Are the corridors of the school haunted by a ghost?

Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사) – ★☆☆☆☆

Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사)

Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사)

The Korean education system is a brutal, arduous regime for students; in addition to the standard school hours they must attend, students also frequent numerous private academies of various subjects during the evening, slotting in further educational events whenever spare time allows. Understandably the stress and pressure imposed by the education culture – and more specifically, parents – often leads to depression and ill health, at best. Escalating matters further are the tales of corruption as parents attempt to secure the future of their offspring through bribery and ‘favors’ of teachers and officials.

Death Bell (고死: 피의 중간고사) attempts to take the grueling education system as the basis for horror, as a mysterious killer/ghost slowly murders the students of a special class. While the social commentary underpinning the film is an interesting cultural examination, director Chang (real name Yoon Hong-seung (윤홍승) has crafted a vapid, uninspiring horror film that appeals to the lowest common denominator through its ‘torture’ porn aesthetic and hyper-editing over genuine chills.

During the exam season, the students are frantically studying in an attempt to be the best in the school and secure a place in a good university. The pressure is intense and students begin to crack under the strain, yet kind teacher Hwang Chang-wook (Lee Beom-soo (이범수) tries to reassure his students; in his rival class, however, strict teacher Choi So-yeong (Yoon Jeong-hee 윤정희) pushes for the best. At the end of the exam season the relieved students prepare for vacation, yet the news of a ‘special class’ with a rival school forces the elite students to stay behind for further studies. However just as the session is due to begin, a missing student appears on TV in a death trap. The killer gives instructions that the students need to complete a series of challenges if they are to survive, and so begins a battle of wits as the students attempt to solve riddles and find the murderer before they are all killed.

The students must solve riddles to save their classmates

The students must solve riddles to save their classmates

While a large number of horror films require the audience to suspend their disbelief in logic, Death Bell ranks amongst the worst examples of the genre for pushing it to the limits. When murdered bodies appear, no-one looks in the direction it arrived; when voices and images are broadcast, no-one thinks to look for the source; in the search for the killer, teachers regularly leave students alone to fend for themselves. Additionally, in the attempt to be ‘Saw in a high school’, Death Bell features puzzles for students to solve in a bid to save their companions yet they and their solutions are generally pointless. The writers endeavour to add meaning to the riddles and to apply a time limit to create tension, but the execution is flat and the answers are quite ridiculous, especially as student I-na (Nam Gyoo-ri (남규리) almost immediately knows who the murders are related to.

Yet horror films aimed at a teenage audience often place chilling scenes above narrative logic, and in this regard Death Bell is also limp. Bizarrely the film features ‘torture porn’ scenes such as dripping hot candle wax on a victim, and in the oddly superfluous – and unsubtly symbolic – opening sequence featuring zombified students, horror and menstrual blood are misogynistically conveyed as one and the same. In one scene, a female student is hoisted by one leg exposing her panties for no particular reason before receiving a death not in-keeping with the other murders. The female students are routinely ‘punished’ for being intelligent and, as with American horrors from the 1970s/80s, for being curious about the opposite gender. In all cases, director Chang never builds tension effectively and instead relies on rapid camera movement and editing to provide thrills, yet as it is often difficult to see anything on screen the results are generally less than impressive.

Death Bell does become interesting in the final act however, as social commentary involving the Korean education system and the roles of parents and teachers are inserted and portrayed. This late but welcome addition depicts the extent to which high grades play in Korean culture, and the lengths to which all involved will go to secure them in the highly competitive system. Unfortunately as such themes are introduced so late the potential is never truly expanded, yet it does provide some much needed impetus to events as well as tying up narrative loose ends.

Teacher Hwang Chang-wook desperately tries to protect his students

Teacher Hwang Chang-wook desperately tries to protect his students

As teacher Hwang Chang-wook, Lee Beom-soo is the central protagonist of the film and does well to keep the pace of the film moving and involving. His role is highly limited due to awfully vapid narrative, forcing him to be a reactionary figure in moments that lack logic, yet the actor performs competently and genuinely works hard to make the the premise and his situation believable. He ultimately fails due to the nonsensical script, but his effort is commendable.

