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[DVD Review] 'Roommates': Study Hard, Then You Die

2008/09/28 | 3145 views | Permalink | Source

The true horror is the win-at-all-cost mentality

Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

The third film in the series of HD-lensed horror films produced by Yoo Il-han is "Roommates - 4 Horror Tales" (2006), connected to the previously reviewed "Hidden Floor" ("Forbidden Floor - 4 Horror Tales") via the central character of Bo-ram (Lee Eun-sung): she is the girl with burn scars briefly glimpsed by the "Forbidden Floor - 4 Horror Tales"'s possessed toddler in the train station.

"Roommates - 4 Horror Tales" directly delves into probably the most important subject for the K-horror, the evils of education system, specifically a setup in which one shot of college entrance examination basically formalizes and entrenches one's status (economic, social, martial, you name it) for the rest of his or her life (or so everyone in Korea believes).

The now-famous and high-quality "Whispering Corridors" series started out in late '90s as a then-extremely frank critique of the oppressive high school experience, before running toward their own quirky, artistic directions.

This debut feature by director Kim Eun-kyeong ups the ante by basing her movie on an actual incident, a fire in a "boot camp"-style exam-prep center that resulted in the deaths of many high school girls. Bo-ram, the narrator, rooms with the bespectacled, timid Da-young (Heo Jin-yong), beautiful and smart Eun-joo (Kim Ri-na) and rebellious Yu-jin (Yoo Ho-rin). When Yu-jin begins to see creepy, faceless students walking around in the corridors, everyone chalks it up as a stress-related hallucination. But of course, the dread begins to affect other students, like a nasty, airborne strain of virus.

Watching the girls, clad in gray exercise uniform at all times, and put under thorough surveillance and severe discipline, a foreign viewer without the understanding of the cultural context might mistakenly conclude that this is a women-in-prison movie set in a juvenile correction center. But I can assure you, the parents of these girls pay for their children to be locked up like this, day and night for one year, without a modicum of personal freedom, practically treated like criminals, all in the name of helping them score big points in the CEE, and get accepted in the so-called top colleges.

That this is an outrageous, barbaric violation of human rights does not begin to describe the horrendousness of the situation. But the truth is that this inhuman system is supported, even encouraged, by the Korean parents who don't mind its cruelties and insanities as long as their own children get to claim the "goodies"--good college degrees, presumably followed by happy marriages and comfortable upper-middle class life.

And indeed, "Roommates - 4 Horror Tales" is most powerful when it forgets it is a horror film with a long-haired female ghost and instead concentrates on the psychological torments visited upon our protagonists by the "teachers", as well as the gradual deterioration of their sanity. These parts of the movie are so calmly realistic yet so horrifying that it completely overwhelms the obligatory long-haired ghosts, doled out lamely just to remind the viewers that you are watching a K-horror.

Main actresses playing teenage protagonists are a bit amateurish in vocalizations, but all leave strong impressions. The standout is Yoo Ho-rin, whose transition from a tough-talking, cigarette-smoking rebel to a quivering mess of emotional scar tissue is extremely convincing. You really root for Joo-hee to make it safely out of this hell-hole and the hurt in her eyes when her mother "betrays" her in front of the smiling-mannequin Center President is palpable. Yoon Da-jeong's bone-chilling performance as the ultra-cold administrator, who would not have been out of place in a Nazi concentration camp, also deserves mention.

I would have given "Roommates - 4 Horror Tales" a higher grade, if its pace and rhythm had not been so slack. As it is, the movie will simply bore casual genre fans looking out for some "Suspiria"-like stylized fun or those viewers not able to invest emotionally in its rather well-drawn female characters. I don't recommend "Roommates - 4 Horror Tales" to those who, for instance, found the cheesy perversity of "Ghost/Ryung" ("Dead Friend)") or the twist-ending-at-the-expense-of-everything huffiness of "Face" satisfactory or entertaining. Nonetheless, it is a plenty promising debut for (woman) director Kim Eun-kyeong and its quartet of talented young actresses, and is worth checking out for those curious about the boiling mass of social resentment that fuels most contemporary K-horror.

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 Kim Eun-kyeong commentary, Making-of Docu, Interviews with the Director and Actors, Trailers.

"Roommates - 4 Horror Tales" was filmed low-budget on HD, a part of the CJ Entertainment's four-disc-on-a-platter, along with "February 29 - 4 Horror Tales" and "Forbidden Floor - 4 Horror Tales". Even though it is even cheaper-looking than other entries in the series, its dour visuals are rendered without any particular problem. There are some simmerings in the film's (many) dark passages, but nothing too distracting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 channel is nothing special: at least it conveys the dialogue cleanly.

English subtitles sport slightly more haphazard or incorrect translations than other works in the series, but are overall efficient. At least the instances of "f*ck" in the subs are accurate translations from the Korean dialogue, rather than "creative additions" by the overactive subtitlers.

Kim Eun-kyeong presents a commentary track, heavily tilting toward technical issues and guiding performance of the young actresses. From all indications they had an excellent time together, nothing at all like going to a high school again. The director-cast interviews show the main protagonists all dolled up, unlike in the movie. Lee Eun-sung without that unflattering helmet-like hairstyle is just about the cutest creature on the planet, with a dazzling smile flanked by twin dimples, and other actresses also come off ridiculously attractive and articulate. None of these are subtitled in English, unfortunately.☆☆☆

2008 OhmyNews

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