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'Cello' Horror Best Tuned Out

2006/09/10 | 756 views | Permalink | Source

[DVD Review] Listless spook show is a typical post-'Ring' Asian horror flick

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

"Cello" is a typical example of the lugubriously underwhelming horror films flooding Korean theaters every summer season. The first decade of 21st century has seen an out-and-out flourishing of Korean horror films, once a vilified and ignored genre. A few among them, like "A Tale of Two Sisters" and "Memento Mori", beautiful, mysterious and emotionally engaging, have attained the status of minor classics. Others, including "Into The Mirror", "The Uninvited", "R-Point" and "Voice" ("Voice Letter") have experimented with a mixture of genres, refinement in techniques and style, or infusion of art-house sensibilities, winning praise among critics and support among more patient viewers. And then there are the rest: the hopelessly cliched and listlessly non-frightening, which still constitute, unfortunately, the numerical majority.

There are many reasons for this state of affairs. Since the global triumph of the Ring franchise, the East Asian horror market has been infected, SARS-like, by a cinematic virus known as PSC, i.e. Pointless Sadako Clone. Infection by this virus results in the eyeless young female ghosts with long, straight black hair shuffling around and popping up everywhere. Suzuki Koji's original novel is a quasi-Lovecraftian dark fantasy with overtones of science fiction, in which the content of the "cursed videotape" turns out to be a new form of life, capable of replicating itself through media technology. In the novel, Sadako is a beautiful, hermaphroditic super-being, rejected by society as a freak and a subject of male sexual persecution.

In the movie, she is a sulking young girl, her face permanently obscured under cascading, long hair. In a deeply ironic "reality follows fiction" development that Suzuki might appreciate, Sadako has become a media virus of its own, infecting horror films worldwide. Many K-horrors, stricken with PSC, drag out the long-haired female ghosts whenever something "scary" has to happen. The immediate outcome is usually massive tedium and annoyance on the part of viewers. If PSC is allowed to proliferate, contemporary East Asian horror might go the way of '70s martial arts movies featuring Bruce Lee clones, with screen monikers like Bruce Li, Bruce Ree, Bruce Lo... you get the picture.

Another problem is the filmmaker's propensity to place all their bets on relentlessly disingenuous -- occasionally outright stupid -- "surprise endings" or "plot twists". Do they really think the viewers, Korean or otherwise, are so naive as to be taken aback by every "No, it was all her imagination!" or "No, she has been DEAD all this time! SHE is the ghost!" boogaboo denouement they trundle out summer after summer after summer? (A certain popular movie starring Kim Kap-soo is an exception that only proves the rule.)

Moreover, in Korea, horror film projects seem to be dropped into the laps of debutant directors with no discernible interest or passion for the genre. Take "Face" and "The Wig" ("The Wig") for example. In the first case, the director desperately tries to float above the blood-and-guts vulgarity of the material by reducing the movie to a total bore. In the second, the director attempts to transcend the genre by slapping viewers' faces with an incredibly downbeat ending, possibly intending to push them toward hard-bitten reflection on the enigmatic nature of human relationships. Unintentional hilarity or resentful confusion, or both, is the likelier outcome.

At the center of the malaise is one common denominator for all these films: witless, self-satisfied screenplays. Horror suffers most from the practitioners who believe that it is an easy genre to tackle. In fact, creating a convincing supernatural presence or an intelligent and motivated Frankenstein's monster takes more talent and skill than illustrating a credible auto insurance salesman or a "realistically" foul-mouthed neighborhood thug.

It is truly unfortunate for all concerned that every single problem I have discussed above regarding a Korean horror film can be found in "Cello":

# Symptoms of PSC, check.
(This long-haired ghost also have fingernails painted black with a matching black dress.)
# Groan-inducing "surprise twist" as well as heinously irritating "ambiguous final shot", check.
# Filmmakers with little interest in horror genre and seemingly going about pushing red buttons with their toes, check.
# Dull, predictable CGI effects and dull, predictable set pieces, sigh... check.

Starring Sung Hyun-ah ("Woman is the Future of Man") as a cellist named Mi-ju, whose teenage daughter seems to be possessed by one of her instruments, "Cello" is a strictly paint-by-numbers affair. The best defense one can marshal up for it is perhaps that it does convey what the debutant director Lee Woo-cheol (or perhaps screenwriter Jung Woo-chul) wanted to address thematically: a critique of bourgeois family values and consumerist feminine subjectivity (also known as the "It's all Mommy's fault!" blame game) as embodied in such symbols of materialist upper-class-dom as an expensive musical education. The director has said that he chose the Cello as the instrument of fear because it approximates a human (female) body shape and size. Aha indeed.

It is too bad that these intriguing ideas had to be buried under the tiresome things-go-bump-in-the-night scare tactics.

"Cello" is a well-meaning thriller done in by the deadly combination of indifference to what makes the horror genre work and unthinking capitulation to commercial trends. Korean horror has a lot of potential, but continuing in this PSC-ravaged, final-twist-obsessed vein is definitely not the way to go. Korean filmmakers would do well to remember the clones of Bruce Lee and what terrible fate has befallen them over the years.

DVD Presentation

Tartan USA DVD. Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85: 1. Dual Layer. Region 1. Audio: Korean (DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround). Subtitles: English, Spanish. July 2006.

Tartan USA gives a decent presentation to a run-of-the-mill title. Transfer is not one of their reference jobs, but then again the film has always looked rather murky and dour. Surprisingly, the audio tracks include a pleasantly unassuming commentary by director Lee Woo-cheol and producer Park Sang-do.

Director Lee somewhat bashfully acknowledges that he had not seen a single horror film prior to making "Cello" (Jeez, what a surprise!). Otherwise, the two discuss with refreshing honesty positive and negative reactions at the press screenings, point out an homage to "Old Boy" (completely unidentifiable unless you have seen the latter more than 10 times, I suppose) and frankly admit that they have not presented the "surprise twist" in an effective manner. Audio channels sound fine.

Supplements include a standard making-of documentary with young actresses cavorting around, the original theatrical trailer and TV spot and trailers for other Tartan Asia Extreme releases.

2006 OhmyNews

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