Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Movie: Phone

Of the recent spate of derivative Korean horror movies, Phone stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, though it's not without its own faults. But where Phone succeeds, it succeeds with flair, particularly in its visual style. It also displays some real flashes of imagination and some disturbing connotationsthough not so disturbing to turn off an audience. Unfortunately.

Phone centers around that Asian horror movie chestnut: cursed technology. In this case, a cell phone that rings at inopportune times. The caller doesn't as much say hello as she sort of screams something murderous that causes people to see strange visions, go mad, or generally get possessed. Think of it as extreme telemarketing. Ji-won has inherited the number of doom, and when a friend's daughter answers the call, Ji-won must solve the mystery before it's too late, or the no-call list will grow larger.

Director Ahn Byong Ki keeps a tight rein on his visuals: ghostly occurrences have a distinct blue tint, moments of violence lean towards red/orange tones, and Ji-won's friends, an outwardly "nuclear" family of three, appear almost exclusively in white. Does it matter that their underthings are black? You bet! After the daughter, Yeong-Ju, has answered the phone, she becomes possessed by a spirit that wants to do inappropriate things to Daddy and hurt Mommy. While pre-school seems a little early for the Electra complex, I guess they're more emotionally mature in Korea. After all, Ji-won's big break comes when she writes about an under-age sex scandal, little knowing that her best friends have a little scandal of their own.

Phone raises some interesting issues about motherhood, especially when it's revealed that Yeong-Ju is actually Ji-won's biological daughter (transported via petri dish into her friend Ho-Jeong's womb). Phone tries to make the argument of nature vs. nurture come down solidly on the nature side—but the issue isn't necessarily that simple. When the reason behind the haunting is finally revealed in a jarring POV switch that is supposed to estrange the audience from Ho-Jeong, it actually makes Ho-Jeong seem more reasonable. Also going against Phone is its penchant for cliche—as well as style substituting for actual scares (an elevator opens onto a stairwell: ooo, spooky). Still, compared to some of its compatriots, Phone has a eerie quality to it. It's a ringtone that's all too familiar, but still distorted enough to catch your attention.

Korean derivative cinema equation: Murder by Phone + The Exorcist + Ringu = Phone.

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