Judge Adam Arseneau has his fingers far from the pulse of the community.
"People don't really connect, you know."
Part of the Japanese horror revival spawned by Ringu in the late 1990s, Pulse (aka. Kairo) was esoteric auteur Kiyoshi Kurosawa's (Bright Future, Cure, Charisma) contribution to the newly-created "technological anxiety" horror genre; a downright disconcerting thriller about the isolating nature of modern technology and the alienating affect it has on human interaction.
Pulse is scheduled be remade in 2006 for a North American audience, another in a long, never-ending string of Japanese horror remakes. Thankfully, before we get our perceptions poisoned, Magnolia Pictures has been kind enough to scoop up the original for distribution in North America, much to the delight of us Kurosawa fans previously forced to turn to questionable sources on eBay to add it to our shelves.
Facts of the Case
A group of young friends are shocked by the sudden and unexpected suicide of one of their friends. When they examine a floppy disc in his apartment that he had been working on before he died, they are disconcerted to find eerie photographs of the deceased friend reflected in improbable locations. Things take a turn for the worse when their computers began dialing out to the Internet unexpectedly, loading bizarre Web sites asking viewers if they wish to see ghosts. The strange lurching figures seem to peer out from behind the fluorescent glow of computer monitors, as if beckoning to escape upon the world.
The friends become convinced that their friend is trying to contact them from beyond the grave, but as the ghostly epidemic increases in intensity, they become fearful for their sanities. Everyone who encounters these odd ghostly figures in their computers is being driven to suicide…and the city is rapidly becoming exposed…
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) is one of those rare and rewarding directors who you have to work hard at being a fan of. His films are multi-layered, intertextual, complex, deep, and genre-bending, but almost universally strange and alienating to the point of being, well, kind of annoying. David Lynch does kind of the same kind of thing, but Kurosawa does it on a really, really low budget and in an extremely Japanese sort of way. He is one of my personal favorite filmmakers currently working in film today, but I admit that his material is often frustratingly oblique to appreciate, let alone describe to the curious.
Still, there is much to like in Pulse for first-time viewers, especially for those who failed to connect to the string of recent Japanese horror films like Ringu, Dark Water, and Ju-On (not to mention the ubiquitous and boring North American remakes that followed). Less concerned with being a horror film, Kurosawa instead pounds feelings of anxiety, isolation, and loneliness into a framework of a technological thriller that's more David Cronenberg than Wes Craven or Sam Raimi. Pulse is slow-moving at first, but rapidly picks up its pace towards the end, never actually scaring the audience outright, but instead leaving viewers with a growing sense of unease that continues to linger long after the film has been turned off.
Kurosawa is less interested in creating a technological menace that can come into our lives and destroy us, and more interested in exploring the notion that this may have already happened; that without us even knowing it, technology has fundamentally altered our abilities to communicate to one another and how isolated and broken we become when we lose contact with the technology. Watch how insane people get when their e-mail goes down in an office building and you get a glimmer of the truth Kurosawa hopes to illuminate. Out of these anxieties come the ghosts in the machine, as it were, in the form of a Web site that connects to your computer and asks you if you want to see what a ghost looks like. The ghosts, once they get in, haunt the screens of their human inhabitants, driving them to suicide and worse, leading to a series of events downright apocalyptic in nature. There is no monster in Pulse beyond the inescapable realization that what we fear most of all is loneliness.
Pulse is full of people who fail to communicate with one another in any shape or form, a group of friends in name only who seem unwilling or unable to form meaningful connections with one another. Dialogue is minimal, because there is no talking to be had between people. They are seldom on-screen together with one another and when they are, they are usually anxious and sullen. During one sequence, a news broadcast runs in the background about a message in a bottle washing up on the shores of Malaysia, 4,000 kilometers and ten years after it was sent by a 10-year old Japanese boy. The boy, interviewed on TV, seems incredulous that his message made it to a foreign country. Communication, in any shape or form, is not something that happens easily in Pulse and the irony of computers themselves alienating those desperate to make connections through them is one Kurosawa hammers home again and again.
Kurosawa has an austere and ethereal beauty to his cinematography and lighting techniques, but "good looking" is a phrase rarely attributed to his final products. Often shooting with low-budget equipment and with excessively grainy film stock, his films have a very distinctive murky and dull appearance, like an overcast day. No exception to this rule, Pulse is grainy, gritty, unfocused, and pallid, with a yellow-and-grey color tone like an abandoned hospital ward, speckled with dust and print damage. Despite the grain and overall murky image quality, black levels are reasonable and detail is adequate.
The audio presentation, a hissing and ill-tempered Dolby Digital Stereo mix, is downright peculiar; thin on bass response and with an odd mechanical undertone to it, like the sound of a computer fan idling when not in use, filling the room with white noise. At first I attributed this to a failing of the DVD, until the ambient noise suddenly stopped during a dramatic moment. The effect was downright horrifying in its intensity, a subtle, yet impressive trick. The score, a haunting, moody string-filled orchestra affair, is almost as creepy as the movie itself. I would have liked to have seen a 5.1 presentation on this film, firmly rooting the bizarre, otherworldly noises into the rear channels where they belong.
One minor gripe about the subtitles: the timing is about a half-second off from what one normally expects in subtitle tracks, and the effect is disconcerting. It takes a while to get used to. Often times, the characters on-screen have finished their sentence before we see the English translation.
Besides a theatrical trailer, the only extra material included is an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary with Kurosawa on-set. Though interjected with a few sit-down interview clips from the director, most of the featurette is simply a crew member with a camcorder, filming Kurosawa and his cast at work making Pulse. It is a simple, yet surprisingly profound, approach.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like much of Kurosawa's work, Pulse is a hard film to enjoy on a purely aesthetic basis, especially by those unfamiliar with his style. As a horror film, Pulse is languid and slow-moving, more eerie than downright terrifying. His camera work and directorial style is subtle to the point of being ignored, his dialogue is often minimal, and the tones of isolation and anxiety only serve to distance the audience from the protagonists so that when they meet their demises, it barely registers. This is the catch, I suppose, with creating such distant and isolating work; not only does the environment alienate the characters in the film, but it also alienates the viewer as well. In short, it is not quite what North American audiences have come to expect from a horror film and if you walk in expecting The Ring, you are going to be sorely let down.
Genuinely scary, atmospheric, and creepy, Pulse is as complex as it is disconcerting, and sure to delight those who do not mind putting the work into appreciating it, so long as you enjoy that kind of thing.
On the other hand, if slow-moving psychological films give you the yawns instead of the screaming heebie-jeebies, you will no doubt be better served by the North American remake due out in 2006, which I expect will pasteurize out all the elements that make Pulse a fascinating and rewarding film, leaving behind yet another puerile Ring rip-off. Scary stuff indeed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
• "The Making of Pulse: Behind-the-Scenes Footage"
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