Just over 20 years ago, Hideo Nakata’s Ring became an international phenomenon and kick started a J-horror boom that continued to define the nation’s cinematic output for the following decade. The J-horror boom, however, eventually imploded after a series of diminishing returns turned the figure of the long-haired ghost into something of a self parody. Even so, Sadako has continued to haunt Japanese cinema like the malevolent spirit we all know her to be and now she’s back with a brand new curse.
Adapted from the 2013 novel Tide by Ring author Koji Suzuki (though in actuality an almost entirely original story), “Sadako” (貞子) is set firmly in the present day and twenty years after the mysterious chain video curse took so many lives. Our heroine, Mayu (Elaiza Ikeda), is a clinical psychologist working in a regular hospital where she tries to help those with physical ailments maintain their mental health. New to the job, she is currently struggling with a doctor’s major dilemma in figuring out how to keep a personal distance from her patients who have a natural tendency to latch on to a caregiver even while knowing that the relationship must necessarily remain a professional one.
The trouble starts when a mysterious, mute young girl is brought into the hospital. Mayu is unable to get through to her and she doesn’t even seem to know her name but the mystery is partially solved when the police turn up with evidence that suggests the girl is the daughter of a woman who set fire to her apartment, killing herself and five others in a danchi blaze. Prompted by the detectives, the girl reveals that the woman was indeed her mother who referred to her as “Sadako” though the girl states that it is not her name. In any case, the police are none the wiser. Meanwhile, Mayu is also dealing with a personal problem as her feckless younger brother Kazuma (Hiroya Shimizu), who had given up his studies to become a YouTube star, has gone missing after filming himself exploring the “creepy” abandoned apartment building where Sadako was kept in confinement by her apparently “freaky” mother, a failed psychic.
The original Sadako curse might have been well and truly played out, but Sadako once again decides to get out of her well and shame mankind with a very particular mission of highlighting persistent child abuse and neglect which, sadly, continues to be a pressing social issue in contemporary Japan where several child abuse scandals have made headline news in recent months. This time she doesn’t really appreciate being caught on video which is where Kazuma gets himself into trouble, but is busying herself calling the souls of all abandoned children to a creepy cave which used to be a shrine for the souls of ascetic monks who died while undergoing spiritual training on the island.
Meanwhile, Mayu bonds with the little girl who seems to sense her own innate sense of loneliness as a woman who was herself “abandoned” as child. Raised in secret by her mother who was convinced she is the reincarnation of the legendary “Sadako” and feared her strange powers, the little Sadako remains somehow trapped between the human world and the supernatural, in need of rescue by a sympathetic, maternal figure.
Perhaps in keeping with the 20th anniversary celebratory nature of the project, Nakata sticks largely to late ‘90s aesthetics complete with a familiar J-horror score, muted colour scheme, dimmed lighting, and generally eerie atmosphere. He is not attempting to reinvent the wheel but only to turn it a few more times, even having one of his victims baldly recite the “original” Sadako legend for Mayu’s benefit before adding a few new details as she goes about her investigation of the creepy cave. Nevertheless, the archetypal long-haired ghost maintains her appeal as she evolves once again, revamped for a new generation’s anxieties and re-emerging from the well of despair with rage and vengeance on her mind. Filled with creepy dolls, scattered sutras, and a healthy amount of plot holes, Nakata’s return to the Ring franchise cannot recapture the magic of the original but does its best to ape its charms with yet another exploration of flawed motherhood retooled for more a more anxious age.
Singapore release trailer (English / Simplified Chinese subtitles)
Images: (C)2019 “Sadako” Film Partners