In this prequel to Ring, a young Sadako becomes an actress in hopes of escaping her troubled past. But strange visions and terrifying powers begin to manifest…
It’s safe to say that most Americans’ training wheels in Asian horror came with the release of the English remake of Ringu, one of the most popular and long-standing Japanese franchises in recent memory. The Ring was a blockbuster success and definitely sparked this writer’s fascination with the genre. Despite that runaway triumph, the American movie received a few vastly inferior sequels on our shores, leaving us to quietly tuck the original away into the Great Modern Classics section of our collective memory and move on.
Meanwhile, in its country of origin, Ringu lives on in sequels and spin-offs based off the writings of Koji Suzuki. The series has suffered its ebbs and flows, most recently with the combined universes of Ringu and other massively popular Japanese franchise Ju-On in a faceoff between our long-haired superstars, Sadako vs. Kayako. The ghost of Ringu, Sadako, is the true star of the series, and by now, most of us are familiar with her special brand of ESP in transferring her horrifying thoughts to film. But some may wonder just what kind of person Sadako was in life–if she was truly evil, or merely the puppet of some otherworldly force.
Ringu 0: Birthday attempts to answer these nagging questions by way of the prequel method, meaning that it contradicts most of what we’ve come to learn of the story’s mythology in a feeble attempt to humanize its monster.
We meet Sadako as a teenager struggling to get her life back together in the wake of a tragic past, abandoned by her father following her mother’s suicide. She joins a theater troupe in an attempt to feel normal, but she is still haunted by frightening visions and paralyzing grief. Other people in the cast and crew notice Sadako’s strangeness as well, complaining of nightmares and uneasy tension ever since that new girl transferred in. The few unaffected by the fear factor are quite enchanted with Sadako—she inadvertently earns the admiration of both the director and the sound guy, to varying degrees of success. Little do they know that they all have a very good reason to be afraid, because Sadako carries a potent curse with her that threatens the entire production.
The Ringu films are notorious for deep-seated horror shown through low-budget effects, and Ringu 0 is no exception. The scary moments come by way of women in white looming in the background, warped photographs, and screechy feedback sounds on audio tape. Subtle, but certainly effective enough to carry a series, and definitely creepy enough to get the viewer’s attention. The flaws in this film, however, do not lie in the scares but in exposition, which comes with the territory of any prequel: they simply explain too much.
To be fair, my preferred version of Sadako is the Americanized Samara, the spooky little girl with long black hair and furious eyes, pushed down a well by her own mother because she was evil incarnate. That’s that, end of story, let the supernatural killings begin. This isn’t Japan’s vision, however, as Sadako has almost always appeared as a teen-twenties young woman. So it makes some sense for a prequel to dive into Sadako’s awkward teen years before being shoved down a well, and it isn’t totally inexcusable to make her a beautiful wallflower with a dark past (given how fond we all are of that trope).
Unfortunately, Ringu 0 effectively neuters our vision of Sadako, as it contains the revelation that the “bad” Sadako is not Sadako at all, but instead some evil spirit that attached itself to her as a child and takes on her appearance to perform its dark biddings. Why the spirit chooses to exclusively attack people who are mean to Sadako is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, poor Sadako herself is plagued with dirty looks and ever-building tension among the troupe, where suspicions of sleeping with the director escalate to accusations of dalliances with dark forces. Talk about mean girls.
Overall, Ringu 0 doesn’t completely ruin the setup of the original film. We still end where the first film begins–at the bottom of a well with a screaming girl, doomed to die alone in (say it with me, now) seven days and curse the world with her rage. But somehow, knowing that Sadako was truly a sweet innocent with no knowledge or control over the harm she causes doesn’t really enrich the series in any way. Sure, it makes the circumstances a little more tragic, but they were already pretty tragic to begin with.
The film left me less with a creeping dread than an overwhelming feeling of “Oh, poor Sadako.” That feeling saps away much of the potency that embodies Sadako–an angry spirit out for revenge against a world that refused to understand her—and I feel that’s a great disservice to a fascinating character. Sadako is a force to be reckoned with, and this glimpse of her as a living breathing girl is simply disappointing compared to what we know she will become.