Correction to This Article
A review of the film "Pulse" in the Nov. 23 Style section incorrectly said that the 2001 movie predated the original Japanese version of "The Ring." "Ringu" was released in 1998.

'Pulse': A Quiet Game of Doom

Kumiko Aso, left, and Haruhiko Kato star in the the unsettling horror film
Kumiko Aso, left, and Haruhiko Kato star in the the unsettling horror film "Pulse," in which people perish from computer interference. (Magnolia Pictures)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"Pulse," by the Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, best known for a frightener called "Cure," is probably the quietest end-of-the-world movie ever made. In it, we perish with neither bang nor whimper, but with the faint crackle of interference over a computer speaker.

The Japanese horror film is another example of a now familiar pattern; though it was made back in 2001, it's getting a theatrical release now -- just like "The Grudge" -- to anticipate an American remake next year, presumably on a bigger budget with flashier stars and big-studio marketing oomph behind it. In fact, since it predates the original Japanese versions of "Grudge" as well as "The Ring" and "Dark Water," many believe that it set off the wave of J-horror, as the genre is called, and also that its release now -- after its imitators -- somewhat diminishes its impact, as many of the tropes it invented have become standard in both Japanese and American horror films.

Still, it works. It conjures up an atmosphere of hopeless dread out of the most banal of elements. You never thought you'd be disoriented by watching someone walk funny with a plastic bag over his head? Guess again. In the end, the ship of state and civilization sails onward quite literally with a crew of one.

The filmmaking is low-tech but weirdly effective, using low-cost techniques (a blurring of faces, a few digital paintings of smoke columns) to unsettle the heck out of you. It's almost completely without gore (two gun suicides, though bloodless, are difficult to watch) but it builds toward a mood of high creepiness.

At the same time, "Pulse" either makes no sense whatsoever or perfect sense. It never really explains itself -- although there is a theory under its madness -- and proceeds visually rather than logically. In Western horror, there's usually an investigator of some sort, who's trying to get to the bottom of something. In "Pulse" eerie happenings take people down, one by one by 4 billion, and the focus slides from victim to victim. The characters don't try to figure out what's going on -- as if logic is worthless against the plague it documents -- no one consults civil authorities, and by the time the hero notices the world is dying, the world is dead.

Set in today's smoggy, crowded, gritty Tokyo, it begins with a circle of handsome young people affiliated with a greenhouse or, in a couple of cases, a university. But, again, unlike Western traditions, they're not characterized morally or even by class; no one's "fast," or a big drinker or carouser; nobody's even vaguely interested in sex; nobody's rich, nobody's poor. They're just hard-working kids. One of them commits suicide, quite naturally upsetting the others.

He is gone . . . or is he? Each of them -- the camera wanders in its attention -- begins to encounter strange happenings, usually via their ubiquitous computers. One of the young people will suddenly realize the one-eyed beast has come on, unsolicited, late at night. They'll lean close and see what appears to be nothing but fuzz, a growling, pointillist blur of dots, but slowly images emerge from the murk in some short of shaggy, awkward rhythm and it seems their friend is trying to reach them. Is the computer screen a viewing box to some kind of alternate existence? Is there a ghost in the machine?

Dots are a kind of visual motif in the film. A graduate student, of tenuous connection to the main plot, appears to explain a computer program he's devised in which dots float randomly on the screen. When they get too close, they vaporize; when they get too far, they vaporize. That's a kind of image for the universe and it carries with it suggestions of the metaphorical energy of the film, which at some level is a meditation on loneliness.

At the same time, people begin disappearing. The disappearances, however, aren't characterized as acts of violence but more like some kind of crossing over. They leave disturbing traces behind -- a vanishing seems affiliated, in some way, with a smear of dark color, almost like a chalked abstraction, that has both depth and resonance. Meanwhile, the music is getting eerier and eerier.

Finally, only Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) and Harue (Koyuki, who was prominent in "The Last Samurai") are left. I mean literally. Otherwise, Tokyo is empty, cars have crashed and burned and those smoke columns fill the sky. There's an image of apocalypse almost out of a Gustave Dore etching and a final escape to . . . well, to nothing.

"Pulse" is best enjoyed if it's not questioned too closely. It lives visually in a way it cannot live intellectually. Like the best horror movies, it doesn't beat you over the head, splatter you, or fold, spindle and mutilate you. Rather, slowly and subtly, it creeps you out. You may go home and throw out your computer and lock the doors.

Pulse (120 minutes at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated, though it contains very intense themes and images.

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