A Blood Pledge (여고괴담5:동반자살) – ★★☆☆☆

A Blood Pledge (여고괴담 5: 동반자살)

A Blood Pledge (여고괴담 5: 동반자살)

In an all-girls Catholic high school, three best friends struggling with the anxieties in their young lives swear to a suicide pact, resolving to end their suffering together. Yet after their pledge, Soy (Son Eun-seo (손은서), Yoo-jin (Oh Yeon-seo (오연서) and Eun-yeong (Song Min-jeong (송민정) remain alive while a fourth girl, highly academic student Eun-joo (Jang Kyeong-ah (장경아) is found dead having jumped from the school roof. Rumours quickly begin to circulate as to the circumstances surrounding Eun-joo’s suicide, with suspicions regarding Soy’s involvement growing ever more intense. As Eun-joo’s younger sister Jeong-eun (Yoo Shin-ae (유신애) investigates, she appears as if possessed, striving for answers until the shocking truth is finally revealed.

Soy, Yoo-jin and Eun-yeong agree to a suicide pact to end their suffering

Soy, Yoo-jin and Eun-yeong agree to a suicide pact to end their suffering

The fifth entry in the highly successful Whispering Corridors horror series, A Blood Pledge – AKA Suicide Pact – is certainly the most poorly conceived. Aside from some occasionally interesting moments regarding female high school relationships, the weak narrative, feeble directing and frankly horrible editing and special effects combine to produce an especially fruitless K-horror that lacks any scares.

Writer/director Lee Jong-yong attempts to craft a A Blood Pledge as a gothic horror mystery of sorts, employing religious iconography and non-linear timeline to generate the required chills. Unfortunately for the filmmaker, none of it works. Visually, A Blood Pledge is particularly lacking both aesthetically and in finesse as suspense is fleetingly generated, while the constant flashbacks add more confusion than tension due to their seemingly random insertion and absence of visual cues differentiating time periods. Thematically the narrative touches upon some key issues of Korean teenage life – volatile relationships, importance of grades in school hierarchy, the class divide – yet as they are typically only briefly alluded and with character development curiously absent, it’s tough to invest in Soy’s journey or find it remotely compelling.

Rumours surrounding Soy's involvement in Eun-joo's suicide quickly circulate

Rumours surrounding Soy’s involvement in Eun-joo’s suicide quickly circulate

A Blood Pledge could make up for its shortcomings with some effective horror sequences, yet in this regard the film also fails. While the film aims for generic scares, there is little or no attempt to build the pre-requisite suspense that leads to them. When the vengeful spirit does indeed appear to exact revenge, the scenes are cringeworthy in their awfulness. Featuring laughable special effects or more generally a bloodied ghost in dark lighting, the horror sequences don’t just fail to induce chills but serve to draw the audience from the story. A scene involving an exploding head followed by a rapidly reversing car is the most notable offence, positively screaming budget constraints as well as poor conception.

The film also suffers from undeveloped narrative strands and illogical motivations. A subplot involving bad boy Gi-ho and his rich mother is never pursued despite its open-ended nature, while Eun-yeong’s relationship with her abusive father isn’t explored, amongst others. Notably, a pregnant student doesn’t want to proceed with an abortion yet would rather commit suicide instead. Fallacies such as these halt any potential depth that could have been ascribed to the narrative, resulting in a particularly underwhelming fifth entry into an otherwise successful horror franchise.

A vengeful ghost exacts revenge

A vengeful ghost exacts revenge

Verdict:

A Blood Pledge is the fifth entry in the Whispering Corridors horror series by writer/director Lee Jong-yong, and is easily the weakest in the franchise. While aspects of female high school relationships are alluded to, the poor script, bland directing and cringeworthy scenes of horror alongside a confusing timeline structure make A Blood Pledge one for K-horror aficionados only.

★★☆☆☆

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The Chosen: Forbidden Cave (퇴마: 무녀굴) – ★☆☆☆☆

The Chosen: Forbidden Cave (퇴마: 무녀굴)

The Chosen: Forbidden Cave (퇴마: 무녀굴)

N.B. This review is based on the Bucheon Fantastic Film Festival 2015 edit, screened at the closing ceremony.

