The Chaser (2008)

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Directed by: Na Hong-jin

‘The Chaser’ is partly inspired by the horrific spate of murders that shocked South Korea between 2003 and 2004, carried out by a serial killer named Yoo Young-Chul. Only, ‘The Chaser’ isn’t just about a Serial Killer, or even the Police pursuit of a Serial Killer. It is a story of redemption, as a former Police detective turned pimp reconnects to his conscience.

Eom Joong-ho is a pimp who is concerned about missing girls. Concerned not of their wellbeing, but because he thinks they have defected to work for another rival pimp. Running low on workers he sends his last remaining girl, an ailing Mi-jin, to see a client. Mi-jin is ill with the flue, but being a single Mother who needs money, she reluctantly throws on a dress and goes to work.

Mi-Jin unwittingly walks into the clutches of a notorious serial killer named Je Yeong-min. Yeong-min hog ties Mi-Jin and attempts to bludgeon her to death. Fate intervenes as a local couple call at Yeong-min’s house, enquiring about the whereabouts of the house’s owner. Yeong-min, murders the couple and then tries to get rid of their car. Whilst doing this he bumps into Eom Joong-ho on a narrow street. Joong-ho intuitively figures out that Yeong-min has something to do with his missing girls. He lays the smaketh down on Yeong-min, and in the ensuing scuffle both men are arrested. Whilst this occurs Mi-jin is left for dead on a cold blood stained dirty bathroom floor.

The Police in ‘The Chaser’ are bumbling fools; this is particularly evident during the Police station scene, Joong-ho is irate with Yeong-min and accuses him of taking his girls and then Yeong-min casually admits to killing several people. The Police panic realizing they have a serial killer’s confession but no evidence to hold Yeong-min for longer than twelve hours. This sets up a race against the clock as the Police mindlessly chase around for evidence. Joong-ho realizes Mi-jin could be alive and desperately tries to track her down.

Director Na Hong-jin wonderfully captures the chaos and confusion. The Police are clueless, and I’ve noticed this follows a trend in several South Korean movies which depicts local Police as being hard headed bumbling idiots. The Policemen bicker and squander opportunities to prosecute their man. This leads Joong-ho to make use of his detective skills and try and figure out where he can locate Mi-jin.

The whole movie is jam packed with edge of your seat moments, and twists that you never see coming. I won’t spoil the final quarter of the film, but it is horribly unsettling. ‘The Chaser’ is tense and troubling and another South Korean classic.

 

– RJW

8/10

 

The Chaser on IMDB

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I Saw The Devil (2010)

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Directed by: Kim Jee-woon

 

There are two films I never want to see. Spike Lee’s remake of ‘Oldboy’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. I simply love the originals too much. I wonder if other film fans have taken similar action in response to remakes. If you have avoided a remake purely because you love the original film so much then please do get in touch @iscfc.

Anyway, last month I heard that plans are afoot to remake ‘I Saw The Devil’. I suppose this review is a call to those who haven’t yet seen the original to watch it, and I guess if you like it, then maybe you will boycott the remake whenever it is released. But be warned ‘I Saw The Devil’ is an unsettling, tough to stomach revenge film. It’s not nice. In fact it is downright nasty and vicious.

‘I Saw The Devil’ is a classic South Korean revenge thriller. A special agent’s fiancé is slain by a serial killer named Kyung-chul (played by Choi Min-sik) who preys on vulnerable young women. The special agent, who is called Soo-hyun, tracks down his fiance’s killer and toys with him, like a cat playing with a mouse. As the film goes on the line between who is good and who is evil blurs significantly as Soo-hyun becomes more and more deranged himself.

The clever thing about this movie is that it contains all the hallmarks of a good South Korean film, the melodrama, the Shakespearean tragedy, and perhaps more controversially, I would also commend the film’s innovative display of violence. The fight scenes between the killer and agent are choreographed presenting this almost balletic beauty of bloodlust.

