only secondary school girls make in their camps when they want to scare some people. I expected them to shout “Surprise! It’s a joke, you silly girl”.

And what about the ballyhooed innovation that Shimizu tack on in his attempt to revitalise his franchise? It has something to do with the history of Kayako. I won’t spoil the story for you, but I’ll tell you that in a movie Japan where even nurses and policemen in metropolitan Tokyo can’t speak simple English (relying only on Edison Chen to translate), an old shaman in a village that requires 2 connecting buses from a train station speaks perfect English and even quotes from Pepys. She is the one who will explain everything you need to know, as well as send you in paroxysms of laughter when you realise that the innovative backstory does little to make the plot of the movie more coherent or move the franchise forward.

The Grudge 2 is mostly a remake of Ju-on 2, a miserable sequel to the first Ju-on. Isn’t it time Takashi Shimizu either make new movies, or admit that he has run out of ideas after milking audiences twice over from a very flimsy, almost non-existent premise that has always played second fiddle to a pair of visual motifs that have outstayed their welcome.

First published at incinemas on 2 November 2006

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