Pulse (2001, Japan) is the first addition to my Rough Guide to Asian Horror, and it’s a strange one. For the first hour or so, you might think it’s a standard J-horror about a ghostly menace lurking inside The Forbidden Room, a website that causes people to become depressed, then either commit suicide or fade away into nothing but a dark stain on the nearest wall. But as the meandering storyline follows its various characters’ growing awareness of the threat, you start to realise this film isn’t going to resolve itself like your standard horror. The depression-plague spreads and begins to depopulate the world. One character asks what if there was only limited space available for the ghosts of the dead, and what if that space was now full? In an echo of the “Crevices” episode of Dark Tales of Japan, rooms sealed with red tape act as incubators in which ghosts of the dead can re-form and return to our world. It’s their touch that spreads the depression-curse.
Pulse has its share of scary moments, including that Japanese standard, the spook stalking its victim in slow, surreal, jerky steps. In one Birds-like moment, while the camera focuses on one character making a phone call, in the background a young woman casually throws herself off a tower. But in the main, Pulse is not about the sort of scary thrill-fears you expect from Asian horror. It’s a more pervasive, less focused, but far more real, fear of isolation. The graduate student who speculates on there being limited space for the souls of the dead has developed a computer program. The movement of a series of blobs on a screen are controlled by two rules: they cannot get too far apart, and they cannot get too close together. This sums up the film’s rather bleak view of its characters’ attempts to overcome their feelings of isolation in a world where, as one character says, “Words said in friendship with the best of intentions always wind up hurting your friends deeply.”
As a film, Pulse is let down by its opening, creepy J-horror gambits, because they led me to expect something quite different. (The title, of course, doesn’t help. Having watched the film, I still have no idea why it’s called Pulse.) Although marketed in a similar way, this film is less along the lines of Ringu‘s pass-it-on-before-it-gets-you curse or the haunted house scenario of The Grudge and closer, by the end, to something like Day of the Triffids as the horror reaches worldwide-disaster proportions, and a truly bleak feeling at the end which even the most nihilistic of horrors (Audition, for instance) don’t manage. Not entirely successful, but certainly original.