Kyung-chul is a snivelling pathetic serial killer. He drives a school bus, and lures his victims by playing the Good Samaritan. Offering to assist women waiting by the bus stop in the rain, or in the case of Soo-hyun’s fiancé whose car had broken down. He’s an opportunist killer, who strikes whenever the victim presents themselves to him as he tours around. Kyung-chul just happened one day to murder the daughter of a Police chief and the fiancé of a special agent and that leads to his downfall.

Soo-hyun goes about tracking his fiance’s killer by basically going down a list of the most prevalent deviant sex offenders in Seoul. He goes beyond traditional Police methods, and assaults each person on the list until he comes across the man who murdered his fiancé. It leads to a showdown in a greenhouse situated on a field in the outskirts of the city, as Soo-hyun comes face to face with Kyung-chul.

The film could have ended there. Soo-hyun could’ve killed Kyung-chul. Instead Soo-hyun perversely decides to prolong the suffering. He inserts a tracking device orally into Kyung-chul, and leaves him in a shallow grave. Kyung-chul is left confused, but despite being battered, a little broken and bruised, he attempts to continue his reign of terror. Only this time, before he can harm his next victim, Kyung-chul is interrupted by Soo-hyun who continues physically and psychologically breaking him down.

In what otherwise might be a horrible piece of torture porn, director Kim Jee-woon is able to add some very dark humour to proceedings. At various points along the film there is some awkward laugh out moments, for example Kyung-chul’s clumsiness in locating his murder weapon in the taxi, and later in the movie his interactions with a trashy cannibalistic serial killer couple. ‘I Saw The Devil’ has depth, it could be because of Choi Min-sik’s magnetic performance, it might also be because of masterful cinematography. Above all else it is a film that illustrates the complexity of evil.

 

– RJW

8/10

 

I Saw The Devil on IMDB

 

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006)

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Directed by: Park Chan-wook

Films set in a high security mental institutions tend to vary dramatically when it comes to accurately presenting what life is really like for people in such confined environment. They vary from the superb ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ to the god-awful ‘It’s Kind of a Funny Story’. Ultimately the point is always the same, as screenplay writers and directors end up roundly critiquing the inhumanity of how people are treated, either by being drugged into stupor and losing all what it is to be alive and human, or sadly even tortured. Such environments seem unconducive to providing the necessary conditions in order for someone to not necessarily get better, but be of sounder mind. Simply put, people no longer behave like people.

I suppose it is difficult to capture what life is really like in such institutions. I remember one day after I visited my Grandfather in a residential home several years ago I referred to the place as being like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’. It was an unsettling environment, as zombified people grabbed at me in the corridor. They stared with dead eyes, convinced that they knew me; that I was a family member or a friend, but they could only partially recognize. Their memories were disappearing. It was horrific, the staff had to restrain the unruly, and in order to maintain control ran the home like a prison. This was a hell where many saw out their final years.

‘I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK’ tells the story of Young-goon, a woman who believes she is a Cyborg, realizing this causes her to stop eating. When working in an electronic factory Young-goon thinks that she needs to charge her batteries, she cuts a hole in her wrist and wires herself up to a power supply, electrocutes herself in the process. She is taken to a Mental Hospital after this act is perceived as a suicide attempt. We learn that Young-goon is not the only member of her family to be carted away against her will; her Grandmother also spent time in a Mental Hospital.

Park Chan-wook, who has long since established himself as South Korea’s most well-known and arguably talented director, through the word of mouth buzz that flew across the world after ‘Old Boy’ (recently remade by Spike Lee), and then a few years later launching into English speaking cinema with ‘Stoker’. Chan-wook tells this story a little looser than in his work that proceeded ‘I’m a Cyborg…’ and I suppose this could interpreted as another way of putting across the disorientation and delusion that represents what it is like to be consumed by a Mental Illness.

