If you have not seen the first two RING films from Hideo Nakata, stop reading right now. I won't spoil the third film for you but in order to explain it, you need a basic knowledge of what has/will happen in the earlier films. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Okay, off we go. The first two RING films were immensely popular films, especially in their native Japan. But the whole story was basically told in those two films, and there was nowhere left to go. Nowhere, except back to the beginning.
It always seemed that despite what we know about Sadako, there was so much we didn't know. Many things remained unsaid in the earlier films. RING 0: BIRTHDAY is a prequel that tries to answer some of the lingering questions, but spends most of it's time being another original horror film in it's own right. It takes some unexpected turns and the results are mostly successful.
The film starts out in a manner that almost completely contradicts the style of Nakata's earlier films. The camera moves from side to side, and the cutting is constant as a young girl tells another about the legend of the cursed videotape. But then, things slow down considerably as we go back to the origins of the phenomena. It
s an interesting way to signal the passage of the frantic present to the more innocent past. It's also as if Tsuruta Norio (KAKASHI/SCARECROW), who steps in for Nakata, is assuring the viewer that he will show the franchise and the characters the respect they deserve.
RING 0 focuses on a teenage Sadako Yamamura (Nakama Yukie) as she tries desperately to reach out to someone. She has taken interest in a college theatre group and hopes to relate to the students there. Still, she tries to keep her past a closely guarded secret.
Sadako is shy and withdrawn but sees the stage as a great way to express herself. Being able to channel her energies into becoming someone besides herself would be a big relief to the troubled girl. Also, she has developed a bit of a crush on one of the drama members.
She assures a leading part, after the star of the show dies in a mysterious accident. Things are looking up until the troupe's lives are endangered and suspicion falls on the misunderstood teen. A reporter thinks that the evil spirit of Sadako's mother has been passed down to the child, and continues to bring out her demons are she gets closer.
The most surprising move RING 0 makes is that it does not focus on Sadako's childhood. When you hear about a prequel to the RING movies, naturally you'd think that they would cover Sadako's mother and the experiments that led to all those horrible deaths. But this is a tale that has already been told through the first two films. RING 0 cuts through all that and explores the final days of Sadako's life and how she became the vengeful spirit that would eventually flicker across television screens.
In that respect, the approach is very similar to David Lynch's TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME, which covered the final days of his tragic victim, Laura Palmer. But for the first hour of RING 0, all supernatural elements seem to be regulated to the background. They are shadowy secrets, lurking in the dark, just waiting to leap out at a few shocking moments.
Instead, the main focus is on a haunted and lonely girl trying in vain to escape her past. Sadako is a character who seems to know she is doomed, but tries to overcome her fate. Although a very young girl, she looks older than her peers. Her face looks exhausted and weathered by age and experience. What's tragic is that she really seems ready for a happier life, if only the outside world would allow her legacy to remain buried.
The final act changes significantly. The last half hour of the film, which could have been a tired retread of events, shifts fully to horror territory. It's absolutely terrifying and like most of the film, tragic. The last shot is one of the most haunting images in recent memory.
Although it doesn't have the same shocks as the original, Norio does an ace job at constructing a beautiful prequel that goes beyond normal conventions. He maps a complex and emotional story that is all in all, a courageous and successful attempt at exploring Sadako's character with further depth and understanding.
Nakama Yukie does an excellent job at putting a face on Sadako, who remained mostly hidden behind those long locks in earlier installments. Far from spoiling the image, her performance adds to the mystery of the character, while simultaneously giving insight into her state of mind. The way Yukie and the filmmakers approach the part amplifies the tragic fact that she is a pawn in a cruel game.
RING 0 is not as good as the original but it is certainly much better than it should have been. A new director and approach has not spoiled the mythos one bit. Finally, it feels the story comes full circle... or as full as you can expect from an enigma like THE RING.