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Call it what you will -- a remake of a sequel or a sequel of a remake -- the sad truth about Hideo Nakata’s American debut is that Gore Verbinski has assumed authorship.
If we want to face the reality of cultural flows in an era of remakes and transnational film production, yet maintain the edge of radical criticism, we have to stop fetishizing the aura of the “original:" the book that can’t be surpassed by the film adaptation, or the foreign masterpiece that overshadows its Hollywood remake. Rather, it’s imperative that we as critical spectators become conscious of the terms and consequences of the Hollywood remake, in order to examine the power relations between studios, foreign artists, and global audiences.
With that in mind, I want to argue that Hollywood has hijacked the Ring series and it doesn’t seem likely that horror fans will ever get it back.
First, a brief history of the series. In 1991, novelist Suzuki Koji released The Ring, which concerned a cursed videotape that kills its viewers after seven days. The book was followed by the sequels The Spiral (Rasen) in 1995 and Loop in 1998, as well as the short story collection The Birthday in 1999. In 1995, Fuji Television broadcast the TV film Ring: Kanzenban, based on the 1991 novel. In 1998, a Japanese film production company Asmic Ace Entertainment simultaneously released two feature films based on the first two novels: Ringu (directed by Hideo Nakata) and The Spiral (directed by Jouji Iida), in hopes that fans of the first would flock to the sequel. The marketing ploy was only a half-success: Ringu became an enormous hit throughout Asia (becoming one of the most influential Asian films of the '90s) but The Spiral flopped. As a result, Ringu was remade in 1999 as Ringu 2, helmed this time by Nakata. But unlike The Spiral, which was based closely on Suzuki’s print sequel, Nakata’s 1999 remake/sequel developed out of the elements that made his 1998 adaptation so successful internationally. In 1999, Nakata’s Ringu was remade in Korea as The Ring Virus, and in 2000, a Japanese prequel, Ring 0: Birthday, was produced out of one of the stories from Suzuki Koji’s The Birthday. In 2002, the American company DreamWorks remade Nakata’s Ringu as The Ring, directed by Gore Verbinski.
To recap: Suzuki Koji’s The Ring spawned Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, which led to a sequel, Ringu 2, and two remakes, The Ring Virus (South Korea) and The Ring (USA). Suzuki’s own sequel, The Spiral (Rasen), became a film of the same name, and out of a story from The Birthday came what is now deemed a prequel to Ringu, Ring 0: Birthday.
Then in 2005 comes The Ring Two, produced by DreamWorks and directed by Hideo Nakata in his Hollywood debut. Where should we place it in the complex genealogy of the Ring series? It’s tempting to hang it as the second sequel to Nakata’s Ringu, while others, like myself, will identify it as an offspring of Verbinski’s 2002 hit, regardless of the fact that the “original” director is in charge of the production. This, of course, begs a second question: is The Ring Two a sequel to a remake or a remake of a sequel?
The second question is really one for the fans; the answer is trivial and tells us little about the mechanisms of the remake and the sequel in Hollywood. The first question, however, yields a disturbing conclusion: that Gore Verbinski, while now off the Ring series and onto Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is the true auteur of The Ring Two, just as Nakata was the auteur (in the Foucauldian sense of authorship) of Ring 0: Birthday and The Ring Virus, neither of which he actually directed. The reason for this is that screen remakes and sequels, regardless of the director, inevitably borrow images, moods, settings, and characters from the popular “originals” because that is what the public demands. In none of these cases do the sequels or remakes truly expand or complement the narrative of the original. After the wild popularity of Ringu and the failure of The Spiral in 1998, Hideo Nakata realized that a successful sequel to Ringu would be less about the biological explanations for the videotape and its associated crimes (which was the focus of The Spiral), but would exploit the most famous element of Ringu: the content of the videotape. Fidelity to Suzuki’s or Iida’s “original” sequels is irrelevant; what matters is what will stir, and hopefully challenge, the audience of Ringu.
Much has been written about Verbinski’s Hollywood remake, most notably that American audiences demand more explanation than Japanese audiences do, which accounts for the patched holes which contribute to a certain sense of realism but at the expense of a certain conception of screen horror. Other observations include the use of heightened special effects and emotionally saturated music in the Hollywood remake.
Fans of Nakata’s Ringu and Ringu 2 maintain that what makes these films effective is the audience’s anxiety over the uncertain and a respect for the unexplainable. They consider the special effects of the American remake overbearing and the music manipulative. Gone are Nakata’s uncomfortable silences and long takes in favor of meaningless, superficial shrieks and surprises. To be fair, I find this process of translating from one culture’s supernatural genre into another culture’s horror genre a fascinating task, and potentially an empowering process for both cultures. Verbinski’s The Ring is well directed and potent with creepiness, so while I still consider Nakata’s Ringu much more frightening, I attribute my preference to my personal penchant for Japanese horror rather than Ringu’s intrinsic “greatness.”
Nevertheless, for fans like myself, the announcement that The Ring Two would be directed by Nakata seemed a godsend since he could now have the resources either to make the sequel he had always intended to, or that he could craft a completely new entry into the Ring series.
