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In the ’60s and ’70s, people packed art houses with fellow cinephiles in order to feel profoundly alone. These days, they stay home with their DVD players so they can feel vaguely connected. America’s rec-room repertory theaters are devoted mostly to small-screen reruns of major-studio dreck, but there are more exotic subcultures. One of these supports Asian horror and revenge flicks that Hollywood sees mostly as grist for remakes, including the work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, perhaps the most ambitious of J-horror directors. His features, roughly 20 in all, have arrived in this country primarily via home video, but 2001’s Pulse was acquired by Miramax, which gave it what’s become the standard treatment for such things: The distributor put its acquisition on the shelf, perhaps waiting for a remake deal. But then Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein split with Disney, in the process freeing some of their company’s celluloid hostages.
Kurosawa, who isn’t related to the director of Seven Samurai, explores roughly the same psychic (and geographic) territory as Hideo Nakata, whose films provided the basis for such underwhelming remakes as The Ring, The Grudge, and Dark Water. In fact, the first half of Pulse works the slightest of variations on The Ring: Instead of inhabiting TVs, malevolent supernatural forces have colonized the computers of a group of young adults in some of Tokyo’s drearily modern outer wards. As in many Japanese films, animated and otherwise, technology beguiles while it menaces and apocalypse beckons.
The problem is first mooted at a rooftop plant shop, where Michi (Kumiko Aso) and Junko (Kurume Arisaka) worry about missing co-worker Taguchi (Kenji Mizuhashi), who’s been developing a computer program of unknown purpose. Michi visits Taguchi’s apartment, where she’s relieved to find that he seems to be OK. Then he goes into the next room and hangs himself.
The threat, which Kurosawa’s script carelessly (or perhaps wisely) never really explains, seems to have something to do with Ur@nus, an online service. At least that’s the conduit through which economics student Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) encounters the technological ghost world. An Internet novice, the bewildered Kawashima seeks answers at the college computer lab, where Harue (Last Samurai female lead Koyuki) tries to help. But this isn’t just a matter of rebooting or defragging. As the virus—or whatever—advances, ghosts wander the library, suicide becomes epidemic, and people simply vanish, leaving only ominous stains. There are also portals, apparently, in “forbidden rooms” sealed with red tape, leading who knows where. The only thing that’s certain is that young Tokyo residents, being just as dumb as American slasher-flick cuties, won’t be able to resist entering such places.
Various theories are considered: The afterlife is overcrowded. A grad student’s program has infected the college’s computers with phantoms. Spirits are returning to the corporeal realm because death is “eternal loneliness”—or perhaps because “ghosts and people are the same.” Ultimately, however, Pulse isn’t a ghost story. Tokyo is already inexplicably empty when the film begins, and soon its depopulation becomes considerably more urgent an issue than Japan’s declining birth rate. Michi and Kawashima meet just in time to flee a city that’s under some sort of attack, ultimately boarding a ship whose captain (Koji Yakusho, a Kurosawa regular known for regular-guy roles) announces that the entire Earth seems to be affected.
Although much of Pulse is devoted to a standard J-horror premise, the film is really a study of alienation—and thus a transition piece to Kurosawa’s later Bright Future, a bleakly ravishing existential mystery. Both movies are set in part-residential, part-industrial precincts so nondescript that they could appear in Chain, Jem Cohen’s new study of the denatured global consumer-culture landscape. It’s a world without foundation and without character, just as suitable for specters as for plant-shop workers or college kids. This evocation of contemporary hollowness is what lifts Pulse above its muddled, perfunctory plot: Kurosawa conjures a universe where it seems perfectly natural that, as one student puts it, “people disappear every day.”
Actually, the person who says that isn’t in Pulse at all. She’s the unnamed architecture student (played by Last Tango in Paris lead Maria Schneider) who becomes the companion of a dead man in The Passenger. An art-house hit upon its original release 30 years ago, the film is the third (and last) of Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Anglo-American features, after Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point. All three place a sociopolitical frame around the director’s worldview. But that doesn’t fundamentally alter his conception of reality as unknowable and the distance between people as unbridgeable.
The story opens in a desert, supposedly in Chad, where David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is as alone as he will ever be—but no more so than in London, Munich, or Barcelona, the film’s subsequent locations. A TV journalist covering a civil war, Locke is quietly weary of his life, his profession, and his marriage. Trudging back to his hotel after metaphorically miring his Range Rover in sand, Locke finds that the shabby little hostelry’s other English-speaking guest, David Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill), is dead of an apparent heart attack. After switching passport photos and reporting Mr. Locke’s death to the front desk, the reporter is reborn. He just doesn’t know as what.
Robertson’s profession is a mystery, but his itinerary isn’t. He has a plane ticket to Germany, where Locke-as-Robertson learns that he is an arms dealer. First he visits London, where he observes the remains of his former life and catches a glimpse of the Girl (Schneider) at Bloomsbury Centre, a brutalist mixed-use project that must have seemed one of the most extraterrestrial structures in 1975 London. Following the dead man’s appointment schedule, the new Robertson continues to Spain, where he formally meets the Girl and they begin a ’70s-art-film romance: casual but intense. She helps him evade the people looking for Locke—his boss (Ian Hendry) and estranged wife (Jenny Runacre)—as well as the ones looking for Robertson. Representatives of both groups eventually catch up with him in the extraordinary concluding scene, an extended single take that loops out of a hotel room and then back in again, encompassing all of the film’s major characters.
Stunningly accomplished final sequences are an Antonioni trademark—even the ungainly Zabriskie Point has one—and The Passenger both opens and closes in the director’s private universe, characterized by deliberate pacing, inconclusive action, and a sense of emptiness. In between, the film sometimes falters, owing to narrative aimlessness, Nicholson’s overly stylized cool, and the not-quite-idiomatic dialogue. (The script is credited to Tanzanian writer-director Mark Peploe, English critic/director Peter Wollen, and Antonioni.) Visually, however, the movie could hardly be more graceful. In addition to the closing shot, there’s an impeccably constructed flashback to Locke and Robertson’s first meeting that moves from sound to vision and then back to sound again. Such deft moments express both the filmmaker’s aesthetic and his philosophy of human relations: “People don’t really connect, y’know?”
OK, that line is from Pulse—it’s what Harue tells Kawashima on their first meeting—but it’s also appropriate to The Passenger. Both are genre flicks transformed by existential twists. Antonioni’s film is a mistaken-identity thriller in which the protagonist happens to have intentionally assumed the persona that threatens his life. With locations that include a Bavarian chapel, a Barcelona cable car, and a Gaudi apartment building, The Passenger has a much stronger sense of place than Pulse, yet both come to similar conclusions: Kurosawa suggests that the contemporary metropolis has become so alien that maintaining a grip on it is almost hopeless. But almost three decades earlier, Antonioni recognized that it’s possible to get lost anywhere. CP