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'Forbidden Floor' [DVD Review] Convincing characters married to standard J-horror shticks

2007/12/10 | 1412 views | Permalink | Source

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

The second installment in the You Il-han and Ahn Byeong-ki team-up horror series concerns a young working mother Min-young (Kim Seo-hyung, the victimized teacher in "Voice Letter"), who moves into an "office-tel" room (a studio flat that doubles as a workplace) with a kindergarten-age daughter (Kim Yoo-jung). Of course, the office-tel turns out to be spooked by the spirit of another young mother, whose attacks are responsible for a series of mysterious deaths. Soon it is uncovered that the building originally had another floor (the "fourth floor", which, like the thirteenth floor in the West, is considered bad luck and usually absent in Korean buildings). When the vengeful spirit seeks to possess Min-young's daughter, she decides to uncover the sordid past of the office-tel building.

Written and directed by Kwon Il-soon, who received notice due to his short "Hide and Seek" (2001) that, not coincidentally, explores a young child's feelings of loss of her mother, "Forbidden Floor - 4 Horror Tales" unfortunately suffers from overly familiar setups. As I have been lamenting on these and other pages, Korean and Japanese horror films have long been infested by the pointless Sadako clones (PSC), which in ironic ways have fulfilled the fictional promise of Suzuki Koji's original novel "Ring" in real life, as Sadako's ghost from the movie version of "Ring" has rapidly replicated herself -- in the manner of the cursed videotape in the novel -- and infiltrated many Asian horror films, sometimes to ruinous effect. "Hidden Floor", while not blatantly ripping off "Ring" and "Ju-on" in the way, say, Ahn Byeong-ki's "A.P.T". does, still suffers from ugly symptoms of the PSC infection. (Thankfully, director Kwon does not slavishly adhere to the sacred-motherhood obsession that permeates Nakata Hideo's rather conservative re-working of Suzuki's "Dark Water".)

Having said this, though, Kwon's debut film has a few admirable qualities that elevate it above the usual summer season drudgery. First of all, the protagonist, Min-young, is written as a believable working woman firmly in control of her environments: we as viewers can relate to her irritation and exhaustion but we are never in doubt of her sanity. There is no hysterical outbreak, there is no underhanded suggestion that she used to be "mentally unstable", as was in the film version of "Dark Water" (but not in Suzuki's novel), "Carved" and other J-horror films, and there is no idiotic "cop" character who patronizes and insults the protagonist only to rush to her rescue like a knight in white armor as the denouement closes in. Even the dead spirit, while obviously trained in the J-horror school of backbone-challenged cascading-black-hair spectral presentation, is smart enough to go after those directly responsible for her present miserable condition, instead of randomly attacking innocent residents. Sidebar stories relating to Min-young's childcare problems and the corrupt background of the building are also highly convincing. (The "Wow" construction as it appears in the film is an ingenuous reference to the disastrous collapse of the Wa-woo Apartments in 1970 that killed 33 residents, one of the biggest construction-business scandals under the Park Chung Hee era) It is to the credit of Kwon's ability to sympathize with the female characters and realistically depict the hurdles laid out against them by the Korean society that I was surprised later to find that Kwon was actually a "he", not a "she".

While not a great horror film or even a particularly imaginative one, (and still ravaged by the PSC virus) "Hidden Floor" is a sincere, well-constructed and well-acted little thriller. It is recommended with some reservations to the horror fans not already throwing-up-sick of the Sadako clones.

DVD Presentation:

CJ Entertainment. Region 3. Dual Layer. Video: 1.85:1, Anamorphic Widescreen. Audio: Korean language Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles: English, Korean. Supplements: Director Kwon Il-soon and actress Kim Seo-hyung commentary, Making-of documentary, interviews with the director and actors, trailers.

Like "February 29 - 4 Horror Tales", "Forbidden Floor - 4 Horror Tales" was filmed low budget on HD, and is well served by CJ's four-discs-on-a-platter DVD. In fact this presentation is markedly superior to the drab digital screening given at last year's Bucheon Film Festival where I first saw the movie. It does an excellent job with black levels and paints the colors, especially subdued green and beige that predominate, naturalistically. The audio is another story. When I tried to run the disc directly without going through the set-up menu the 5.1 channel track sounded as if everything was recorded in an echo chamber (Going through the set-up menu put me to the correct soundtrack). I don't know if this problem was confined to my DVD copy, but playing it in other DVD players resulted in the same problem, so beware. English subtitles are about the par, accurately translated for the most part, except for the by-now-really tiresome propensity to add English four-letter words when there is none in the Korean dialogue.

Main actress Kim Seo-hyung and director Kwon Il-Soon contribute a pleasant-enough commentary track, and there are usual making-of documentaries and interviews with Kim and Kwon, which slightly overlap with the commentary content. None of these is subtitled in English.

☆☆★★★

2007 OhmyNews

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