Psychologist Jin-myeong (Kim Seong-gyoon (김성균) is unique in his trade as one of the few professionals who considers supernatural phenomena when treating clients, performing exorcisms with apprentice Ji-gwang (Kim Hye-seong (김혜성) when the need arises. Due to his unorthodox methods Jin-myeong has earned a notable reputation, attracting the unwanted attention of documentary producer Hye-in (Cha Ye-ryeon (차예련). Yet they are forced to combine their efforts when a disturbing new case occurs, as art curator Geum-joo (Yoo Seon (유선) is at the mercy of a particularly vindictive spirit, the secrets of which originate from forgotten childhood memories and a ghostly cave.

Geun-joo's possession proves an extremely difficult task for psychologist:exorcist Jin-myeong

Geun-joo’s possession proves an extremely difficult task for psychologist/exorcist Jin-myeong

With a solid premise but poor execution, director Kim Hwi’s horror/thriller The Chosen: Forbidden Cave is heavy on frustration and light on scares. As the closing film for BiFan’s 2015 edition, the festival’s claim of the film’s ability to ‘punch up the horror scene’ in the industry is unfortunately pure hyperbole as The Chosen is, aside from a few well-constructed set-pieces, a bland addition in dire need of a re-edit.

The Chosen: Forbidden Cave begins in intriguing fashion as Jin-myeong lectures on the importance of shamanism when considering diagnosis, with a handful of scares to sell the concept. Yet from there the narrative rapidly descends into chaos as characters and themes randomly arise and recede, with the audience expected to instinctively know their place within the story. Jin-myeong appears to have the ability of foresight through dreams yet it is never made clear while a subplot, possibly involving  his wife and a botched exorcism, is never explained; his subordinate Ji-gwang just seemingly appears during consultations while his supernatural gifts – other than furiously shaking a plant during treatments – are not ascertained; documentary producer Hye-in’s history and motivations are not revealed; and most importantly, there is zero logic in the aimless actions of the vindictive spirit that inhabits Geum-joo. Frustration quickly sets in as characters and events occur randomly, with a re-edit, and much greater elaboration and development, sorely needed.

The search for answers to Geum-joo's affliction takes the team into horrific territory

The search for answers to Geum-joo’s affliction takes the team into horrific territory

While the ghost that inhabits Geum-joo is aggravatingly indiscriminate, the haphazard nature allows director Kim to stage a variety of horror set pieces that are generally well-constructed. While they are cliche and form a story more akin to a series of horror sequences than a coherent whole, the macabre scenes serve to present the tropes expected from the genre. Problematically however, as there are so many sequences of this manner, the impact and effectiveness of the horror is lost as audiences become increasingly immune.

Furthermore, the use of the 1948 Jeju Massacre as the ultimate source of terror within The Chosen is in particularly bad taste. Not that the tragic event doesn’t lend itself well to the genre, but the manner in which the tragedy is employed and interpreted as antiquated and misandrist, in need of purging by contemporary patriarchy and Christianity, is borderline offensive.

Actor Kim Seong-gyoon fares the best as psychologist/exorcist Jin-myeong within The Chosen. His stoic turn as the broad-minded professional halts emotional investment in the journey yet provides a solid foundation from which the events revolve around. The rest of the cast do not prosper as well. Yoo Seon is generally required to run around screaming and crying, while Cha Ye-ryeon and Kim Hye-seong are present merely to appear attractive and little else.

Horrific truths await in the cave

Horrific truths await in the cave

Verdict:

Aside from a solid premise and the occasional well-constructed horror sequence, The Chosen: Forbidden Cave is a big misstep from director Kim Hwi. The events and characters within the film appear and recede indiscriminately throughout the haphazard narrative while any sort of development is a rarity. The Chosen is a frustratingly bland addition to the K-horror scene.

★☆☆☆☆

Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (제 19회 부천국제판타스틱영화제) Festival News Korean Film Festivals 2015 Reviews

Possessed (불신지옥) – ★★★☆☆

Possessed (불신지옥)

Possessed (불신지옥)

Living in Seoul is a tough existence for Hee-jin (Nam Sang-mi (남상미). Studying for exams during the day while moonlighting at night as a personal tutor and convenience store clerk, Hee-jin’s health is beginning to suffer from a combination of stress and exhaustion. Her usual routine is disturbed one night when younger sister So-jin (Sim Eun-kyeong (심은경) abruptly calls and leaves a mysterious message…however the next morning when Hee-jin’s mother (Kim Bo-yeon (김보연) informs her that So-jin is missing, she becomes worried and decides to return home to help with the search. Teaming with detective Tae-hwan (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡), the duo begin to notice strange machinations and events occurring at the apartment complex, yet So-jin is still nowhere to be found.

