In honor of Halloween, I’ve spent the days leading up to All Hallow’s Eve pitting off foreign horror movies against their American remakes. On this, All Hallow’s Eve’s Eve, we’ll take a look at an extreme case of best versus worst:
Kairo (Pulse) versus Pulse
Warning. Spoilers! I’m typically assuming you’ve seen the American version of the movie, so hopefully I’m not spoiling much.
The original story. Friends Michi, Juno, and Yabe decide to check on Taguchi, who has been absent from work working on a computer disk. When Michi visits him at his apartment, he is apologizes for being distracted, and promptly hangs himself. When Yabe later receives a phone call from Taguchi saying “Help me,” he visits his apartment, only to find a black stain where Taguchi hanged himself. Shaken, he leaves but notices a building sealed off with bright red duct tape; when he enters he encounters a ghostly woman. Yabe then withdraws from his friends, and when Michi goes to check on him, finds only a black stain left. Michi and Junko realize that more and more people are disappearing and more and more red-tape-sealed doors are appearing. When Juno enters one, she is attacked by a ghostly woman; she is rescued by Michi, but grows ever more despondent until she simply fades away into a black stain.
Simultaneously and elsewhere in Tokyo, college student Ryosuke signs up for internet service, but finds his computer dialing up to the internet repeatedly on its own to a webpage that shows video clips of lonely, depressed, and suicidal people before prompting “Do you want to meet a ghost.” He seeks help from CS majors Harue and Yoshizaki, who’ve noticed apparitions at the school and suggest the dead are spilling into the land of the living. Ryosuke is incredulous, but when he starts encountering them, he decides to leave town with Harue, who disappears after trying to meet a ghost.
Eventually Michi and Ryosuke meet up, apparently the lone human survivors of Tokyo, which has almost overnight gone empty. They decide to look for Harue, only to find her moments before she commits suicide. Ryosuke meets the ghost she summoned, who tells him that Death is eternal loneliness. Ryosuke begins to grow despondent too, so Michi and he escape Tokyo in a small boat to be picked up a day later by a freighter carrying a small collection of survivors. Finally safe, Ryosuke fades away as well, leaving Michi and her few new companions alone in the vast Pacific ocean.
The two movies. Kairo, roughly translated as Pulse but more correctly translated as Circuit, was released in 2001 by modern Japanese film legend Kiyoshi Kirosawa, and is one of my favorite movies of all time. Superficially it is a horror movie, but under its ghostly veneer you find a soulful rumination on loneliness and isolation in a modern world. In an age in which we can connect with friends friends instantly by computers and cellphones, Kairo suggests that we are paradoxically lonelier than ever, having removed the substance of contact for the convenience of chat. In the world of Kairo, ghosts are not malevolent monsters out for revenge, but are simply examples of this isolation taken to the extreme: all they know is loneliness, and all they crave is contact. If you can imagine taking all your heartache and despair and rendering it onscreen, you have a sense of ghost world of Kairo. The movie is cerebral and unsettling, so say the least.
That being said, of course, it’s also scary as hell. Like the best examples of Asian horror we’ve already talked about, Kairo is less about making monsters than mood; less about corpses than creepiness. In a word, atmosphere. The Tokyo of Kairo is utterly ordinary, but as the movie progresses its subtle but apparent lack of populace becomes more and more unsettling. Subtlety is key in Kairo: everything is subdued and skewed, but only just slightly. Scenes of Tokyo that appear ordinary on a first viewing are, on subsequent viewings, littered with red-taped doors (the so-called forbidden rooms that people construct to bring ghosts into the world). Or a scene that on a first viewing involves Ryosuke trying to capture a black shade in an ordinary, brightly lit college library bustling with students reveals, on a second viewing, that the library is also (and horrifyingly) teeming with shades. Kairo produces an atmosphere that is not only pervasively unsettling, but actually becomes more disconcerting after subsequent viewings.