There is a certain amount of sweetness in the relationship between Young-goon and the sneaky masked man Park Ill-sun, who soon becomes fascinated with the new waif-like girl who arrives as the hospital. Ill-sun suffers from an anti-social personality disorder which causes him to compulsively steal; he has no regard for other people. This all stems from what was stolen from him when his Mother disappeared. Ill-sun indulges in Young-goon’s belief that she is a Cyborg by stealing away her ability to be sympathetic through conducting a little ritual. This allows Young-goon to try break free from the control of the mental hospital orderlies. The film then floats from the harshness of real life within the hospital to violent dream sequences where Young-goon goes around shooting up all the orderlies. She turns into some kind of fem bot and fires bullets from her fingertips.

The film relies on quirk. There are a few other patients who interact with Young-goon. An overweight woman who enthusiastically consumes Young-goon’s lunch, a couple who appear to be trapped in a ‘Sound of Music’ fantasy, but the ensemble cast play second fiddle to the love story. Ok, I’m not really a sucker for a good romance, but since love can be a maddening experience, perhaps a mental institution really is the most suitable location to set a love story.

– RJW
6/10

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK on IMDB

Death Bell (2008)

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Directed by: Yoon Hong-Seung (aka Chang)

After watching ‘Death Bell’ I wondered why there has never been a British horror film made that speaks out against the enormous exam pressure placed on young people in this country. Maybe you could title such a film GCSE (perhaps standing for Gore, Corpses, Sadism, Extremism?). Have someone clubbed to death by a chalk duster or stabbed in the eye with a compass point. Alas, I digress. ‘Death Bell’ is basically ‘Saw’ set in a School, but unnecessarily complicated. And by complicated, I don’t mean the plot necessarily, I mean the puzzles that the students are set in order to survive.

Aside from ‘Saw’ there are similarities also with the well-known South Korean franchise ‘Whispering Corridors’, in that a restless presence haunts a school seeking vengeance. In ‘Death Bell’ we are introduced to the horror when our scream queen has a nightmare. Dressed in white she wanders through hundreds of burning school desks, the kind you’d carve the name of who you fancied, and discard bubble gum underneath. In the horrible dream she gets attacked by a zombie girl. Shamefully she wakes up in her dorm room dripping period blood; an early indicator of all the blood to come.

In this South Korean school the elite students are grouped together; they are ranked according to grade. The cream of the crop gather together to sit an important exam and in the lead up to this pressure seems to really be getting to the kids, so much so that a sensitive boy called Cho Beom sees a scary image on his exam paper, he later freaks out in the corridor, attacking a the girl who woke up dripping, her name is Kang Ina (Nam Gyu-ri).
The class receive another interruption a few days later when a television screen flickers on and shows a pupil trapped in a glass fish tank. The tank begins to fill with water. A sinister voice comes over the intercom and instructs the pupils to solve a puzzle. If they don’t then the trapped pupil will drown. The voice also tells them that if they try and escape from the school then they will die.

Director Chang goes out of his way to hide the identity of the killer, this cruel examiner who sets the pupils impossible to solve puzzles. This is to the detriment of the big reveal at the end of the film, which common to South Korean horror films is unnecessarily convoluted. So when pupils die in increasingly bizarre fashion, from getting covered in candle wax to drowning in a washing machine, there is not much of a clue of who could possibly be behind the slayings. Usually this leads to a good pay off, but in the case of ‘Death Bell’ it doesn’t really work.

K poppet Nam Gyu-ri plays the scream queen role satisfactorily, but her classmates are all pretty interchangeable, screaming girls with long black hair and boys with all the charisma of shop window mannequins. Aside from Lee Beom-soo, who plays the teacher with a dark secret, everyone else seems to be floundering in the roles, either gormlessly gathering around boards to solve puzzles and looking decidedly perplexed in the process or running through corridors in blind panic.

‘Death Bell’ is one of those horror films full of good ideas, but let down by poor execution, even all the cruel deaths seem to miss a beat. Not providing sudden jolts of fright, or the right amount of gore to unsettle the stomach. The most disturbing sight of the film comes at the end via the sight of a fire axe repeatedly hitting flesh, but by then my head aches terribly, having tried to get my head around all those blasted puzzles.

