After Hideo Nakata and the Killer Videotape of Ring, we now get Kiyoshi Kurosawa (of Cure) with a Killer Web Site. Actually, Kairo (or Circuit, as it has been rendered into English) is much smarter and maybe even a little deeper than such a gimmicky description would lead you believe. It doesn't completely work, though — its bag of ideas is so eclectic that it borders on being schizoid, and by the time the movie is over we're not only not sure what was really going on, but why it would have mattered one way or the other. That said, Kairo is an interesting attempt to make a thinking person's horror movie, and it does pack a few jolts.
A small flower company has subcontracted for some computer work, which is badly overdue. When the employees enter the guy's apartment to find out what's wrong, they find only a strange black stain on the wall — roughly in the form of a man — and a floppy disk with an even weirder image on it. It's a picture of the guy, apparently snapped by a webcam, facing his computer, on which is ... the same picture? Asking for coherency from this movie is probably a fool's errand, though.
At the same time, a young student who's just getting his sea legs with the Internet bumbles across a web site that seems to have a bevy of the same images — all of ghostly, vague images of people who wander around slowly, appearing and disappearing. Are they seeing ghosts? One of the movie's interesting and daring strengths is that it doesn't explain anything — there is, however, one theory dropped along the way that is an echo of the old George Romero line, "When there is no more room in hell, the dead will walk the earth."
Gradually, the bizarre virus — if that's indeed what it is — infects more and more people, spreading from the PC to cellphones and even to machines that aren't even turned on. There is also a strange correlation between the infected people and a "forbidden room," where someone has scrawled HELP ME on the walls over and over again, and sealed it up with tape. Or the figure with the black plastic bag over his (her?) head, who removes it and drives people mad. And more, much more — although these disparate ingredients, while spooky, are ultimately abandoned for another set of ideas that seem equally undercooked.
Most of the movie takes place in a Tokyo that seems on the verge of being torn down — something which many people who see Tokyo for the first time say about it anyway, actually, but the film exploits this shanty-town feeling thoroughly. Every room seems abandoned, or on the verge of being abandoned. Direct sunlight just looks dingy. By the final minutes of the movie, Tokyo's become a burned-out hulk, with most of the population missing; there's an amazing moment involving a burning airplane crashing into a building that is just thrown out there, to make the audience duck.
Kurosawa shoots and presents all of this for maximum spook effect, with incredibly eerie sound effects that seem to envelope the viewer. More than half the movie, it seems, isn't in the visuals — many of which are grainy and dark, or half-seen on computer monitors — but in the audio. The movie also wisely avoids the usual musical-sting effects that most films like this rely on, but instead builds up one layer of unsettling sound on top of another.
Where the movie breaks down, though, is in its attempts to give any of this a real meaning or sell it to us with characters who matter. If you're wondering why I haven't mentioned anyone in the movie by name, it's because I could barely remember them — the movie gives us and then discards one character after another, never investing them with more than the most superficial presence. If that's on purpose, fine, but he never convinces us that there's more afoot here than the director's ambitions. And as far as why all this is going on, or what it's supposed to represent, the movie also stumbles — there's talk of loneliness, and the final scenes in the movie with the survivors running around in a desolate world are like the ultimate endpoint of that. But the movie's main conceits never seem to really link up with each other and hum.
The downside of the way Kairo plays out — long and drawn-out — means that a fair number of people intrigued by the premise may find themselves squirming with impatience, even up through the last few minutes. Maybe the movie would have worked better with slightly more aggressive editing (and a less deliberately sleepy screenplay) but that might have also damaged the immensely ominous atmosphere the movie does such a good job of summoning. I still feel that a good movie should not have to compromise between the coherency of its story and the feeling it wants to evoke in its audience. Jeremy Heilman once commented, "Kurosawa’s films seem so well put together that I almost resent not being able to like them much," and after seeing Kairo I understand what he means.