J-Horror cash-in: One Missed Call (Takashi Miike, 2003)

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I’ve done my best to question the first reaction I had to One Missed Call: that it’s not much more than a dull cash-in on the J-horror craze of the early 2000s. This questioning is based less on the film, and more on the fact that I want to give the genre itself the benefit of the doubt. The high-profile American remakes made repetition feel inevitable, and viewing black-haired, white-robed female ghosts as stale simply misses the cultural context of these type of spirits. Besides, enjoying a genre comes from appreciating how well a film uses its familiar elements and in recognising how it does something new. Post-Ringu, there’s still a lot to be done with technologically aided curses. But does this film manage it?

The plot of One Missed Call won’t surprise anyone who’s seen any J-horror at all: a curse spreads amongst a group of young people through their mobile phones. Each victim receives a phone call from themselves that gives a premonition of their final words and violent deaths. One woman, Yumi (Ko Shibasaki), tries to understand the curse and its origins.

The first hour or so of the film is hard to get through, not just because so much of it is familiar, but because Miike seems to be going through the motions. There’s no energy or sense of inspiration, and the grey colour palette adds to this. The deaths rely on questionable CGI and aren’t remotely scary. There’s also nothing interesting about the acting or the dialogue, and scenes drag on and on. Watching this emphasises just how well Ringu and Ju-On made a virtue of the mundane. Those films also managed to maintain tension in the lead up to their various death scenes, which were just as inevitable as the ones here.

As a viewer way ahead of the characters in understanding how the curse works, it’s impossible not to nitpick. One victim has an outright lame reason for speaking his final words, which is hard to believe, given that he had listened to his message multiple times and feared the curse. The cutesey, melodic ringtone that the curse uses is nowhere near as threatening as a traditional, piercing “ring, ring”. And why does the curse use one victim’s severed hand to dial the next victim, but later seems to use some sort of barely visible, ghostly force to accomplish the same task?

The film improves once it reaches a sequence in which a death is exploited and captured live on TV. Whilst the death is broadcast directly onto screens above Tokyo’s crowded streets, no one outside the studio pays much notice. The victim, realising no one can save her, says, “I’m all alone,” which is almost more horrible than what the vengeful spirit does to her.

One Missed Call’s derivative nature becomes more egregious, however, as its focus shifts towards motherhood, or, more specifically, to bad mothers. Abuse leads to more abuse, and breaking the cycle comes at a price. One Missed Call cannot, however, come close to depicting these ideas as powerfully as Dark Water. That film had an emotional impact that overrode its flaws, and it’s a little nauseating to see One Missed Call try something so similar.

One Missed Call has another decent sequence, set in a hospital, once it stops focusing so much on the curse’s mechanics. The lighting is markedly improved, the curse takes different forms, and the plot is no longer so predictable. The real question is whether or not the ending is going to be so bleak as the ones in other films of this genre.

The film concludes with some puzzling events that are unclear about which characters are dead, alive, possessed or at peace. It demands that the viewer think back through what they’re already seen. However, there’s not enough clues to come up with an answer that’s mentally or emotionally satisfying. This ambiguity may be a Miike flourish – but it’s meaningless if it doesn’t conclude a strong film. Thinking about One Missed Call leaves me feeling that it was not made with ambition or respect for the audience. It’s not entirely dull or without merit, but it is certainly a cash-in.