The 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival kicked off its 23rd year with the North American premiere of the latest entry into the series of Ringu films, spinoffs, and offshoots, Sadako. Director of the original Ringu, Hideo Nakata, returns to the series with this combination sequel and reboot, which brings the titular creepy, double-jointed, long-haired girl back to the screen.
It’s a bad day for clinical psychiatrist Dr. Mayu Akikawa (Elaiza Ikeda). A female patient has become obsessed with her. Her brother, Kazuma, has dropped out of school to be a YouTube sensation. To top it all off, her latest patient is a young girl (Himeka Himejima) with amnesia and telekinesis. When Kazuma disappears, leaving only an online video behind, Mayu attempts to find him with the help of Kazuma’s producer, Ishida (Takashi Tsukamoto). At the base of these events resides the specter of Sadako, her evil web still drawing in more victims.
Sadako works hard to shed itself of the things that wore the franchise down over time. Forget about the haunted VHS tape making its way from hapless student to student. The montage of frightening images that made the first film so memorable is barely hinted at. After years of imitation and remakes, those elements have become old hat. Sadako knows what longtime fans want but subverts those small expectations, providing a couple of welcome chuckles.
The main problem with Sadako is Sadako herself. The film spends a lot of time talking about her, but she doesn’t get much screen time. She is less the main character and more a topic of conversation. But, for the five minutes Sadako is on screen, the viewer is reminded what a powerful presence that character has become. Her name hangs over the events of the film, more frightening than the image of her shambling out of a television monitor. This makes sense for a legendary figure like Sadako. Like the Boogeyman, she doesn’t have to be there to elicit a chill. But when your movie is ostensibly about a water ghost, you show the danged water ghost.
Himeka Himejama is eerie enough as the Mysterious Girl, who might be the reincarnation of Sadako. Rolling her eyes back into her head before bad things happen, Himejama adds the right amount of juvenile menace to the mix. Elaiza Ikeda and Takashi Tsukamoto are the Velma and Shaggy of Sadako, gamely following clues and making wild assumptions that turn out to be correct. There isn’t a whole lot of room for nuance in roles like theirs, but they lead the audience through the mystery of Kazuma’s disappearance well enough.
Sadako provides a modicum of scares but seems to be resting on the laurels of the films that came before. The script’s expansion of Sadako’s original curse feels stunted and perfunctory. While the performances are good, this adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s novel, Tide, doesn’t give the actors much to work with. Like a refurbished old car, Sadako throws a coat of new paint over an old formula. Unfortunately, Sadako, and the entire Ringu franchise, needs a new engine.
Sadako is the opening selection of Fantasia 2019 in Montreal, Quebec. For more information on the festival program and scheduling, visit the Fantasia website.
Featured image: (C) 2019 “Sadako” Partners.