The films other two lead roles fall to Yoon Jeong-hee as strict teacher Choi So-yeong and Nam Gyoo-ri student I-na. Both roles are woefully underdeveloped and leave the actresses with little to do save to convey the stereotypes they are constructed as – Choi So-yeong as a stoic disciplinarian and I-na as a vulnerable schoolgirl interested in boys. Both roles add precious little to the narrative, but the actresses competently act the stereotypes ascribed to them.

Are the corridors of the school haunted by a ghost?

Are the corridors of the school haunted by a ghost?

Verdict:

Death Bell is a dull, vacuous horror film that attempts to be ‘Saw in a high school’ but is ultimately a bland excuse to depict torture porn on teenagers. Hindering the scares further are the kinetic camera movements and editing that continually frustrate. While Lee Beom-soo attempts to make the film compelling, and the late introduction of key cultural themes try to elevate the film, Death Bell is a hollow, soulless example of the genre and is for enthusiasts only.

★☆☆☆☆

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Jin-oh's wacky antics continually entertain

Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다) – ★★★☆☆

Over my Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)

Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)

Korean cinema has something of a love affair with partnering a mad-cap group of disparate individuals, who are  given the unenviable task of bringing the corrupt elite to justice. The repetition of such a narrative framework is undoubtedly ideologically founded, yet the translation of the sense of ‘Han’ within the team dynamic is often hit-and-miss. For every The Host (괴물) is a Once Upon a Time (원스 어폰 어 타임); for every Take Off (국가대표) is a Sector 7 (7광구).

Writer/director Wu Seon-ho’s (우선호) foray into the arena is more comically-macabre in nature as an exploited group of individuals attempt to ransom a corpse. As such Over My Dead Body (시체가 돌아왔다)  provides a distinctly fresh approach to the concept yet never manages to fully capitialise on the premise, instead falling back on the tried-and-tested format – and cliches – of its forebearers. Luckily the addition of Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범), who is a charismatic delight throughout, singlehandedly elevates Over My Dead Body out of mediocrity.

Protesting against the unscrupulous CEO of a technology firm, engineer Baek Hyeon-cheol (Lee Beom-soo (이범수) and his mentor throw eggs and chant slogans in the belief that the specialist microchip they have developed is being sold abroad. They are indeed correct, as the CEO has been faking an illness and has implanted the microchip within himself in a bid to smuggle the technology into America for a large profit. Yet through their persistance Hyeon-cheol and his senior reveal the fraud to the country, and in retaliation the mentor is brutally inured. Swearing revenge for the crimes against her father, Han Dong-hwa (Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) enlists the help of ever-reluctant Hyeon-cheol. However, with the shocking news of the CEO’s death the duo hatch a plan to steal the corpse and hold it to ransom – unwittingly stealing the microchip in the process. Yet when the corpse suddenly awakens to reveal conman Ahn Jin-oh (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범), the trio must begrudgingly combine their skills in order to walk away with the money – and their lives.

Hyeon-cheol and Dong-hwa pledge to bring to corrupt to justice

Hyeon-cheol and Dong-hwa pledge to bring the corrupt to justice

Over My Dead Body begins in a fun but rather odd science-fiction fashion as Hyeon-cheol chases down a corrupt CEO who deals with advanced microchips and lasers. The premise of the film is then quickly set up, as Dong-hwa and Hyeon-cheol – who transforms from science-nerd to attractive middle-aged man in a matter of minutes – go about planning to steal the titular corpse. The duo’s theft is humorous and entertaining, as they fumble their way through security measures and unforeseen circumstances in a bid to complete their mission. The resulting getaway is also highly enjoyable, with Jin-oh’s awakening corpse routine a real highlight of the film.