– RJW
4/10

Death Bell on IMDB

Whispering Corridors (1998)

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Directed by: Park Ki-hyeong

As I continue my journey through South Korean cinema, I remain bogged down in the horror genre. ‘Whispering Corridors’ is the opening film in a long running horror franchise; but if I’m honest after sitting through the first instalment, I’m hesitant to explore the franchise any further. Unlike Mark I am a little more resistant to visual torture. If ‘The Doll Master’ was ponderous, then ‘Whispering Corridors’ can be accurately described as being slower than a snail dozed up on diazepam.

‘Whispering Corridors’ is a horror movie set in a girl’s school, but it’s hardly ‘The Faculty’ or ‘Return to Horror High’. It’s evident what’s in store for the viewer from the opening few minutes, as atmosphere is created by the sound of rattling gates, the boom of thunder and a the cold rain that falls. A school building is shrouded in darkness. Empty corridors, you know you’ll be seeing a lot of these, and likely they’ll be a few “boo” moments as a character gets startled by a ghostly presence. There is few staff about, only a teacher named Mrs Park who is working in her office, and a bloke who could be a PE teacher, but then again he could also be a handyman, I’m not sure, anyway he patrols the corridors with a torch. Mrs Park, sat in her dimly lit office, notices something is amiss about the suicide of a former pupil. This discovery signs her death warrant.

The school is haunted by a restless spirit, a former pupil named Jin-Ju. Occasionally she commits murder, still holding a grudge that her former friend Hur Eun-young, who cruelly let her down in the past. Eun-young just happens to be a new teacher at the school; whenever Jin-Ju strikes a stain of blood forms on the ceiling.

After Mrs Parks’s death the rumour mill spins, and the staff realize discipline needs to be instilled in order to retain control of the unruly gossip spreaders and wicked whisperers. An angry male teacher instructs the pupils to concentrate on their studies, and creates a culture of competitiveness between the students. He’s an old school disciplinarian with a hint of perversion to his personality. Inevitably he also meets his maker.

It wouldn’t be a South Korean horror movie without social commentary. The film speaks out in a rather unsubtle way against the authoritarian school system, and punches home that point, meaning that the most uncomfortable aspects of the film isn’t the bloodshed or bodies hanging from the ceiling but the sadistic treatment of the pupils by militant teachers. There’s also another message bubbling under the surface, which states explicitly that creativity isn’t appreciated in the South Korean school system, and that the artistically minded pupils are not encouraged but instead banished to creating in secret.

The bulk of the film centres upon three school girls, one is nervy, one is artistic and another is just plain weird, to the point that is believed that the spirit of Jin-Ju possesses her. None of them are particularly interesting characters, and at times they blur together, a haze of black haired schoolgirl uniforms.

The final few scenes are unbearably tedious, and the film never explodes into life. The spirit of Jin-Ju is angry, hurt, but in the end meekly decides to step down from her murderous position when she’s able to have a chat with Hur Eun-young. I was left unsatisfied by the ending, asking myself – is that it?

– RJW
2/10

Whispering Corridors on IMDB

The Doll Master (2004)

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Directed by: Yong-Ki Jeong

Mark has recently covered ‘Dollman vs. Demonic Toys’ on the site; so continuing along a similar theme, here is a South Korean film about dolls, the most creepy of all Children’s toys. Seriously, I remember as a kid wandering through Kerrisons en route to the Airfix model section and those bloody Cabbage Patch dolls would scare the beejeezus out of me down as I hurried down this narrow shadowy aisle, they seemed to peer blankly through the window of their clear plastic boxes. A chubby face full of evil intentions. Like former dead eyed Russian MMA phenom Fedor Emelianenko pre-fight, they tended to stare right through you.

‘The Doll Master’ is one of those films which contain many familiar horror tropes. The film begins with a scene from the distant past when a tragic event occurred, one of those events that will likely leave haunt a place for decades to come. In this case, a doll maker’s wife was found dead. The doll maker was accused of murder, got beaten to death by an angry mob and buried on the edge of a forest. The doll he made in his wife’s image sat mournfully by the doll maker’s grave (a comment on that to come later). Then there’s a creepy old building, an ideal setting for a horror movie, a doll museum with dangerous and mysterious inhabitants, and finally a group of fresh faced mostly good looking victims… I mean young folk (the handsome macho guy, the weird and pervy guy, the Scream Queen, the bimbo and the odd one) who are invited to stay at the museum with no objections whatsoever. Who wouldn’t want to stay for a few nights at a doll museum without knowing the reasons why they were invited?

