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THE RING VIRUS
1999
Written and directed by Dong-bin Kim
108 Minutes
Unrated

As I write this, the top review of The Ring Virus on IMDb cites it as the "best version besides the original Japanese versions." While God help me I hope he's not referring to the very first, made-for-TV version of Ring as well, this is nonetheless the worst of the three I've seen which I'll be rounding up, a roundup predicated largely by the impending Halloween and largely because my rewatching of this film has revived my interest in this series.

I will say up front that I am a massive fan of this franchise in all of its glorious incarnations, be they fantastic or dismal. For sure, the dismal ones I don't exactly like or rewatch with any great frequency, but the central conceit of Koji Suzuki's original novel (which I've also read) is so juicy and ripe with creative possibilities that it's no surprise it's been as popular and produced as many offshoots as it has. To be sure, Suzuki's novel isn't very good, but its core idea overshadows the mediocre execution and grants it a status of a modern fairy tale or urban legend, the very conceit that drives his story to begin with.

While saving my full thoughts on Hideo Nakata's infinitely superior and current reigning champion as "best version of this story told ever" film Ring, I will say that Hiroshi Takahashi's scripted adaptation takes extraordinary liberties with the source material, and oftentimes they're exactly the right ones. That adaptation became the de facto standard for the retellings in this version and in the American remake, which severs (probably wisely) all ties to the original novel. If there's one glaring weakness in all of the films, it is nowhere more evident than it is here: the mediocre second act.

Dong-bin Kim's adaptation skews more closely to the novel, liberally picking and choosing elements of Nakata's film and Suzuki's original story, producing a weird kind of half-breed with some extremely bizarre and utterly arbitrary changes thrown in. He tries to make The Ring Virus his own creation and in the process produces an unseemly chimera of a film, devoid of proper pacing, lacking coherence, and in a fit of horrible misdirection, bereft of proper tone. The best parts of the film are the ones lifting from Nakata's film (and Takahashi's screenplay in kind), while the worst are where he fails miserably to integrate what could loosely be considered the original novel's second act with the changes Takahashi made. In short, many of the places he deviates from Takahashi's script are places where Takahashi had directly improved upon the source material.

Take, for example, this film's male protagonist. In the novel, Ryuji Takayama is short, boorish, thoroughly unlikable, and possibly a serial rapist. Takahashi, in adapting the novel to the screen, completely reworks the character by making him dark, brooding, mysterious, and tragic. He's handsome, really all the things that make modern tween horror work, but Hiroyuki Sanada's portrayal takes the character home and finishes imbuing him with the depth and complexity that the script started. Kim, on the other hand, goes halfway between the two and to the detriment of the film and character. His Dr. Choi is a sexist prick, only beginning to show any glimpse of humanity toward the end of the film.

The next major misfire of the film is in the casting. Or is it the acting? I'm not 100% sure as I'm not familiar enough with Korean actors, but suffice to say, the acting in the film is fucking horrible. It takes a lot for me to notice bad acting in a foreign film since I'm spending most of my time checking out the shot composition and imagery first and reading the subtitles second, with paying attention to acting coming in something like thirteenth. If I find them remotely believable, awesome. But the actors in The Ring Virus are painfully, uniformly flat, utterly unlikable and impossible to sympathise with. They bring nothing to their characters or roles, and while I sense the direction of the film is a lot like a Korean soap opera, I've seen enough glimpses of Korean soaps to know that those actors at least try. Here, everyone's on autopilot, so sleepy and lethargic that their crappy American counterparts in our shittiest of slasher movies are fountains of energy and drama by comparison.

And speaking of Korean soap opera, it's fairly clear that Dong-bin Kim has no fucking idea how to direct a horror film. His color palette is extremely vibrant and contrasty in a place where muted, controlled colors and a more monochromatic tone have been proven by both Nakata in Ring and Verbinski in The Ring to be more effective at conveying this kind of dread. Rainbows of color don't exactly make me ill at ease, and the "scares" in the film fall flat pretty much across the board. The only reason his finale works in the slightest is because Nakata's version, cribbing liberally from Cronenberg's Videodrome, was so shocking and potent when it arrived and so brilliantly terrifying in its conception that even a shallow imitation can just coast on it. I'm not scared because of what I'm seeing on the screen, I'm scared because the idea is freaky and fucked up and because I remember how Nakata's version scared me and most of my friends shitless.

But the rest of the film is badly composed, the filmmaking style completely at odds with the content and needs of the story, and probably most damningly of all...the movie is just boring. The story by its very nature is a slow burn, which does tax the director and viewer alike in any adaptation, but Kim is completely out of his element here, lacking even the most basic sense of how to direct horror. Brett Ratner could direct a better adaptation, because even if he's a relentlessly mediocre director capable of only shooting for a C+, he's at least competent. His work is perfunctory enough to serve its purpose and get the job done. Kim's direction is a heinous failure by any measure.

If I've learned anything from watching this and comparing it to the novel and other versions of the story, it's a clear idea on how to salvage the traditionally weak "LET'S FIGURE IT OUT!!!" second act for when I invariably go and try to make my own version. But anyone who says this is one of the stronger versions of the story is out of their fucking mind. Everything about this adaptation is mishandled and misconceived. It's worth seeing for purists and die hard fans, but the rest of us should avoid it at all costs.

- Dustin Sklavos

All written content and colored rating system copyright Dustin Sklavos 2009. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.