This film (titled KAIRO in its native Japan) was one of many Asian horror films to follow in the wake of the seminal RINGU (1998), but it was also one of the first to signal that perhaps the wave was cresting and beginning to recede. It features most of the expected elements, many of them orchestrated quite nicely, but it is also slowly paced and maddeningly vague in terms of plot and theme.
The story is about…well, it’s not quite clear what the story is about, at least initially. For the first half, the film plays out like a series of almost random scenes, with little continuity: A computer geek hangs himself for no apparent reason, and his friends fret about what could have caused his inexplicable decision; then they get freaked out when a computer disk he was working on contains an image of his room, with the dead man vaguely seen standing in the shadows (it never seems to occur to anyone that this might just be a picture he took while alive and saved on the disk).
The dialogue scenes move along at an excruciating pace, and the film seems to be going nowhere fast; fortunately, the tedium is occasionally interrupted by the intrusion of some kind of supernatural manifestation. The scares scenes are easily worth the price of admission — unnerving and uncanny in the best tradition of Japanese ghost stories, but without the “long-black-hair-of-death” cliches we’ve come to expect (there is no Sadako/Kayako clone crawling around).
The early portions of the film feel almost like an excuse to string together some great ghost scenes (for example, a student tries to catch up with a lurking figure in the school library, who mysteriously eludes pursuit), and you may find yourself appreciating the brilliance of Takashi Shimizu’s strategy in the JU-ON series, which abandoned traditional plot structure entirely and smoothly tied together a string of episodes that kept the fear flowing without stopping for pointless dialogue and exposition.
As PULSE progresses, several interesting ideas are suggested, the best of which is that the realm of souls is finite, and once it’s filled the dead will begin to impinge upon our world with increasing frequency. Apparently, there is not room enough on Earth for both the dead and the living, so they want us out but they don’t want us dead (that would just make more ghosts), so people are mysteriously disappearing to…where? Some undisclosed limbo perhaps?
Sadly, few of these ideas connect with each other, and none of them are really developed dramatically; they’re just tossed in as a way of offering some kind of justification for what’s happening. For instance, several of the victims seem to have barricaded themselves behind doors sealed with red masking tape. Why red? And what were they hoping to accomplish? And why is the tape on the outside of the doors if they had locked themselves inside? This is one of those bizarre details that seems to have been included because it offers an enigmatic and tantalizing visual clue, but writer-director Kiyoshi Kurosawa never bothers fitting the piece into the overall puzzle.
Even worse, his script never explains the discrepancy between the numerous disappearances and the suicides (there is more than one). If ghosts are not killing people but making them “disappear,” why are some people killing themselves? As a way to avoid being trapped in limbo? Or are they joining the other side? And why does one of the suicides leave the same gooey residue behind, like the other people who have disappeared — isn’t the point of killing oneself to avoid being trapped in an eternal limbo?
In its second half, the film finally settles into a groove and develops something that almost feels like a plot. It also moves beyond being just a simple ghost story and takes on an impressive apocalyptic feel as the normal human world collapses under the weight of the supernatural intrusion from beyond the grave. It’s a nice approach the gives PULSE some distinction, separating it from RING and JU-ON. (One should note that DARKNESS, which arrived on U.S. shores the year before PULSE’s American release, also tried to play out and end-of-world scenario in a horror story, but could not pull off the idea with any conviction.)
Thematically, Kurosawa seems to be using the supernatural phenomenon as a metaphor for the alienation of modern life, showcasing characters already trapped in their own personal limbos who find themselves sucked into a literal limbo when they disappear from the face of the Earth. It’s a nice idea, but the presentation is contrived: this is a film in which none of the characters has anything remotely resembling a real-life relationship — not a brother or sister nor a father or mother, not a wife or a girlfriend, not even a close acquaintance. It seems to be a world of orphans, who have somehow managed to avoid making any serious, lasting attachments, despite the fact that they live, work and interact in a variety of situations that bring them into contact with potential friends and lovers. In effect, the film begins where it should end, with this situation presented as a given, instead of showing how the intrusion of the dead into the world of the living brought about this emotional degradation of normal life.