Hee-jin feels something is terribly wrong in the apartment complex

Hee-jin feels something is terribly wrong in the apartment complex

An impressive addition to the K-horror canon, Possessed – as known as Living Death – is a pertinent example of eerily-effective and scarily-suspenseful storytelling on a tight budget. Director Lee Yong-joo’s debut is a potent mix of the horrors of religious fervour and taught claustrophobic locations that, while lacking in terms of character development and resolutions, is an accomplished chiller.

Proving that large budgets aren’t necessary to create unsettling tension and scares, director Lee instead relies on generating fear through the claustrophobic environs of a dilapidated apartment block to great effect throughout Possessed. The methods in which he produces moments of terror by exploiting the narrow confines of rooms and hallways, in conjunction with unnerving close-ups and chiaroscuro lighting, makes the film consistently disturbing and serves to make Hee-jin’s search for her missing sister all the more compelling. Thankfully, director Lee rarely employs cheap ‘jump’ scares to frighten his audience, generally taking his time to develop a sense of foreboding so that the sense of dread resonates throughout.

Hee-jin enlists the help of cynical detective Tae-hwan

Hee-jin enlists the help of cynical detective Tae-hwan

Possessed is also memorable for its chief source of horror – religious fervour. As Hee-ji and obstinate detective Tae-hwan begin to search for So-jin, they uncover an array of eccentric residents within the apartment complex each with their own odd peculiarities and ties to the missing girl. The narrative potently examines how folk who have endured difficulties turn to religious ideologies with frightening levels of enthusiasm, and the clues uncovered reveal a number of potential suspects in the case that adds greatly to the suspense.

Yet the horror film is not without issues, particularly in regards to character development and resolution which are generally lacking. This is acutely the case with Hee-jin who, aside from the fact her younger sister is missing, has very little of her life revealed. Hints are laced though the film that she has supernatural gifts although such themes frustratingly go unresolved. Actress Nam Sang-mi however gives a great performance in the role and generates enough likeable charm that it’s impossible not to invest in her story. Other resolutions, such as the apparent ‘possession,’ present certain motifs such as the elegant crane yet answers are in short supply, while the film ironically ultimately ties up all loose ends far too neatly in order to adhere to a generically satisfactory finale.

Flashbacks shed light on So-jin's mysterious disappearance

Flashbacks shed light on So-jin’s mysterious disappearance

Verdict:

Possessed is an impressive K-horror by debut director Lee Yong-joo, who uses his tight budget highly effectively to craft a suspense-filled tale of intrigue about a missing girl. Employing claustrophobic environs and a story that examines the frightening religious fervour within communities, Possessed is – lack of character development and resolutions notwithstanding – a chilling delight.

★★★☆☆

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Two young children experience horror by being left alone

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기) – ★★☆☆☆

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기)

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기)

Omnibus films are something of an oddity in cinema. When interlinking narratives – or even stand alone tales – are amalgamated the different directorial styles and/or trajectories can often be jarring, resulting in the audience withdrawing from the constructed realism altogether. Yet when visions align, as with the wonderfully postmodern Grindhouse in 2007, the results can be incredible. Korean cinema (as with French) has employed the use of omnibus structures recurrently, and while most tend to fall by the wayside some, such as Five Senses of Eros, are highly interesting pieces of celluloid.

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기) attempts to resolve such creative differences through a narrative featuring a young kidnapped girl forced to tell tales of horror to her abductor. The concept is an interesting one, giving free creative reign to all five directors to make the short stories they envision. Yet despite such allowances the result is – predictably – quite mixed, although most entries tend to be lackluster examples of the genre with the exception of director Jeong Beom-sik’s (정범식) segment ‘Sun and Moon’. For this review, in the interest of fairness, each short film will be evaluated on its own merits.

A high school girl awakes to find herself gagged and bound in an unknown location, watched by a mysterious man in a cap. After promising to behave, the gag is removed and the man communicates – through writing – that he cannot sleep unless he feels the chill of horror in his blood. He instructs the girl to tell him the scariest horror stories she knows to help him sleep, but if she fails, he will create his own horror using her as his muse.

