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Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter 'Black House'

2008/06/12 | 523 views |  | Permalink | Source

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A robust, grisly horror film boosted by excellent performances

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

A meek but kind insurance salesman Jeon Jun-O (Hwang Jung-min, "Happiness") is handpicked by a creepy metalworker, Park Choong-Bae (Kang Shin-il, "Silmido"), for renewal of the policies on the his family. Visiting Park's spectacularly decrepit adobe, Jun-O ends up discovering the body of Park's young son, apparently a suicide.

Meeting Choong-Bae's wife Yi-Hwa (Yoo Sun, "The Wig" - "The Wig"), a pale beauty who has seemingly exhausted her capacity for grief, Jun-O begins to suspect that the boy's death was in fact a murder, and that she is next in line.

What Jun-O does not understand is that his small act of kindness (and breach of professional ethics) over a phone consultation has already ensnared him in a web of deceit, mutilation and murder, spun by a psychopath who makes Norman Bates in "Psycho" look like SpongeBob SquarePants.

A Japan-Korea coproduction, "Black House" is based on Japanese writer Yűsuke Kishi's award-winning early novel, having been filmed once in 1999 by Morita Yoshimitsu ("Family Game"), also scheduled to debut this summer on Region 1 DVD. Unfortunately, it emulates the strategy of Hollywood remakes of the J-horror, by boosting up volume and scare tactics but largely abandons the kind of phlegmatic, deliberately paced terror expected in the high-end Japanese genre literature or film, not to mention the original's superb characterizations.

Lee Yeong-joong's screenplay invents a rather hackneyed childhood trauma for Jun-O, while reducing one of the novel's most fascinating and complex characters, the company "enforcer" Miyoshi, into a crude thug with a fondness for dental floss.

Helmer Shin Terra (Shin Terra) is clearly an inventive filmmaker but has some way to go before mastering storytelling skills. Those who have not read the novel might be befuddled by the sequences that are in turn confusingly presented, inadequately explained or simply illogical. (Did Choong-Bae bite off his thumb or not? And all children who have dreams of flying off into the air in a swing are supposed to grow up to be psychos? Maybe that explains Ann Coulter.)

Despite these weaknesses, however, "Black House" works. Like, say, "Blood Rain", the movie's power is greatly enhanced by its colorful production design (supervised by Jo Hwa-Seong) and competent cinematography/lighting (Choe Joo-Young and Lee Sung-Jae). The psychopath's lair, with its makeshift abattoir-operating room ambience, smeared with blood and filth, is impressively frightening.

Hwang Jung-min, one of the most reliable character actors working in Korea today, makes for a thoroughly believable and sympathetic hero. Yoo Sun, fragile-looking but strangely alluring, provides an interesting contrast to the Morita version's slightly whacky but memorable performance by Otake Shinobu, and admirably holds her own against Hwang.

It is a tribute to their chemistry and Hwang's superior acting ability that you completely believe that Jun-O could be so frightened of Yi-Hwa, when, if you stop to think for a moment after the movie, their confrontation should look in real life like a grizzly bear cowering in terror before a hissing mountain cat.

In one important aspect, the film happily does not follow a Hollywood cliche. It culminates in a series of rather preposterous but extremely suspenseful Grand Guignol confrontations, but the monster remains the monster to the bitter end. Neither sexual abuse during childhood, nor Freudian psychoanalysis nor the "unrequited desire to be loved" is dredged up to explain away why it became the way it did.

By honoring Kishi's open-ended conclusion and putting the utterly conscienceless (but not unattractive) monster at the center of the movie, "Black House" ultimately recovers much of the goodwill initially lost by the rather slapdash way the novel was adapted.

DVD Presentation:

Genius Entertainment. NTSC. Dual Layer. Region 1. Video: Anamorphic Widescreen, 2.35:1. Audio: Korean Dolby Digital 5.0. Subtitles: English. Supplement: Making-of featurette, production design featurette, deleted scenes. Retail Price: $24.95. Release Date: April 22, 2008.

"Black House", a potentially appropriate title for the Tartan Extreme Asia label, is again directly released by Genius Entertainment. The transfer is good, if not outstanding. It retains a bit of the high-contrast, heavily filtered, edge-enhancement-spotted look familiar from Korean DVDs. Color scheme faithfully approximates the theatrical experience, not slipping too much into sickly yellow or brownish muck, and sporting nicely balanced cold blue and gray in key scenes.

Korean Dolby Digital 5.0 track is adequate to good, with some serious bang-up sound effects during the last 20 minutes.

English subs are high quality, providing translations of key texts as well as dialogues.

Cover design, however, is pretty hideous, and fails to sell the film's strength: it looks like one for an indifferently put-together haunted-house flick, which "Black House" most definitely is not. They should have used CJ Entertainment's composite poster that shows Hwang Jung-min crouching in terror against an unseen assailant.

If US distributors are refusing to put Korean actor's faces in the posters because they are "unknowns" in the US, their logic is a total bunk. Do any of these people make the same argument for American posters for French films? (Quick, name the French actress seen through a keyhole in the poster for "With a Friend Like Harry"!)

The supplements are fairly generous, carried over from Region 3 DVD, with OK English subtitles. The making-of documentary is rather subdued, with director Shin, Hwang and Yu taking turns and discussing such topics as the difference between the novel and the screenplay. It clocks at around 20 minutes.

A shorter piece (seven minutes) on production design is more interesting, interspersed with full-blown architectural designs of the Black House itself and other onscreen sets. Designer Jo reveals, among interesting tidbits, that the design concept for the psychopath's lair was a public bathhouse from '70s, fallen into disuse for 30 years.

Deleted scenes are mostly character-expanding scenes for Jun-O working as an insurance agent. It does include a cameo appearance by the author Kishi as a Japanese customer.

"Black House" is a robust, muscular horror film, rather effective as a gut-wrenching, red-meat example of its type. While not entirely satisfactory as an adaptation of Kishi Yusuke's novel, it is nonetheless recommended to the horror and thriller fans.
©2008 OhmyNews

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