Kairo breaks from horror conventions in any number of ways. Noticeably for Americans, the movie lacks a single BOO! moment: there are no monsters that jump out at you, no reflections of the creature in the background accompanied by a musical sting, no blood or guts or gore of any kind. In fact, one of Kairo‘s scariest weapons in its arsenal is quite literally nothing: silence. Some sequences of the movie (particularly those from a ghostly point of view) have all the sound purged (except possibly for a whispered “Help me”), but this silence is absolutely deafening, if you can imagine such a thing.
For fans of Asian horror, Kairo even breaks with their usual ghost tradition: you will not find a creaking, shambling Sadako/Kyoko-style onryo anywhere in it. Each of Kairo‘s ghostly encounters is quiet and subdued and unfolds slowly and in plain sight, and that, if anything, is even more horrifying. I still find myself trying to crawl backwards into my couch each time I watch scene in with Yabe and the ghost woman, and I still get a case of chills and creeping horror whenever I watch Ryosuke’s encounter. There is also no “curse” to be undone or ghastly end to be met: the ghosts want only to be less lonely, while the humans who meet them, once they grasp the enormity of their isolation, are simply overwhelmed by it and eventually succumb. I still find the scene of Junko’s submission heartbreaking and beautiful: cold and shaken and unable to be cheered by her friend Michi, she simply gives up and fades away into a black stain, which is then scattered to nothingness by the breeze as Michi watches helplessly.
In contrast, the 2006 American remake Pulse is about as soulless and stupid a movie can possibly be. Apparently Wes Craven, who wrote the screenplay, decided to eject the underlying premise of isolation (or simply didn’t get that it was there at all) and simply make a movie about ghosts who kill people through their laptops, iPods, and flash drives. Pulse is less a movie than a cobbled together patchwork of every bad cliche in American horror movies that uses the basic plot structure of Kairo without any appreciation for the source material at all.
Take, for example, the library scene in Kairo, which I’ve already mentioned above. In the original, the library is utterly ordinary, full of students doing work. That it is also home to some shy ghosts is also apparent as the scene unfolds. In contrast, in Pulse the library is dank and damp and so poorly lit by fluorescent light as to be useless; it is utterly empty (because American college students are too cool to read books, as scene after scene after scene of them swapping tunes and texting (and sexting) each other attest); and of course the lone protagonists who enters it, far from chasing a fleeing shadow, is instead attacked by fucking Lord Voltemort, who sucks off his face by casting the spell of “Stupefyingly Shitty CGI.”
Or take, for example, the effects of ghostly encounters. In Kairo, we see the people who have met the dead grow increasingly lost and distant. They withdraw and shut down before our eyes, and eventually simply (and beautifully, I need to add) fade away leaving only a trace of themselves, a stain, behind. By contrast, in Pulse, after people are attacked by pasty vampire guys who pop out of their Macbooks (really), they too lose the will to live. We know this not by their acting or characters (which are wooden and cookie-cutter respectively), but because they simply announce “I have lost the will to live.” Then they apparently transform through the power of bad CGI into what I can only surmise is a shit stain, since the intermediate steps of the transformation resemble a cross between Jabba the Hutt and a pile of manure.
Hell, the American remake can’t even get the basic facts of the movie right. For example, in Kairo, the ubiquitous red tape is used to bring ghosts into the world, whereas in Pulse, it magically holds the ghosts at bay. Or, by way of another example, in Kairo, the ghosts want only contact and are physically solid; in Pulse, they want to take over the world, but are apparently susceptible to computer viruses and server errors. (Really. The ghosts in Pulse are just the aliens in ID4 all over again.) Or, finally, in Kairo, the movie assumes the audience is intelligent and willing the think about the themes it explores, whereas Pulse assumes its audience members still drag their knuckles on the ground when they walk, and dumbs everything down accordingly (and insultingly).
The verdict. Kairo is one of the saddest, scariest, most beautiful, and most thought-provoking movies I’ve seen, and it left me thinking about it for weeks after I saw it. In contrast, after seeing Pulse I just wanted to take a shower to wash the dumb off. Kairo wins.