Media Blasters // 2003 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // December 2nd, 2005
Death cannot be put on hold...
One Missed Call is the latest Japanese import from the insanely prolific J-horror director Takashi Miike (Audition, Happiness of the Katakuris, Gozu, Ichi the Killer). It is a re-imagining of the popular Ringu (which was re-made into the American film, The Ring), but replaces that film's creepy video that kills whomever views it with creepy cell phone messages that portend the death of the phone's owner.
A young woman misses a call on her cell phone. When she checks the voice message, which was time-stamped two days in the future, she hears herself screaming in agony. Sure enough, two days later, she suffers a gruesome death. Soon after her boyfriend misses a call on his cell phone, receives a message portending his death, and dies shortly thereafter (in a way we assume is gruesome but, perhaps due to budget cuts, is not shown). The message is passed on (it is kind of odd that no one in this movie ever seems to answer their phone) to their skittish friend Yoko (Anna Nagata), who tries to protect herself by appearing on a live television show with a Shinto exorcist when her faithful moment arrives.
Meanwhile, Yoko's best friend Yumi (teen sensation Kou Shibasaki, who appeared in the far superior Battle Royale) teams up with the mysterious Hiroshi (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi -- imagine a Japanese Jeff Speakman) to investigate the origins of the phone calls. They follow a trail of clues from a local hospital to the mortuary to an abandoned apartment but are unable to solve the mystery before the voice message shows up on Yumi's cellphone. They then embark on a race against time to stop whatever it is that is systematically killing off the Japanese youth, before it gets Yoko next.
One Missed Call is, for better or worse, a conventional horror movie. For those who have enjoyed Takashi Miike's previous films, hearing that is bound to disappoint. Previously, whether Miike's ideas succeeded (like the black S & M humor of Audition or the ultra-violence of Ichi the Killer) or failed (the odd horror-musical The Happiness of the Katakuris) his films were always bold and original, despite his hectic schedule. Since the beginning of this decade Miike has been averaging nearly five films a year. It's impressive that despite this, his films have retained a high level of quality and uniqueness. But with the relatively staid One Missed Call, the strain of his schedule may be taking its toll. That is not to say One Missed Call is bad. It's actually fairly good. The problem is, it just doesn't feel like a Miike film. However, it does successfully embody many traits of a good J-horror movie: a cute female lead, ghosts with long black hair, the demonization of modern technology, and a clever high-concept plot.
The plot of One Missed Call is so ingenious that the first half of the movie practically writes itself; the only challenge must have been finding creative ways to kill off the teenagers (sadly, the exquisitely brutal Battle Royale has already taken nearly all the good ideas). While most of the violence here is pretty standard fare, Yoko's appearance on a live television show culminates in some limb-twisting, over-the-top violence that is hilarious and cringe-inducing and clearly the movie's high point.
However, once the film has killed off all its expendable characters, it spends far too much time trying to explain the source of the evil cell phones. While Yumi's investigation leads her into orphanages and abandoned hospitals, and introduces young girls with asthma and Munchausen Syndrome (which I thought was invented by Michael Caine's character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), one can't help but feel the movie is both explaining far too much while sowing hopeless confusion. With all these disparate plot elements coming together, it is no surprise that the film's ending infuses so many convoluted twists that several viewings are required to even make a guess at what actually happened.
While the movie employs a few moments of camp (such as the cartoonish violence that takes place in the television studio), there are not enough laughs for the film to work as a black comedy, yet too many for the movie to be taken seriously as a horror. Perhaps part of the problem is Miike's belief that cell phones are scary. Too many times he employs a ringing cell phone, in tandem with a well-placed music cue, in the hopes of scaring the audience. This might be more effective if cell phones had inherently dangerous or creepy connotations (like ice picks or clowns, two horror movie mainstays). While cell phones may be loud or annoying, I don't think anyone identifies them with bodily harm. Even with an admittedly disturbing ring, a cell phone could never match the scare of a clown jumping out of a closet, brandishing an ice pick.
One Missed Call takes a clever idea (cell phone message portends teen's death) then adds very little character development, nuance, or style to supplement the story. In addition, One Missed Call is full of aggravating horror-movie clichés, such as when the heroine chooses to slowly crawl away from danger as opposed to standing up and running away. While One Missed Call is ultimately entertaining, it is hard to watch and not imagine the inevitable American adaptation (which is currently in pre-production and set for release in 2007). It is also hard not to imagine the inevitable American parody of the film, which will most likely come in the form of Scary Movie 4 or 5.
Media Blasters has done a commendable job putting together this 2-disc Special Edition package. The video is clean and the sound is sharp and clear. The dark lighting of some scenes mutes some image's detail and saturation, but never to the point of distraction.
There is a lot of filler on the second disc (like the footage of Miike and Kou Shibasaki taking part in a Shinto cleansing ceremony) interspersed with some entertaining special features. The centerpiece of the extras is a 60-minute making-of documentary. It is not particularly informative or entertaining, but worth watching for those who have wanted to see a director as prolific and efficient as Miike at work (he's surprisingly laid back). There is an alternate ending that doesn't shed any light upon the film's inexplicable finale, but does provide a humorous coda to the action. Then there is a stand alone, unedited broadcast of the TV special documenting the last thirty-nine minutes of Yoko's life. While the TV special does not have much repeat viewing value, it is fun to watch the film's most entertaining 10 minutes extrapolated to their real time glory.
It is important to remember Takashi Miike makes a lot of movies. Though they are usually more interesting than One Missed Call, it should be obvious that he isn't trying to be shocking or provocative with this film. Is that so bad? He probably saw the success of movies like Ringu and Ju-On and wanted to take a shot at a conventional Japanese horror. Taking that into consideration, One Missed Call clearly fulfills its lowered expectations. There have certainly been much, much worse horror movies to come out of Japan. And with three or four more films on tap for the year, Miike certainly has the opportunity to take chances in the future. So take it easy on him.
This is a modestly successful departure towards convention from one of Japan's most creative and original modern filmmakers. Let's hope it doesn't become a habit.
One Missed Call and Takashi Miike are both let off with stern warnings. However, Mr. Miike will not be treated with such lenience if he ever shows up in my court under similar charges again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Japanese)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Behind the Scenes Featurette
* Exclusive Cast and Crew Interviews
* TV Spots
* Deleted Scenes
* Screening Premiere