by Andrew Dowd
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So am I the only one who’s just a little burnt out on the Japanese horror movement? There’s no denying the appeal of these spooky imports from the East: for any horror fan who suffered through the 90s, a period dominated by mindless gore spectacles and glossy but uninspired thrillers, the Asian horror craze certainly felt like a breath of fresh air, at least initially. Here, finally, was a group of films that understood the value of atmosphere and mood, and that traded cheap, jump-out-of-your-seat thrills and elaborate violence for genuine suspense.
The trouble is that one too many entries in the J-Horror canon also confuse incoherency with mysteriousness. In their attempts to tap into some sort of universal fear of the inexplicable, they sacrifice all rationality. Simply put, the movies don’t make much sense. And praising them for their inscrutable narratives (which both critics and audiences do) is the very epitome of selling a flaw as a virtue.
Pulse, which was filmed four years ago but is just now being released in the States, certainly won’t win any awards for plotting or story structure. Like most J Horror offerings, it’s a moody ghost story, high on concept but low on logic. Like a jigsaw puzzle that reveals less of a picture as it is constructed, it actually becomes increasingly nonsensical over the course of its two-hour running time. Yet what the movie lacks in narrative grace it more or less makes up for in aesthetic elegance and thematic depth. Unlike most films of its kind, Pulse, as directed by the accomplished Kiyoshi Kurosawa (not to be confused with the great Akira), is interested in more than just scaring the pants of its audience.
The plot concerns a group of techno-geek college students who, in the aftermath of their friend’s suicide, stumble upon a mysterious Internet webcam called The Forbidden Room. The images within are those of lonely apparitions, who stare blankly out of their private, digital hell at those unfortunate enough to have accessed the site. To say anything more would be both unfair and pointless, for most of what occurs in Pulse defies explanation.
With its vision of a flickering monitor as a portent of doom, and of the supernatural manifesting itself through modern technology, Pulse resembles Hideo Nakata’s enormously popular Ringu series. Yet beyond a mood of mounting dread, the similarities stop there. In sharp contrast to Nakata’s rough-around-the-edges style, Kurosawas aesthetic is elegant and elaborate. He uses long, wide master shots to build tension, lingering on the most placid of images just long enough to make one uneasy about what may be lurking behind them. The film’s most shocking moments (including a truly harrowing death-by-plummet) are staged almost matter-of-factly, which makes them all the more disturbing. The soundtrack is equally impressive: it is defined by periods of long, unsettling silence disrupted by sudden pangs of jarring sonic chaos. A disquieting rhythm is thus established between periods of tense anticipation and the usual genre payoffs.
Kurosawa certainly doesn’t skimp on the scares; the herky-jerky movement of the film’s malevolent spirits is the stuff of vivid nightmares. That said, he seems more interested in the material for its metaphorical possibilities. Like the director’s two best films, Cure and Bright Future, Pulse is most obviously about modern alienation. The characters are living their lives through computers, trying to forge connections over the cold and vast landscape of the Internet. The deadly spirit that haunts their lives isn’t so much a supernatural entity as it is a virus, one that feeds on loneliness and isolation, and which is spread digitally. By the film’s hushed, devastating climax, the virus has become an epidemic, and Kurosawa stages doomsday not as a fiery Armageddon, but as a silent, collective sigh of resignation. If that sounds almost unbearably bleak, the film still manages to end on a note of cautious optimism. Compare it to the cynical, pass-the-burden and screw-thy-neighbor conclusion of Ringu, and Kurosawa comes out looking like a humanist.
As fascinating as the film’s thematic intentions are, they don’t completely outweigh the fact that Pulse is at least twenty minutes too long. And the less-than-stellar narrative would be more forgivable if the second act didn’t drag so much, But if it doesn’t exactly escape the inherit flaws of its genre, Pulse at least suggests that potential still exists in the J Horror formula.
Andrew Dowd is a writer and critic living in Chicago.
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