Unfortunately, The Ring Two is not a remake of an adaptation, or a remake of Nakata’s sequel, but a sequel of Verbinski’s remake. This is not only because it has little in common with Ringu 2, but also because Nakata has retained all of Verbinski’s contributions to the Ring series: an obsession with mysterious white circles over black backgrounds, the presence of a disturbed but precocious Haley Joel Osment wannabe, rhythmic and jarring editing, and most importantly, high psychological realism where everything is explained in terms of motivation and causation, structuring the film as a psychoanalytic quest where the solution to the problem involves analyzing the villain’s childhood traumas. (While I admit that Ringu followed a similar conceit, here, the task is more psychological than supernatural.) Furthermore, Nakata builds on the Pacific Northwest mythology of The Ring, adding wild deer to the horses and adopting the visual style and mood of the oceanside settings.
Present also are the screeching violins and that ubiquitous, rhythmic lowest note of a piano whenever danger looms ahead. And as has become the cliche of countless American slasher films since Halloween, The Ring Two opens with a moon in the night sky while teens (most of whom will have little to do with the rest of the film) hang out in a parentless middle-class home while death looms imminent. The Ring Two also borrows explicitly from Hollywood genre conventions by casting Sissy Spacek as Samara’s disturbed mother in a reversal of her role in Brian DePalma’s classic Carrie.
However, the most gratuitous way we see Hollywood hijack the Ring series despite Nakata’s presence is that DreamWorks has not only developed The Ring Two with the formulas of the Hollywood horror genre, but the formulas of the Hollywood horror sequel as well. It’s the tired “leading lady escapes horror of Part One to start a new life in a new town only to discover that the villain has caught up with her again” horror sequel formula, which contrasts with the way Nakata’s Ringu 2 retreads the terrain of Ringu through a set of marginal characters. In Ringu 2, the Pandora’s Box of the videotape is reopened by doctors and concerned friends; in The Ring 2, the open box catches up with Naomi Watts and it is her job to close it. In addition, Samara is now presented as a new entry in the gallery of classic American horror villains -- from King Kong to Frankenstein to Jaws to Freddy Krueger. Samara’s image and name are featured prominently in the film’s trailer, and her prominence as “The Villain” in the film suggests that through repetition and constant exposure, this sequel is intent on creating an American horror franchise out of her image.
While one could argue that Nakata is simply reclaiming his authority over images he created, such as the hand reaching over the edge of the stone well or the twisted, spasmic crawl of the long-haired ghost, I’d argue that these are no longer his images, for Verbinski’s visual and sonic reinterpretation has completely supplanted the spirit of Nakata’s creation -- at least in the consciousness of the Western audience. Nakata’s employment of these images is, ironically, a borrowing from Verbinski’s creations rather than a reformulation of Nakata’s own images filtered through the Hollywood machine. And thus, the Ring series no longer belongs to Nakata but is now a Hollywood commodity for international consumption and re-consumption.
Further proof of this transfer of authority is that The Ring Two follows the new Hollywood strategy of cross-media advertising and narrative. Following the Blair Witch formula -- where narrative exists beyond the boundaries of the film and into promotional materials of the digital terrain -- The Ring Two continues not only Verbinski’s The Ring, but a short film by Darkness Falls director Jonathan Liebesman entitled Rings -- a 16-minute teaser packaged with the 2005 “Collector’s Edition” of The Ring which ends with a cliffhanger to which the first scene of The Ring Two completes. Designed essentially to sell a “new” version of The Ring to fans who already own the original DVD, Rings, while culturally and aesthetically inconsequential, introduces new characters, storylines, and visual motifs into the Ring cycle, which Nakata is “forced” to continue -- if for no other reason than to pay off Dreamworks’ marketing promises.
While I am scathing of Hollywood’s imperialistic tendencies, I stress that I am not against remakes. First, one must remember that the concept of the Ring was not Nakata’s to begin with; Ringu was an adaptation while Ringu 2 essentially stole the series away from Suzuki Koji and Jouji Iida just as Verbinski has now stolen it from Nakata. Remaking, adapting, appending and re-imagining are the basis of storytelling in nearly any medium and therefore an allegiance to “the original” is as irrelevant as it is fruitless. Second, we therefore need to find ways to make cross-cultural remakes that benefit and empower all cultures involved. We sensed this possibility in Takashi Shimizu’s 2004 remake of his own film Ju-On: The Grudge, in which the Hollywood version imagined the Japanese ghost house inhabited by overseas Americans, a concept enabled by the remaking process that can potentially teach audiences from both countries about cultural contact. That The Grudge was a failure in Japan is testament to the fact that there are still issues of genre, marketing, and spectatorship that need to be understood. So rather than turn a disparaging eye against the inevitable, rather than simply observe that the videocassette has been dubbed and passed on -- forever dooming the ignorant new viewer -- we should explore circular (ring-like?) paths of cross-cultural traffic, where one culture’s treasures becomes another culture’s and then back again, instead of linear trajectories where any global artistic development ends up as money in Hollywood’s backpockets.
Date Posted: 3/24/2005