The high school girl must tell horror stories to save her life

The high school girl must tell horror stories to save her life

Beginning, adjoining scenes, and finale – ★★★☆☆

Director Min Gyoo-dong (민규동) has the unenviable task of providing context for the horror stories, yet he does so competently. The beginning is suitably scary as a young girl is forced to tell stories to her kidnapper. In constructing their fraught relationship the director does well to establish the chilling demeanor of the abductor as he writes his demands rather than speak them aloud. The adjoining sequences are less so, as they each involve the girl attempting to flee, failing, and trying again leading to dull repetition. The finale also suffers in this regard as Min Gyoo-dong (민규동) seems unsure what to do with his protagonists once they are free from the narrative structure of storytelling.

Two young children experience horror by being left alone

Two young children experience horror by being left alone

Sun and Moon – ★★★★☆

Jeong Beom-sik (정범식) directs the first and strongest segment of Horror Stories, told from the perspective of two young children alone at home. As such the director is able to poke fun at the horror genre as the children are frightened by shadows and noises located in the homestead, mixing horror and comedy to great effect. Events take a sinister turn however when a stranger enters the home and begins chasing them, contributing to the suspense and tension as the predictable pleasures of a traditional horror movie are (somewhat playfully) conveyed. Yet the real impact of the segment lies with Jeong-Beom-sik’s contrast between real and imagined horror. The director locates genuine horror within uncompassionate corporations and the ramifications that unfold from business decisions, with the socio-cultural commentary conveying unadulterated, shocking, and highly emotive horror. However, just as the short becomes highly compelling, it unfortunately ends.

The serial killer escapes on the plane, exacting revenge

The serial killer escapes on the plane, exacting revenge

Horror Flight (AKA Fear Plane) – ★★☆☆☆

The second horror story, directed by Im Dae-woong (임대웅), is much more of a thriller than the title suggests yet regardless is a bland and contrived affair. A serial killer of young women is to be escorted by police on a flight to Seoul, but during the flight the murder escapes his shackles and indiscriminately attacks the crew. Through the segment a great number of ‘coincidences’ and logic-bending occurs in which the killer exploits to rampage through the plane, which quickly becomes tiresome. The potential claustrophobia of the plane is absent, while the inclusion of the ghost of a former victim is without meaning or purpose. The contrivances are so acute the writer clearly couldn’t find a resolution, as the segment ends abruptly.

The charismatic cannibal tastes a potential victim

The charismatic cannibal tastes a potential victim

Kong-ji, Pat-ji – ★★☆☆☆

Director Hong Ji-young’s (홍지영) entry is the weakest in the film, involving an attractive plastic surgeon who discovers eternal youth by eating his young brides. The narrative embodies the Cinderella-esque qualities of a wicked mother and sister, yet the over-acting is incredibly distracting as are the ridiculous hints at cannibalism that seem to go unnoticed by the protagonists. The segment does include the most visual form of torture horror, as close-ups of flesh being cut by various devices is suitably gory and unnerving. However there is no escaping the shortcomings of the narrative which is, while tongue-in-cheek, unengaging and trite.

Paranoia creeps in as all begin to wonder who is infected

Paranoia creeps in as all begin to wonder who is infected

Ambulance – ★★☆☆☆

The final segment of the film is helmed by brothers Kim Gok (김곡) and Kim Sun (김선), directors of 2011’s White: The Melody of the Curse (화이트: 저주의 멜로디). The narrative is concerned with a virus that has spread throughout Korea, turning the infected into zombies. A medic, police officer and driver are called to the scene of an accident where a young girl and her mother may or may not be infected, and the paranoia that unfolds in taking them to safety via an ambulance. Initially the claustrophobia of the vehicle and the increasingly disturbing atmosphere unfurls well, as the morality of leaving a comatose young girl alone for the greater good is debated. Yet the segment quickly loses impetus as the in-fighting repeatedly continues, as does stopping and starting the ambulance to jettison the possibly infected. The appearance of sprinting zombies helps to spur interest as they are the only sense of a wider context and horror, but as very little is seen of them or the devastation, their appearance is bittersweet. Blandness sets in as unoriginal ideas are rehashed, and the predictable finale does little to offset such criticism.

Can the girl satiate her abductor's need for horror?

Can the girl satiate her abductor’s need for horror?

Verdict:

Horror Stories is, predictably, a mixed effort. While context is provided for each director to exhibit their creative prowess, the reliance on stereotypes, contrivances and predictable pleasures results in general apathy rather than scares. Only Jeong Beom-sik’s Sun and Moon deviates from this trend, and while he too exploits such traits he does so in a satirical postmodern fashion. While fans of the horror genre may find something to enjoy, Horror Stories ultimately lacks the scares that the title so promisingly implies.

★★☆☆☆

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