It’s at this stage that Over My Dead Body seemingly runs out of ideas as a slew of underdeveloped characters are introduced that do little to continue the promising momentum of the first act. These stock characters are all stereotypical in nature, including the unintelligent gangster duo, bumbling National Intelligence Agency officers, and a host of security personal led by a nefarious kingpin. The narrative desperately attempts to juggle everyone and give them adequate relevance, but there are far too many and the story becomes bogged down as the central protagonists move from one set piece to the next. The decision to include such stereotypes also opens up a variety of cliched and predictable scenarios, some of which are humorous while others tend to fall flat, making the narrative lack compulsion with yet another case of mistaken identity and/or betrayal. By including so many narrative threads the central cast suffer from lack of development, particularly Kim Ok-bin (김옥빈) whose talents are vastly under-utilized as she exists merely as ‘the sexy punk girl/love interest.’

Luckily Over My Dead Body is consistently rejuvenated whenever Jin-oh (Ryoo Seung-beom (류승범) appears, as his mixture of whacky antics, deviousness and over-acting are highly comical and drag the narrative out of any slumps that occur. Thanks to his wise inclusion the film never sinks into blandness, and makes the narrative much more compelling to see through to its conclusion.

Joined by charismatic/psychotic con-man Jin-oh, the trio continue their quest

Joined by charismatic/psychotic con-man Jin-oh, the trio continue their quest

Lee Beom-soo is an interesting choice as science nerd Hyeon-cheol, and delivers a competent and likable performance. While he – as with his compatriots – suffers from lack of character development, Lee Beom-soo conducts himself as an intelligent ‘every-man’ well. The director’s decisions in regards to costume make it difficult to convey the character, as he strangely moves from geek to office worker to university student, a feature which is also reflected in his personality as it undergoes dramatic shifts from shy to intelligent to aggressive.

Kim Ok-bin is generally employed as a sexy love interest in playing Dong-hwa, and aside from inspiring the heist is incredibly undervalued. The actress plays the role of the strong, stubborn punk well yet there are few scenes in which her character is allowed to convey more, with her pink hair and cell phone charms the only indicators to greater depth. An effort is made to connect her with her sick father, yet such sparse time is dedicated it barely registers.

Ryoo Seung-beom is seemingly the only actor who understands the tongue-in-cheek farcical nature of the narrative, and over-acts in each scene with wonderful charisma. Yet throughout his performance he also keeps the audience guessing as to whether Jin-oh is a hyper-intelligent fraudster or genuinely mentally unstable, making him a comical and entertaining protagonist within each scene. Again, little depth is ascribed to Jin-oh yet his presence and hyperactivity circumvents criticism in this regard as the film is elevated largely due to him.

Jin-oh's wacky antics continually entertain

Jin-oh’s wacky antics continually entertain

Verdict:

Over My Dead Body offers an interesting and comically-macabre spin on the crime heist sub-genre, and often succeeds in being entertaining throughout due to the premise. Yet the film largely falls into cliche and predictability following the first act due to the reliance upon an array of stock characters and a lack of inventiveness.  However Ryoo Seung-beom’s presence consistently raises the film, and fans of the actor will not be disappointed as Over My Dead Body is an enjoyable film largely thanks to him.

★★★☆☆

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Seok-hwan cuts a swathe through gangster to uncover the truth

The City of Violence (짝패) – ★★★☆☆

The City of Violence (짝패)

The City of Violence (짝패)

Postmodern representations of action narratives and violence are big business. Arnold Swarzenegger’s films in the late ’80s wisely parodied his hyper-masculinity for comedic effect, while Quentin Tarantino virtually single-handedly made such depictions popular within the gangster genre in the ’90s. More recently, director’s such as Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, 2004) and duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, 2006) have capitalized on the eccentricities of the genre, exaggerating them to insane levels for innovative and entertaining set-pieces.

Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완) has built a solid reputation and loyal fan-base through his own reverential-yet-playful productions, representing the oft-explored areas of brotherhood, the gangster/police officer dichotomy, and ultra-violence. All his auteuristic traits are present within The City of Violence (짝패), a film that initially starts slowly but becomes a riveting action-thriller in the final act.