‘The Doll Master’ is proof that even in the clever, innovative world of South Korean cinema there exists directors who rely on other people’s tired ideas and oft repeated scares in order to make a below average horror movie. Actually below average is maybe too kind, ‘The Doll Master’ runs like a bad American horror movie, one of those post-‘Scream’ flicks like ‘House of Wax’, only decidedly less jumpy and without Paris Hilton getting gruesomely killed. The film is also badly paced, ponderous in fact, half the film drifts by before any scares occur.

What else did I hate about it?

I think the problem with dolls is that though as I’ve already said they have a creepy aura about them, in that the more lifelike they are, the more frightening they appear, making them scary on film relies either in ‘Child’s Play’ levels of absurdity or as a contrast to that careful suspenseful subtlety. ‘The Doll Master’ gets it horrendously wrong. It is one thing to have an actress playing a doll come to life, in the case of the living doll Mina. It is quite the other to suggest that with the other decidedly unlife-like dolls are capable of killing, just by a stiff arm moving slowly, or eyes moving shiftily from left to right like an arthritic ‘Action Man’. In the opening scene it is particularly painful to watch the director trying to create emotion by placing the apparently grieving but ultimately still and lifeless doll next to the doll maker’s graveside.

The story is ridiculous. Hae-mi doesn’t recognize that the young girl in a red dress who lurks around the house is a doll with a soul from her childhood. But then again why would she, given that there is only a passing resemblance. Yeong-ha seems mentally disturbed, yet the other guests see her more as nothing more than a teeny bit eccentric. They don’t find it odd that a young woman in her late teens / early twenties would carry a doll around with her. Unless she is a goth teen circa Marilyn Manson fandom era then why would this be even remotely socially accepted? Why? Why? So many god damn Why’s? The biggest Why? Being – Why are the guests there in the first place? The reason is shoehorned in towards the end that all the guests are descendants of men who killed the original doll maker. Gosh, it must’ve took a hell of a lot of researching Korean family trees to make that happen, and most of all Why? Who had a stake in their demise? What was the point of this vengeful act? Again, why?

– RJW
3/10

The Doll Master on IMDB

Memories of Murder (2003)

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Directed by: Bong Joon-ho

With its influence undeniable on suspense filled murder mysteries like ‘Zodiac’ and ‘The Texas Killing Fields’, ‘Memories of Murder’ is a jewel of South Korean cinema containing some unbelievable acting performances. It’s a tale of police incompetence, as Detective Seo Tae-yoon arrives from Seoul to work with a bumbling local police department who are perplexed by a number of grisly murders.

Detective Seo comes up against Detective Park, a man whose methods aren’t exactly by the book. Park intimidates and tortures suspects alongside his high kicking, military boot stomping partner; he looks suspects in the eye because he believes he can tell whether or not they are telling the truth. Events take place in 1986, the body of a young woman is found in a ditch near a rice field, a few days later another body is found, again in a field. Park gets to the scene too late, and the crime scene has been spoiled by bumbling policeman and curious reporters. There’s a humorous background joke, when the camera follows Park irately wandering, he is bemused by panicked policeman who keep slipping down a grass verge.

Seo works out that the murders occurred on a rainy night, and that both victims were wearing red. He looks at a missing persons report and speculates that there may well be a third body lying somewhere, as another young woman disappeared on a rainy night. She was last seen wearing red and sure enough she is found dead. An ambitious female police officer, held back by her male superiors, works out that whenever a murder is committed there a request is made to play a rarely played love song called ‘Sad Letter’ on the local radio station.

