I have tried to watch Kiyoshi Kurosawa acclaimed ‘masterpiece’ a couple of times, braving a boggy pace and lack of scares to really get under the skin of what makes ‘Pulse’ tick for those who laud it.
Before I start I want to give some context. Back in the day the Tartan film label releases ‘Ringu’ in the UK and it absolutely scares the shit out of people. From that point horror fans everywhere rabidly search for other Asian terror classics. Through a far less developed internet than now, film forums seem to cluster around certain titles such as ‘The Eye’ and ‘Whispering Corridors’, of course Sam ‘Evil Dead’ Raimi gives his endorsement to ‘Ju-On’, and things seriously kicked off.
Fashions changed, the slasher ‘scream clones’ prevalent at the time had more than outstayed their welcome and the US came to ‘remaking’ many of these Asian titles, much to the disgust of many horror fans (myself included), who in response made more and more of an effort to seek out more gems from an increasingly open Asian film market.
It didn’t take me long to figure out, however, that whilst the US were churning out their more bombastic versions of the classics, Asian film directors were endlessly recycling their own formula attributing ‘hauntings’ to every object possible from haunted phones to wigs; each film a dilution (or outright fail) of what made those original 1st wave Asian horrors so effective.
With the quality and ideas in short supply both sides of the pond, the prevalence of these sorts of films gradually ran their course and fashions changed again. That doesn’t stop me dipping back in every now and then though hoping to stumble on ones I missed.
I’ve watched some awesome modern Asian horrors from ‘The Wailing’ to ‘Train of Busan’ but every now and then I just want to scratch that itch and find another film that truly terrifies me in the way ‘Ringu’ and ‘Ju-On’ did all them years past; so I check the internet’s many ‘lists’. Kairo (aka Pulse) hits every time, hell even Time-Out put it in their top 100 scariest films ever.
I will say here, it’s really not, but its far too complex to dismiss completely.
The plot follows two separate and ultimately converging stories which centre around a haunted website called ‘the forbidden room’. People watch the ghastly goings on, then ultimately go into a spiralling decent of depression before disappearing as some sort of dark stain. All the while ghosts appear to be manifesting in greater numbers hinting some sort of hostile takeover linked to their loneliness and despair at what the afterlife provides, hoping to make a space for themselves back in the mortal plane of existence. It escalates to dystopian heights by the films drawn out conclusion.
The film offers up little in the way of exposition at any point, and when you are expecting a fairly typical ghost tale, honestly, the stories just seems to drag then jump in terms of their pacing. Yeah, as I said in my opener, this film crawls along its already bloated 2 hour run time. The acting in Asian films is often hard to judge as the inflictions and responses in the language/translation isn’t familiar, but here everyone just seems fed up, even where the characters interact under normal context! It hard to get on with a particular character, of course the story jumping between two plotlines doesn’t give a clear protagonist to rally behind. This certainly doesn’t help the viewer really get into the film, and to be honest I would say that there are long sections of the film which are just flat out boring as its unclear as to what is even happening; never mind where it’s going.
There are many Asian films whose plot is somewhat convoluted, sometimes this is due to some cultural context or folklore western viewers might not be accustomed to; here, however, I feel that ‘Kairo’ just struggles to get to the point.
There is a clear indulgence here with the film intent on pushing the concept of despair, isolation and pointless-ness on its viewers; and I’m not being facetious either, when the film works, it really does elicit these feelings as you watch. The sets are constantly grimy, there’s this constant feeling of downtrodden. The haunted website is more than a gimmick to, it’s an allegory for the faceless, emotionless and lonely contradiction that interconnectivity has brought to peoples lives. A lot of this film is metaphor and deeper meaning, and as a technical piece, I can see why its resonated with a lot of people and as a predictive piece it was well ahead of its time.
On this basis, there’s no way you can refer to ‘Kairo’ as a bad film, its just not very entertaining.
It’s not misunderstood either, as it clearly emulates the typical ghost stuff, and a times it works to, but the film (whilst admittedly investing in other areas) just lacks the powerhouse scares that makes the sludgy pace worth sitting through. I would say there’s one scene which is stand out creepy, but it’s not a patch on what its peers have on offer. As an overall piece, it is not in any way scary – it’s just got a very dark concept, and its story is a little more poignant than the popcorn stories of either Ringu/Ju-On as examples, so it will linger in your thoughts, more so as a feeling.
Overall, it took me a while to even sit through fully, and I waited a week before writing this review, so I had time to process. If you are a fan of thought provoking ‘slow-burns’ and really enjoy a more subtle style of horror then I think you will find there’s a lot to take away, as it certainly strays well outside of the box, however, if you are looking for an Asian film to scare you in the more traditional sense, honestly, its not here.