Based on the novel "The Bell Maker" by Kang Ro-hyang, "The Bell Tower" uses multiple stories inside the main story in order to make a number of sociopolitical and historical comments, once more, through a distinctly melodramatic approach.
Two radically different people are taking refuge in a remote temple. Yeong-sil is a young woman who claims that she stays there for sentimental reasons, but after hearing the life story of Seok-seung, the old bell maker that is also staying there, she shares the truth about her life story. Seok-seung was in love with Ok-boon as a young man, and she was the one he initially promised to create the greatest bell in the world, initially. However, the girl died of appendicitis, leaving him in despair but also determined to fulfill his promise. Tragedy, however, did not stop there. His mentor in bell-making also died, leaving him without having completed his education to the fullest. A job in a temple leads him to the lap of a widow, but also to a decision to steal a legendary bell, thinking that he can melt it together with another one in order to make a great amalgam. Eventually, the widow bores him a child but he also loses them both after another hit of the fate.
As Seok-hung tells his life story, the narrative seems to imply that Yeong-sil could be his lost daughter, since the girl eventually reveals that she is the orphan of a bell-maker whom she never met. Her story however, follows a completely different path into the modern history of Korea, involving her getting into the city and ending up sold to a mine as a sex slave. With the help of a man who was willing to fight the one who sold her, she managed to escape, but now lives the life of a fugitive.
Yang Ju-nam's presentation of the narrative is quite interesting, since he manages to present a large part of the country's history, through the end of the Joseon era to the occupation years, through the life stories of the two protagonists. At the same time, the story of an obsession (to create the perfect bell) as a tool of presenting the reasons two people became cursed in life also works quite well, despite the obvious and somewhat excessive melodrama. Furthermore, through these two stories, Yang presents his subtle comments on Koreans' faith in the supernatural, Christianity, the war with Japan, comfort women, and the radical changes the country experienced in that time frame.
Apart from the aforementioned, however, the narrative is filled with confusion, since Yang does not seem sure about what he wanted to do with the story, ending up with a number of elements that lead the viewer to disorientation. For example, the story seems to imply that the two protagonists are father and daughter, but this concept never really materializes, leaving a number of unanswered questions, also regarding Yeong-sil's further fate and the impact her meeting with the man had on her. The fact that the same actress, Moon Jung-suk, plays all the women in Seok-seung's story also does not help in that regard, even if perceived as another comment about his obsession with the woman he initially made the promise too.
On the other hand, Moon Jung-suk's performance in all of her three parts is quite convincing despite its evident difficulty, with the same applying to Heo Jang-kang, who presents the downward spiral of a man from a hopeful youth to a broken old man excellently.
The production values are also on a very high level. Yu Jang-san's cinematography is exceptional, both in the general presentation of the various eras (which also benefits the most by the attention to the costumes and the set design) and in individual moments, as the one with the mutual holding of fruit that signifies the love the couple begins to feel. The mostly classical soundtrack also works quite well, while Kim Hee-su's editing keeps the story flowing and the flashbacks from becoming confusing, even despite the use of the same actress.
Despite a few inconsistencies that lead to confusion and the excessively melodramatic premises, "The Bell Tower" entails an intriguing story and enough technical prowess, to overcome these faults, resulting in a rather entertaining spectacle.
Review by Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos Kotzathanasis is a film critic and reviewer specialising in East Asian Cinema. He is the founder of Asian Film Vault, administrator of Asian Movie Pulse and also writes for Taste of Cinema, Eastern Kicks, China Policy Institute and Filmboy. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Panos Kotzathanasis can be contacted via email@example.com.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "The Bell Tower" + Full Movie"
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