A short while back, a friend of mine described Ring 0 as "one of the worst, most syphilitic bowel movements ever committed to celluloid." Thankfully, he's a friend I frequently disagree with.
Ring 0: Birthday is a damn fine supernatural drama.
Throwing out all but the rough story of Lemon Heart (good!), Ring 0 follows Sadako Yamamura, just hitting adulthood, as she joins a small theatre troupe. She gets embroiled in back-stage politics, fends off a pervasive director, and sets her sights on Hiroshi Toyama, the kind sound technician. She's not off to a great start, avoiding contact with her co-workers and occasionally flipping out from a psychic vision.
Yukie Nakama is a wonder in the lead role. In the books, Sadako was clever and manipulative, possibly aware from the very beginning of how her lives would affect the future of humanity. Here, she's captivating as a broken, timid being, not fully aware of her growing powers, unwilling to remember a tragedy from the past, and seemingly unable to fit in with her fellow human beings. She's the epitome of sadness, often curling up in a corner, or slouching past others, face hidden behind long, black hair.
It's as if a part of her is missing.
Which ties in to a somewhat controversial element of her character. According to this film, Sadako split in two as a child; one docile like her mother, one malevolent like her mentioned, but never revealed, father. It's an interesting idea, but one that never really comes together. Plus, it just sounds weird. Especially when her step(?)father reveals that "bad" Sadako is kept child-like in appearance through drug therapy. Why?! Other than a throw-back to previous films' use of a child-Sadako image, there's really no reason for it.
But that leap of logic is one of only a few complaints I have about the picture. Most others involve the climax. I'll get to that in a minute.
Comparing Ring to Ring 0 is, in my mind, like comparing Omen to Damien: Omen II. While the first films are solid, slick, frightening blockbusters, the rougher, over-shadowed sequels bring so many new elements to the table - new concepts, new themes, layer after layer - that I find them far more satisfying overall. Not only do we get the story of Sadako, but we get her budding romance with Toyama, his infatuated assistant's growing jealousy, that darn director, an investigating journalist, Sadako's curious doctor, and other, smaller bits, all weaving a wondrous web.
And let's not forget those back-stage politics. Since the day she joined, Sadako's co-workers have been hesitant to accept her. Not only is she quiet and distant, but shared dreams of an old stone well start growing in frequency. When the lead actress mysteriously dies and Sadako is picked as her replacement, the flames are fanned and people start plotting her downfall.
In a somewhat overtly Carrie-like development, her play is sabotaged and Sadako's powers go on the rampage. But it's surprisingly brief before the troupe forms a torch-less mob and hunts her down.
It's sad, really. In an earlier, beautiful sequence, we see Sadako coming to grips with her powers through experimentation on a catatonic, wheelchair-bound man. She can be capable of such good, but these people, blinded by rage, see only an evil, monstrous freak.
Unfortunately, the story falls apart a bit as things go on for another 20-minutes, the theatre troupe forming a death-squad of sorts and setting out to rid the world of child-Sadako. The film hits its major lows here, mainly through bad choices and lazy writing, but there are some genuine shocks and it's still well directed. Thankfully, things come around in the final few minutes for a brutal, heart-breaking finale.
For fans of the series, I definitely give this film a recommendation. It's not perfect, but there's so much going on you're bound to like something. For newcomers, watch Ring first before giving this a try.
Syphilitic bowel movement? Hardly.