Yup, that's right. The Hollywood remake. Those words are of course an evil to be abhorred by all right-thinking persons, except that this time it's different because they've kept the same director, the same setting and some of the same cast. The scriptwriter is called Stephen Susco, which doesn't sound very Japanese but he seems to have stuck as closely as he could to Shimizu's original anyway. Obviously I'd bought the 97-minute director's cut DVD rather than the 92-minute American theatrical version, so all things considered I'd been looking forward to this one.
The short version = I liked it. It's impressively respectful, not least with its Japanese setting. They hadn't had to do that, with the Ring remake for instance being set in America. The next pleasant surprise was that it hasn't been made moron-friendly by rewiring everyone's brains into English. Instead both languages are used freely and the film is even mildly interested in showing us what it's like to be a westerner over there. Admittedly that's really just a scene or two near the beginning, but it felt real to me.
It's a different view of Japan, of course. It's less immersive. The Japanese originals were more claustrophobic, taking you deeper inside Japanese society. This is a film made for English-language audiences and it tells its story mostly through Americans, be they professors, exchange students or simply brought along for no obvious reason with your son who's got a job over there and is about to check you in at the House of Death. (However no English conversation school teachers, as is shown by the lack of binge drinking, job-hopping and womanising.) Nevertheless there's still a good spread of foreigners, from the reluctant wives who want to go home to the well-settled men who've found their niche and might never leave.
Now I hasten to say that here's nothing wrong with any of this. If you're more interested in seeing Japan through Japanese eyes, then there are hundreds of excellent movies out there I could recommend to you. Every country has a hundred faces, but Japan has a thousand. This film's portrayal of Japan is as valid as any other, less superficial than the tourist experience of Lost in Translation but still giving a taste of what it's like to be in a world that fundamentally isn't yours. However because of that it feels less alien. There's something cosily familiar about watching Bill Pullman and Sarah Michelle Gellar, even though I ended up rather impressed by both of them and was never reminded of their other roles.
The perfect way to describe Gellar's performance is that she gets the job done. She's thoroughly professional, does everything required of her and provides just the right kind of star quality to lead you through the movie without ever pushing you out of it. Pullman on the other hand surprised me. He's working on a slightly different level to anyone else. The acting in this film is very realistic, with the only exceptions being a couple of weak reaction shots from American actors. Pullman has just a touch more screen presence than anyone else. You can tell it's a performance rather than 100% naturalism, but I'm talking about something so subtle as to be almost homeopathic and in any case I liked it. They both bring a lot to the movie and are an example of stars being good for your film, despite the fact that before I began I'd been mildly dreading having to watch her.
Pullman sounds uncomfortable with his few lines of Japanese, incidentally, but Gellar copes well despite her character supposedly being good enough to talk to strangers in the street and understand eavesdropped conversations.
This is a remake distinct enough to justify its existence, makes no mistakes at all and is a worthy continuation of the franchise. It's faster-paced in the beginning, taking less time with its set-up, but it also has scarier jump moments. It's a slightly different kind of horror. The original was eerier. However this is still a strong film, with a bigger budget and a couple of nice effects shots.
Nevertheless it's still a remake. Why watch it at all when you've got the original?
Answer = a structured narrative. Personally I found the original's impenetrability to be a key factor in what made it so disorientating and unique, but there's also a lot to be said for having a clue about what's going on. They've chucked a lot of the side-stories and focused more on their lead characters, not to mention making it easier to follow the jumping time-tracks. There's less of that kind of thing, but what they have is clearer. By the end they're even confident enough to do a crossover, which is rather cool in a ghost story but would have lost me completely had the original film gone there. Hell, maybe it did and I still haven't realised. Says it all, really.
An important part of this is the American actors. No matter what the script might be doing, you always know where you are with Sarah Michelle Gellar. Her face and name play a part in the remake's cast being more memorable, although this still isn't a character-driven story. I think even Japanese audiences would agree with that. This also doesn't detract from the pleasure I got from seeing the original actors return as the homicidal spectres, or Ryo Ishibashi as Detective Nakagawa. I'd seen him before in Audition and Suicide Club, but I hadn't known he could speak English.
Incidentally the actress playing Bill Pullman's wife has the same shaped face as Billie Piper.
The film also offers more explanations and backstory, so that by the end you'll have a good idea of what happened and why. They tie things back more clearly to the house, for instance. This could have been a terrible mistake, but in fact it works well. They even surprised me with one detail of Kayako's motivation, since I'd been expecting something more conventional.
I could discuss the differences a bit more, although I don't know if they're particularly important. Kayako and Toshio's deaths are less bloody, but are given more story time. The ghosts are also more physical than I remembered, being capable of tearing away body parts or pushing your head somewhere you wouldn't want it to be. That was an interesting touch.
Overall, it's a strong film. It's faithful without feeling pointless or rehashed. The main two differences are: (a) a subtly different viewpoint of Japan, and (b) a clearer, simpler story. Neither of those are good or bad. They're just different. Personally I prefer the more distinctive original, but this version might be easier to recommend to your friends. It's J-horror filtered through an American movie-making sensibility, but despite this it's also very good indeed.