Death by voicemail
Steven Soderbergh is the creator of odd personal films like Kafka and Schizopolis, but has since “graduated” to the larger budgets of more commercial Hollywood projects like Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s 11. David Lynch directed the sprawling, complicated science fiction epic Dune. The Shining is commonly thought of as Stanley Kubrick’s lone popcorn picture. At one time or another in the career of an artist critically respected for their more personal and/or otherwise artistically ambitious works he or she is tempted by the offer of more mainstream, more commercial work. Some leap at the chance to sell out and spend the rest of their days cheerfully going through the motions to churn out predictable entertainment products. Some clash immediately with the studio system and go back to independent filmmaking, forever disowning whatever work they’ve done in the mainstream. Some are able to easily adapt, alternating blockbusters with much smaller independent films. And some manage to take the studios’ mainstream projects and make them their own, transforming them using their own distinctive vision.
With Chukushin Ari (One Missed Call), Takashi Miike doesn’t quite reach this lofty aspiration. Asian horror films may be all the rage now, but what most Western viewers aren’t seeing is how incestuous most of them are. For every Ringu and Ju-on (both big hits as American remakes) there are dozens of lesser knock-offs creating a miasma that’s difficult to pierce. Cellular phones have been a large feature in Asian horror films, with some like Ahn Byeong-ki’s Phone putting phones at the center of their supernatural chills. Teenagers, the perennial target audience of the horror film industry, love their phones even more than they love fright films, and while mixing the two isn’t exclusive to Asian cinema – every other horror movie since Scream has a ghost or psycho eating up minutes with threatening calls – the passion shown for these gadgets by Japanese and Koreans has produced a natural breeding ground for this kind of onscreen behavior. Another common theme is the Deadly Supernatural Virus so popular in urban legends. Here, Miike hops on the bandwagon of these trends with his most commercial venture to date.
University student Yoko (Anna Nagata, Girl #10 of Battle Royale) meets a group of friends for dinner. She’s just come from the funeral of a friend, and while changing in the ladies room receives an unusual voicemail message – it appears to be her own voice talking, and then screaming, on the line, and the message is dated two days in the future. At he appointed time, Yoko is on the phone with her friend Yumi (Kou Shibasaki, coincidentally Girl #11 of Battle Royale) when she’s thrown from a bridge onto a speeding freight train by an unknown force. Not long after, Yumi discovers her friend Kenji (Atsushi Ida) has also received a voicemail from his future self. Yumi gets firsthand evidence of the supernatural nature of these calls when Kenji meets his date by being dragged down an elevator shaft right before her eyes.
Yumi finds an ally against this nightmare in Hiroshi (Shinichi Tsutsumi of the delightful Postman Blues), a young man who has become obsessed with this string of bizarre deaths since his sister became a victim. With the police (represented by Renji Ishibashi in one of his many gruff detective roles) offering little help, together they begin to trace the deaths back to their source. But before they can put the puzzle together, Yumi’s best friend Natsumi (Kazue Fukiishi) is the next to receive a supernatural voicemail, even though she’s canceled her service and turned in her phone. By now the media has begun following the story, and a TV crew corrals the terrified Natsumi to broadcast her date with destiny on a live television special featuring a Shinto exorcist and (of course) celebrity panelists. Upping the ante with every horror sequence, Miike makes this broadcast the most spectacular and blatantly otherworldly shocker yet. However, he’s not finished with us by a long shot.
The prolific Miike – not yet a household name in America, but a major film cult hero worldwide – directs 4-7 projects per year in a variety of genres, but up to this point all of his work has been in the independent and television arenas where he’s been allowed plenty of control. He had shown his skill at creeping out audiences through films like Audition, which is probably why he was hired to direct this movie, his first to be distributed by Toho since 1999’s Salaryman Kintaro. And he does his job extremely well, delivering every shock and chill the material will bear. Miike is an expert at controlling where attention is focused within the frame, misdirecting and manipulating the viewer masterfully with shadows and movement. However, it’s the overly derivative script by Yasushi Akimoto and Minako Daira that lets him down. Even as Miike is building up beautifully to multiple climaxes, viewers are probably thinking about how they’ve seen this or that situation already in The Grudge. It doesn’t help any that the characters are mere ciphers, emotional placeholders to be inhabited by the game cast. There’s a subtext about the cycle of parental abuse in there somewhere, but the script just does a bad job of drawing us into these people, as if it were just an outline of the story, leaving it up to the director and cast to fill in any unanswered questions. The young cast clearly isn’t experienced enough to do much with what they’re given, with only Tsutsumi struggling to create an aura of tragedy around his character. The veteran Ishibashi is the only one to create the impression that he has a life outside of chasing ghosts.
As for Miike, it doesn’t appear that he approached this project with any concern for whether it would bring him more work on mainstream pictures. Since wrapping up One Missed Call, he’s already finished three other films, one third of an anthology movie, and is finishing up his remake of the strange Yokai Monsters films of the ‘60s. Clearly, he’ll always follow his own muse, wherever it takes him.