As the oft-touted ‘Romance Queen’ of the Korean film industry, Son Ye-jin (손예진) has cinematically endured an incredible variety of events preventing her from fulfilling destiny with her one true love. In A Moment To Remember, she was shockingly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at a young age; within The Classic, she is conveyed as the reincarnated soul of her love-lorn mother. However Spellbound (AKA Chilling Romance, 오싹한 연애) offers a supernatural departure for the actress, as due to a childhood accident she has the ability to see and communicate with spirits. Understandably, the apparitions prove somewhat of an obstacle in her burgeoning relationship.
Through blending the horror, romance, and comedy genres, Spellbound attempts to offer an alternative approach to the cliched and over-saturated rom-com, employing the ghosts to poke fun at traditional notions of gender and relationships. While on occasion it succeeds, Spellbound quickly falls into the same pitfalls and stereotypes so ingrained in other examples of the genre and never fully capitalizes on the premise, resulting in a bland – and chemistry-free – addition to Son Ye-jin’s resume.
Jo-gu (Lee Min-ki (이민기) is a talented street magician, but is lacking a grand performance in which to entertain larger audiences. Upon witnessing the bleak and forlorn figure of Yeo-ri (Son Ye-jin), Jo-gu is inspired to create a horror magic act that thrills audiences in vast theaters. Yet while he and the production staff celebrate their successes, Yeo-ri constantly refrains. After a year of rejection, Jo-gu decides to investigate his muse and unwittingly stumbles upon her secret – Yeo-ri converses with spirits and her self-imposed isolation protects those around her from visitations. Yet as Jo-gu and Yeo-ri grow closer, will the ghosts prove a hinderance?
Spellbound is a perfectly competent piece of romantic cinema, yet therein lies the problem as the film does precious little to differentiate itself from other mediocre examples of the genre. From the (obviously staged) outset Spellbound squarely conveys itself as light entertainment and in doing so establishes the tone, protagonists and narrative well. The premise of a heroine who communes with the departed seemingly takes an age to finally appear on-screen, yet when it does director Hwang In-ho (황인호) is highly capable in constructing predictable but effective horror set pieces, and undermines them with comical farce to great effect. Yet bizarrely, just as the film finds its’ identity, the phantoms are jettisoned in favour of focus on the romantic development between Yeo-ri and Jo-gu. In doing so Yeo-ri is reduced from an isolated-yet-gifted woman who helps the recently departed, to yet another beautiful, lonely, poor woman who needs saving by a wealthy Prince Charming despite herself. Yeo-ri’s only sources of comfort are her best friend and a romantic novelist with whom she converses on the phone, however – atrocious acting aside – both woman are also singletons oblivious to the realities of love and dating. As such the three are continually posited as ‘incomplete’ as they each lack a partner. While intended as a form of comic relief, and occasionally raising the odd titter, the conversations between the threesome quickly become tiresome, although such scenes do allow for Son Ye-jin to reveal her calibre as a talented actress as she imparts her frustrations and fears to those closest to her.
The shift in focus from Yeo-ri’s extra-sensory abilities to the romance with Jo-gu would not be as jarring were it not for the fact that the pair have zero chemistry. As individuals they are generally quite entertaining, particularly when Yeo-ri helps spirits or when Jo-gu discovers the secret of the ghostly visitations with suitably farcical reactions. However when together the roles of both protagonists are effectively reduced to stereotypes and moved from one romantic set piece to the next, which while somewhat enjoyable on a surface level results in the artifice shining through at every plot development. Son Ye-jin is as charismatic as the narrative allows her to be, particularly during alcohol infused scenes, and she seemingly works hard to establish a rapport with Lee Min-ki. He, on the other hand, appears more preoccupied with appearing startled and bemused than in establishing chemistry with his co-star.
As Spellbound is very much light entertainment, the performances by all involved are highly tongue-in-cheek throughout, although only a select few convey this convincingly.
Unsurprisingly Son Ye-jin rises above all the cast, although it is far removed from her best work. The actress conveys the vulnerability and inner strength of her character well, and is suitably humorous during comical scenes. Due to the set pieces Son Ye-jin is generally given little room to maneuver in which to display her acting prowess, with the exception of a telephone conversation with her two girlfriends which is heart-wrenchingly emotional. The actress conveys warmth and generosity, as she diligently attempts to create rapport with her romantic lead man, which ultimately proves unfruitful.
Lee Min-ki is competent as magician Jo-gu, performing comical scenes with great timing and conveys the farcical nature of the situations well. His over-acting is well-suited to his role as a man out of his depth and struggling to make sense of his new world, and is highly entertaining in this respect. In particular, his discovery of the ghost of a young boy and the ramifications of their meeting are a real highlight of the film. Yet the real issue with the actor is his lack of chemistry with his love interest, as he exudes a stoic coldness that functions as a barrier between them. In a romantic film such as this, and the enhanced focus on the relationship over the role of the ghosts, Lee Min-ki’s frosty exterior means that Spellbound consequently falls rather flat.
As for the supporting cast, the over-acting is a mixture between amusing and cringe-inducing. As best friend Pil-dong, Park Cheol-min (박철민) exemplifies this although his final scenes threaten to steal the film completely.
With a promising premise, Spellbound could have been a highly enjoyable and alternative approach to the romantic-comedy. However the specters – and Son Ye-jin’s impetus – appear all too briefly, focusing on a relationship that crucially lacks romance. While it is competently directed and acted, Spellbound is ultimately a film for fans of light-hearted rom-coms.