There is a real sense of helplessness as the police struggle to get any leads. Any kind of forensic evidence is hard to come by, mainly thanks to the rain washing everything away, and when they do get a semen sample it has to be sent across to an American crime lab, further delaying their investigations. As time goes on it almost appears that the killer is sadistically taunting the officers, as they begin leaving behind objects within his victims. This also could be interpreted as a possibility that there was a copycat killer also on the loose. Certainly director Joon-ho presents the police as flawed, morally duplicitous characters; the unsettling brutal treatment of a mentally handicapped suspect is an especially cruel illustration of this. It seems that if this is the way that things were done back then, it is no wonder that innocent people died, and the guilty didn’t get caught. Inevitably the police get so deep into this case they become obsessed, this clouds their judgement and causes them to overlook key details. Even the rational Seo becomes consumed by frustration.

Given that all the murders occur on a rainy night, the mere fall of raindrops creates so much suspense. The murders don’t seem to make much of a dent with the local populace because there is so much focus on local uprisings, and besides there is an inherent distrust of the police. You really get a sense of rural, small town South Korea; and the political climate of the time. The battle is intimate, between the murderer(s) and the investigation team.

I was on the edge of my seat throughout, and really I haven’t been impressed with a serial killer film since the already mentioned ‘Zodiac’.

– RJW
8/10

Memories of Murder on IMDB

Loner (2008)

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Directed by: Jae-shik Park

‘Loner’ is a South Korean film that interestingly satirises the Japanese phenomenon of social withdrawal known as Hikikomori, like anything Japanese it is rather extreme, as sufferers retreat from society not just for a week or two, but sometimes for years.

Like in most South Korean films there are borderline incestuous relationships that veer on the Shakespearean, self-mutilation aplenty and melodramatic monologues that drag on seemingly forever. You can probably categorize ‘Loner’ as a psychological horror, as it is a tense slow burner, with a convenient, almost typical South Korean cinema ending which ties up all the loose ends and explains all those confusing bits that were initially hard to follow.

The film starts off in a typical high school canteen; a bespectacled girl picks up a meal and sits down on her own. She begins to tuck in to her food but is interrupted by a gang of mean girls. These bitches taunt the girl in glasses, who we learn is called Ha-Jung, and push Ha-Jung’s face down into the dinner tray leaving her with a face full of curry sauce. Ha-Jung’s best friend Soon-na steps in, but we quickly Soon-na has got her own problems and is not able to protect her BFF from the mean girls. Soon-na appears to be in love with her handsome Uncle. This becomes more disturbing later in the film, when he reveals he isn’t the man who he says he is.

Ha-Jung can’t escape her bullies and is forced to shoplift from a lingerie store in order to nick expensive panties for the mean girls. Ha-Jung is chased down when she sets off the security alarm when fleeing the store and is humiliated in public by a very angry shop assistant who slaps her silly. Ha-Jung then retreats to her room, and becomes a Hikikomori case. This concerns her deaf Mother, who reaches out to Soon-na. Nobody seems to be able to get Ha-Jung to come out of her room. One of the teachers even sends the lead bully over to apologize to Ha-Jung and try and convince her to return to school. The bully enters Ha-Jung’s room and discovers something truly horrific.

Hikikomori spreads, and after Ha-Jung commits suicide (oops, spoiler alert), Soo-na too becomes reclusive, seemingly possessed by an evil force. The director tries to make some kind of commentary on the phenomenon, implying that Hikikomori isn’t unexplained, but in most cases there is a connection between trauma, unresolved family issues and the need to retreat.

The scares seem very familiar, with young catatonic Korean women who all seem to resemble the girl from ‘The Ring’ with long black hair covering their faces lurking around their darkened rooms. They cut themselves, spraying an unrealistic amount of blood over their startled visitors.

‘Loner’ begins with an interesting premise, but descends slowly into Soo-Na’s muddled family drama. There’s her matriarch Grandmother trying to run a tight ship, the clean cut Uncle who is almost too good to be true, and a big family secret that comes back from the past to haunt them all. If anything it turns out to be rather like an ‘Eastenders’ Christmas Special, with the shocks predictable and ultimately rather unsatisfying.

– RJW
4/10

Loner on IMDB