I had intended to check out a bunch of Japanese horror movies and their Western counterparts this year, but this and Godzilla were all I managed. Kairo is an eerie, quiet film that sneaks into your internal scare zones and creeps you the hell out.
The story starts with a trio of students whose computer geek friend commits suicide in a disturbingly offhand way, after just stepping into the next room while one of them is visiting. Even worse, shortly after that he starts calling them on the phone, saying only "help me" over and over, in a tone so flat it might only be the sounds of static. As they investigate what their loner friend had been up to, they discover his obsession with a website inviting users with "would you like to see a ghost?"
Checking out the site reveals a series of webcam clips each only a few seconds long. The content of the clips is slightly varied, but usually always involve a person alone, stuck uncaring in their tiny world. One of the friends investigates the suicide's apartment, momentarily seeing him standing in the very spot he hung himself, but it turns out to just be a black stain on the wall. On his way out of the building he sees an open door that has been sealed with red tape, and investigating within comes face to face with a ghost. There's very little going on special effects-wise in this scene, it's just a little blurry slo-mo and some eerie music, but even though I'd seen this movie before I must admit I was spooked out of my knickers.
Kairo is an exquisite example of hinting but never explaining; somehow the dead have seeped into our world through the internet, although it's possible this was an inevitable result of the afterlife running out of room. The mode of attack varies; some people commit suicide, some are just drawn irrevocably into shadow and disappear, most people just don't show up to work and don't answer their phone. Without notice, the situation expands beyond the characters we know into a city-wide, perhaps global phenomenon, and we realize too late the story we've been following is just one of many.
One character opines that the overcrowded dead wouldn't want to kill us, as that would just make more ghosts. Instead they would "trap us forever in our own loneliness." That is the true essence of this movie, modern people being overwhelmed by their own implacable solitude. Imagine if that cold feeling you have when you keep getting someone's answering machine were actually some kind of threat. It's like invading aliens who use our own pollution against us, but it's far more personal. The horror here is that the afterlife is itself a gulf of crippling loneliness, and the dead have come to visit that hopeless state upon the world early, without the courtesy of waiting for death. That final fate is so dreary that even calls of "help me" are not delivered with any anguish or desperation, only monotone repitition.
That's not to say Kairo is all just drab and depressing like a cliched foreign film; the tone I'm describing is used to create a genuinely potent scare, the kind that doesn't pop out at you but is just frightening to contemplate. It's a think-piece of a movie, sometimes a bit talky, and at two hours is a touch on the long side. But it has a decent amount of scary spectacle, and in the end rates as a very good horror movie. Were I to suggest a five-movie intro to Asian horror, this would be on the list.