As you'll have guessed from the title, Cello has a lot to do with the world of classical music. Most of the music that's featured in the film is by J.S. Bach; and while I'd normally suggest that there's no such thing as too much Bach, in this case I'd have to reconsider.
Bach's music, even at its most complex, is remarkable for its clarity. No matter how many individual musical lines come together in a single piece of music, each of them — the main melody, the counter-melody, the bass-line, and anything in between — is equally interesting, and equally well thought-out. There's nothing superfluous, and (again, in spite of the complexity) nothing out-of-place.
So I think you can see why certain movies should avoid comparison with Bach. That's certainly the case with Cello, which is baroque in the least-flattering sense of the word.
Hong Mi-Joo is a part-time music theory teacher. She used to be a cellist, but quit playing the instrument many years ago... for some mysterious reason. You wouldn't think it would be all that mysterious to the people around her; but she's never told her family anything about it... and if her professional colleagues know, they keep their mouths shut. It seems to have something to do with the claw-like scars Mi-Joo has on her hand. It also seems to involve an old friend of hers, also a cellist, named Tae-yeon, who is now dead.
Mi-Joo is a very good character for the lead in a ghost story. For one thing, she's been psychologically damaged at some point in the past, which makes her an ideal candidate to start seeing ghosts of one form or another.
More interestingly, there's something about her that makes her mildly unsympathetic — a mulish streak to her personality that prevents us from ever warming to her. We want to like her... after all, it's only natural that we should have some compassion for the victim of a vicious haunting. But in Mi-Joo's case, we find our emotions strangely mixed. It's the same kind of ambivalence you'll find toward the damaged, unreliable heroines of classic movies like The Haunting, or The Innocents, or Carnival of Souls...
(Oh — and let's not forget A Tale of Two Sisters. We can't forget A Tale of Two Sisters.
Do you know why we can't forget A Tale of Two Sisters?
It's because Cello won't let you forget A Tale of Two Sisters... In fact, it cribs from Kim Ji-woon's film every chance it gets. But the strained heroine is one of the aspects of the earlier film that Cello borrows and gets right.)
As the movie opens, things do not seem to be going well for Mi-Joo. A permanent position has become available at the school, but it seems the only way Mi-Joo can get the job is by offering a significant bribe to the Dean. That's something Mi-Joo is either unwilling or unable to do.
On top of that, her stress medication seems to be losing its effectiveness. The pressures of her daily life — the unresolved issues from her past, symbolized by the scars on her wrist; her barely-functional autistic elder daughter; her lack of job security, and so on — have given her terrible headaches, leading her to raise her dosages to levels that her doctors find questionable.
Furthermore, Mi-Joo learns that the late Tae-yeon's sister, who also playes the cello, has just returned from overseas, and is giving a comeback concert. She's particularly anxious that Mi-Joo should come. She's even sent Mi-Joo something special: an old cassette, the sight of which causes Mi-Joo to recoil.
All this gives Mi-Joo one of her migraines; but no sooner has she swallowed her pill when another big problem arrives. One of her ex-students (a cello player, no less) confronts her: after all her struggles to succeed in the notoriously strenuous Korean educational system, one grade has destroyed her chances of professional success... one grade: Mi-Joo's music theory class. The girl blames Mi-Joo for being an apathetic, disinterested teacher.
Now, from the girl's attitude, we suspect that her success in her other classes comes mostly from her skill at manipulating or even intimidating her teachers. Frankly, she's terrifying (amd later on, when we meet her mother, our suspicions will be justified); and when she threatens to get her revenge on Mi-Joo, it's a chilling moment. Here, too, though, Mi-Joo's diffidence stands in our way of sympathizing with her. Even though we've been given only the tiniest glimpse into Mi-Joo's personality so far, and even though the young student is a far less appealing character, we still suspect the girl's accusations may have some truth to them.
After all this, Mi-Joo is in a fragile state as she tries to drive home in the evening. While waiting at a traffic light, Mi-Joo impulsively decides to slip the cassette into her car stereo. The music starts playing: it's her old friend Tae-yeon, playing Bach (of course). But as the music plays on, something unexpected and terrible happens:
Writer/director Lee Woo-cheol gives away
the whole rest of the movie.
We're only a few minutes in, and the visual and audio cues have just alerted us to the nature of everything that's about to follow. While some movies attempt to give their audience hints about the twist that's coming at the end, this one just comes right out and tells us. And sadly, it's a twist we've seen many times before. Perhaps if the scene I'm talking about had come a few minutes further from the movie's pre-credits sequence, it wouldn't have been so blindingly obvious. But on the other hand, the imagery is so blatant that it probably would have given the plot away regardless of its place in the movie.
Still, Cello plods on, as though it hadn't just given away all its secrets. Something begins to eat away at the foundations of Mi-Joo's life. Vaguely-menacing text messages begin to appear on Mi-Joo's cell phone. Mi-Joo's husband hires a strange new housekeeper, who stares menacingly at family pictures and never says a word. Something kills the family dog. Someone tries to run her over in a parking garage. And we sigh to ourselves, because the director keeps trying to convince us there's some secret left to reveal. How much of what we're seeing (he seems to ask) is a result of Mi-Joo's mental state? Is the new housekeeper a real person, or a ghost? Are the mysterious phone calls the result of a malignant spirit... or is it merely the vengeful student trying to destroy Mi-Joo's life? And all the while, we know the answers — or rather, the one answer to all these questions: it doesn't really matter.