In the end, PULSE is a frustrating film that suggests, without quite convincing, that its hints and ideas might add up to something if you, the viewer, are just smart and persistent enough to put the puzzle pieces together. Still, whatever its flaws, this is the kind of movie that makes the hair rise on your skin. The vagueness of the storytelling may be frustrating, but it is not enough to completely undermine the effectiveness of the visual horror.
PULSE is available in the U.S. from Magnolia Pictures. Although the bonus features are minimal, the film’s treatment on disc is at least somewhat better than that afforded to the seminal Japanese horror hit RING (which received only a bare-bones DVD treatment stateside).
The disc presents the film in a 1.78 widescreen aspect ratio, with a Japanese-language soundtrack in Dolby 2.0 stereo. There are options for English and Spanish subtitles. Both picture and sound quality are fine. The intentionally drab photography (representing a world with life and joy sucked out of it) is excellently rendered, and the shadowy scare scenes are dark enough to make them difficult to see without being completely obscure. The audio track does a good job of conveying the ominous sound effects (e.g., the electronic buzz of an Internet connection), and the excellent music score (which often uses wordless female vocals to eerie effect) retains its hypnotic creepiness with crystal clarity.
The film’s moody horror actually works reasonably well on the small screen, making the DVD a good way to experience PULSE for a second time. Whatever frustration may have arisen during an initial viewing because of the story’s vague plotting, the film is worth seeing again. This is especially true if you stop trying to rationalize the flm’s implications. In the end, the pieces of the puzzle do not fit together smoothly, but that seems to be the intent. This is a movie about a strange, inexplicable phenomenon spreading. Characters offer up exposition that don’t quite answer all the questions, but who’s to say that they even supposed to be correct? Perhaps these are just desperate attempts by doomed people to grasp onto some kind of explanation, tailored by their own world view. Whatever the case, as vague and frustrating as the narrative can be, it does work up a considerable sense of impending doom, on an Apocalyptic scale, that separates it from other Japanese ghost stories.
The extras consist of an American trailer and some behind-the-scenes footage. The U.S. trailer avoids detailing the plot in favor of misleadingly presenting the film as if it were the genesis of Japanese horror. Intertitles reading “Before THE RING” and “Before THE GRUDGE” are technically true: PULSE did come out before those American remakes — but not before the Japanese films that inspired them.
The other bonus chapter, entitled “The Making of PULSE,” begins with three Japanese trailers for the film: the first does a better job than the American trailer of conveying the premise of the film; the second two are short teasers.
After that, we are treated to over a half-hour of behind-the-scenes footage, which mostly looks like B-roll stuff that has been loosely assembled; without narration or intertitles to offer explanation or context, much of it is a trifle dull. The most interesting bit is the sequence showing the live-action filming of the movie’s most memorable shot, when one of the lead characters looks up to see a doomed airplane diving overhead and crashing into a building in the background.
Threaded throughout this footage are brief interview clips with writer-director Kioshi Kurosawa. Mostly he talks in general terms about directing, covering topics such as his use of locations and his attempt to convey a sense of off-screen space (he likes the idea that the world extends beyond the borders of the film frame).
Frustratingly, he never specifically discusses the plot or themes of PULSE, nor does he reveal how he achieved the film’s remarkable supernatural effects. Fortunately, at the very end, he does briefly touch on the topic of ghosts and his approach to them, which does shed a little light on what distinguishes PULSE from its J-Horror brethren. It’s enough to make you feel you haven’t wasted your time wading through this feature to the end, but it’s easy to imagine that the best bits could have been edited down to a quick ten minutes or so.
One major problem with this DVD (which happens all too often) is that it automatically runs a series of trailers (from other Magnolia Home Entertainment releases) when you slide the disc into your player. Infuriatingly, the disc will not respond to the Menu or Chapter Search buttons while these coming attractions are playing. Fortunately, there is a way to work around this problem: hit the Stop button; then press the Chapter Search button twice. This will take you to the “Making of PULSE” bonus chapter, from which you can jump to the main menu without further waiting.
PULSE (a.k.a. “Kairo,” 2001). Written & Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Cast: Haruhiko Kato, Kumiko Aso, Koyuki, Kurume Arisaka, Masatoshi Matsuo, Shinji Takeda.