When prolific gangster Wang-jae (Ahn Kil-kang (안길강) is murdered by a group of young local thugs, his oldest and dearest friends reunite for the funeral, including Seoul detective Tae-su (Jeong Doo-hong (정두홍) and hot-headed gangster Seok-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan (류승완). Alongside crime kingpin Pil-ho (Lee Beom-soo (이범수) and math teacher Dong-hwan (Jeong Seok-yong (정석용), the group reminisce about their childhood and lament the loss of their old friend. Yet something about the attack feels wrong to Tae-su, and he begins an investigation into his friend’s murder but encounters more questions than answers. Joined by Seok-hwan, the pair punch and kick their way through an army of miscreants to finally get the truth.

Tae-su suspects foul play, and investigates his friend's death

Tae-su suspects foul play, and investigates his friend’s death

The narrative of The City of Violence is far from original, depicting the gathering of a group of friends that have drifted apart since their inseparable childhood. Tae-su also fits within the archetypal mode of the outsider-hero, returning to his former home to instill justice within the populace. In portraying such overly familiar themes director Ryoo Seung-wan is highly reverential, conveying confidence and a measure of comfort through the postmodern nostalgia value. This approach is also detrimental however as the lack of parody equates to a level of seriousness that detracts from the enjoyment, while the distinct absence of inspiration and ingenuity produces a rather bland and predictable plot. Considering the immense success of Friend in 2001 which explored similar themes in incredible depth, the choice to focus so reliantly upon stereotypical protagonists without self-parody is puzzling. The first and second acts are quite dull due to the often plodding predictability, although conversely pleasure is often derived in this fashion through conventions such as the hard-boiled cop, the flamboyant kingpin, the hot-headed sidekick, and so forth.

Where Ryoo Seung-wan’s directing skills shine are in the tremendous final act, in which Tae-su and Seok-hwan fight a veritable army of gangsters. The extreme-violence is beautifully choreographed and almost balletic, while on a technical note the camera-work, framing and editing are sublime. The reverence to the action films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are clear as the duo battle an assortment of foot-soldiers wearing clothing associated with a particular gang – baseball players, chefs, b-boys and so on – crafting action sequences akin to the old 1990s computer game era. This motif is further reinforced as Tae-su and Seok-hwan must fight ever more challenging opponents that lead to a showdown with the big boss, similar in nature to the martial arts tournaments as in Enter The Dragon (1973). Ryoo Seung-wan’s wisely injects tongue-in-cheek humour throughout the proceedings as the duo, tired and beaten, must continue to soldier on producing some wonderfully comical moments.

Pil-ho is the local kingpin vying for power

Pil-ho is the local kingpin vying for power

In addition to directing Ryoo Seung-wan also performs as Seok-hwan. While his role is generally quite limited, he nonetheless conveys the hot-tempered protagonist well and is responsible for some astounding action and his skill is impossible not to commend. Similarly Jeong Doo-hong as Tae-su is incredibly gifted in his physical prowess, performing highly entertaining displays of martial arts. The stoic nature of his character is also conveyed competently through his no-nonsense attitude and dark clothing, archetypal but enjoyable for that very reason. The most grandiose archetype is bestowed upon Lee Beom-soo as crime boss Pil-ho, conveying his vicious nature and lust for power with conviction. His wonderfully tailored suits express his need for approval and acceptance just as much as his cowering to bosses from Seoul, making Pil-ho the most compelling and three-dimensional protagonist within the film. The bloodthirsty motivations, in conjunction with the camp facade and troupe of bodyguards, are a testament to classic Bond villains and make Pil-ho a protagonist that’s easy to love to hate.

Seok-hwan cuts a swathe through gangster to uncover the truth

Seok-hwan cuts a swathe through gangsters to uncover the truth

Verdict:

The City of Violence is an unapologetic homage to classic action films and while there is a certain level of nostalgia and enjoyment to be had, the film suffers from predictable, bland and uninspiring first and second acts. The final act is where the skills of the director and cast shine however, crafting an incredibly entertaining and postmodern finale that finishes on a high note and will have action fans wondering why the entire film doesn’t convey the same passion and finesse.

★★★☆☆

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