Things really start to get silly when Mi-Joo's sister-in-law Kyung-ran (who lives with the family) gets a phone call from her fiancé in the US. He apparently tells her he's found someone else, and is breaking off their engagement. I saw "apparently" because we later find out there were no incoming calls that night; but that's almost beside the point. The noteworthy thing here is that Kyung-ran takes the news badly. Very badly. Ophelia-and-Hamlet badly. In just a short time, she manages to trash her room, put on her (appropriately red) wedding dress, spike her hair, cry her mascara all over her face, and smear her lipstick with her hands until she looks like Heath Ledger's understudy... but she goes to pieces so quietly that nobody notices, until Mi-Joo's 5-year-old younger daughter walks in on her the next day.
Kyung-ran's orgy of overacting comes to an end when she gets a phone call after she's torn the phone out of the wall. That's the cue (at last) for a full-fledged ghost to come roaring out of the wall. This leads to a delightfully tasteless scene in which Mi-Joo's autistic daughter opens her window shade and stares impassively at her dead aunt, dangling by her neck from the upper floor.
Kyung-ran's death signals the beginning of Mi-Joo's real troubles. To make Mi-joo suffer, Lee brings in references to practically every major Asian horror film of the last decade: the haunted cellphones of One Missed Call and Phone; the creepy floating hair-clouds and unwelcome bed-guest of Ju-On; and much too much of Two Sisters: not just scare effects (which work rather well, actually), but other aspects as well, from the pill-popping unreliable heroine to the set design. There's also a crib from an Alejandro Amenábar movie — you might think I'm talking about The Others, which would be mildly appropriate... but that's not the film I mean. Lee seems aware that he's borrowed a little too much from his models, because at one point he makes a subtle joke at his own expense: he sets up a famous shock scene from Ju-On — you'll know it when you see it — but he refuses to follow through until the very last shot of the movie.
It's not as though I mind too much when a horror film borrows some of its shocks from other films. After all, there are certain elements of ghost stories that are common to all cultures all around the world. Similarly, there are certain images — pale women crawling out of wells, for example; or hair that bleeds when you cut it; or faces in the bedclothes — that people (like myself) have seen in their dreams long before the images showed up in movies. I expect some films to re-use successful bits from other films; my only real concern is the end result. If a movie is nothing more than a collage of other people's ideas out of context, then I'm likely to get irritated. In this particular case, the haunting becomes so overblown and out-of-control... so anxious to cram itself with references to better films... that it ceases to be scary. By the end, in places where a lighter touch would have left me genuinely hurt, I found myself laughing at the excess.
I don't normally find myself giggling over brutal murders, especially not when children are involved. But in this case, I can't help myself. At the center of all this mayhem and death sits the singularly unthreatening form of... a cello. A haunted cello. What could be more ridiculous than that? At the height of the bloodshed toward the end of the movie, Mi-Joo creeps up to a bed and pulls back the covers... to reveal... <stinger>BUM BUM BUMMMM!</stinger> the Sinister Cello! Waiting to jump out and surprise its victim with the Pizzicato of Doom! OK, sure; I understand what the director was trying to do in that scene; I just think he chose the wrong item to imbue with otherworldly significance.
There are some effective moments in Cello. For instance, a children's counting game and a cello case are put to heartbreaking new uses in the course of the movie (although the cello case magically transports itself from one room to another during the climax). The two children in the cast are among the best actors in the bunch, with the elder girl bearing an uncanny resemblance to the young Kuriyama Chiaki, and the younger, like her counterpart in Phone, stealing every scene she's in with her effortless natural charm. Furthermore, everything is shot with the professionalism and visual flair we've come to expect from modern Korean film. And, of coure, the music is beautiful. But Cello's most effective bits are overwhelmed by the excesses: the cliff that's too high to be believed; the housekeeper that's too weird; the secret that's too secret; the spike in the wall that's too convenient; the tragedy upon tragedy upon self-inflicted tragedy that turn Mi-Joo into a parody of a horror movie heroine.
And then there's the ending. It's bad enough it was revealed to us before the movie had a chance to get started. Assuming for a minute you didn't catch the slip: the twists involved are so familiar that a classic American movie from the 1980's and a classic English movie from the 1940's have lent their names to the techniques.
I will say this in the movie's defense, though: it did teach me some things about South Korea that I did not know. For instance: you can go to a music school there and never see any instrument other than a cello. If you teach general theory there, your students will all be cellists. Your cello-playing friends' families will also play the cello. Celli will stare at you from store windows, and you will be able to buy your autistic child one on the spur of the moment, on a temporary teacher's salary, without having to adjust your budget. If you're a ghost who plays the cello, long black fingernails won't even get in the way of your fingering. And running metronomes make splendid house decor.
Also, Korean toddlers have their own cell phones.
But the main point I took from Cello is one I really didn't need the movie to realize: the cello is not particularly frightening. Violas, now — violas will scare the pants off you. But celli? Not so much. I hope the Korean film industry has learned the same lesson; because as Asian horror becomes ever-more derivative, I worry about the inevitable rip-offs: Sousaphone... Flugelhorn... Mega Krummhorn vs. Giant Sackbutt...