As any of my readers will have figured out by now, horror films are my particular passion. I would rather sift through the dross of the genre searching for the smallest moments of satisfaction than watch any number of masterworks about the human condition. It upsets me when a horror film is done without conviction — I'm not concerned when a movie tries and fails honestly, which explains my lingering affection for Ed Wood and Jerry Warren, but I am offended when a movie is made with contempt for its genre, as well as for its audience. For instance, I tried recently to watch a movie (I originally intended to name it here, but have since decided to wait for the review) which thought it was being clever with the conventions of the monster film, but was instead flat, forced and nearly unwatchable; I couldn't finish it. But as upset as I become when horror film-makers shit in their own beds, I become equally upset when a movie is done superbly, yet is met with indifference by critics and audiences who should really know better.
I'm made more frustrated by this situation because I know, deep in my heart, that it's mostly subjective. I understand there are valid reasons why people might not like a movie I find particularly effective1, just as I've written harshly about several films in these pages and received equally-harsh responses from people who love them. They are welcome to react to my judgment with the same sense of outrage. In general, though, when I give a movie a bad review, I believe I do a fairly thorough job of explaining why I think it's so bad. I also think I'm reasonably fair in finding whatever good things there are in films that might otherwise be considered junk.
But when it comes to Phone, a very well-made ghost story from Korea, I'm at a loss to explain the general critical response. So many, many reviewers seemed to look at the country of origin, then look at the superficial details of the film, and write the film off as a tired re-tread of material already covered by the Japanese film Ringu and its countless successors. Well... of course the film shows the unmistakable influence of Nakata Hideo's film: Ringu was a textbook example of how to do a filmed ghost story right. Why on earth would an intelligent film-maker not build on the lessons learned from such a phenomenal success?
There are, after all, a limited number of motifs in the traditional ghost story; they've been catalogued and numbered by cultural anthropologists. Read through a collection of traditional ghost tales from around the world, and you'll see without any difficulty that people have been telling each other the same basic stories for millennia... and the stories continue to hold their power even in these days, when electric lights have conquered the darkness and scary stories are told around flickering screens and picture tubes instead of campfires. So I'm perfectly prepared to accept that certain things will be repeated in ghost story films. What I expect from any good ghost story is that it will create a context for its familiar elements that will be involving and believable. I don't care how many times I've heard variations on the story of the Golden Arm, or been told to wait until someone comes, whether his name is Martin or not: if the storyteller is good enough, I will still be frightened, and I will enjoy being frightened. I expect that some of you felt the hairs on the back of your necks stand up when I so much as mentioned the words "Golden Arm", having heard someone tell the story with gruesome enthusiasm; that should prove my point nicely.
With this in mind, I can't understand why so many people would remain unimpressed by the ways in which Phone improves on its models. I can't imagine why so many reviewers have dismissed it with a shrug and a "been-there-done-that" attitude, especially when these same reviewers then go on to rave about the Amityville Horror remake (you know who you are — SHAME!)
Yes, Phone concerns a ghostly little girl, who is both victim and tormentor. Yes, the story hinges on finding out the truth about the girl's death, and why her return has taken the form it has. Yes, the film gains added poignancy by making the bonds between mother, father and child integral to the plot. And certainly, like Ringu, Phone has been made with great attention to the use of sound, shadow and screen composition to enhance the feeling of unease. But forget the purely mechanical details. Phone has much greater emotional depth — it has a connection with strong emotions other than fear and disgust, emotions with which we in the audience can empathize, and which connect this story about otherworldly forces to life as we know it.
Now, I should stress that Ringu itself is anything but shallow. Nakata actually increased the resonance of his film by simplifying it: with the approval of the author of the original story, he removed a lot of detail he felt was superfluous, and made some changes to the structure of the story — for example, changing the sex of the heroine's child — which suddenly made the story (if you'll pardon the expression) ring true. Compare the original film to its sequels, which tried to restore some of those missing details, and you'll see what I mean. But Phone goes much further than Ringu in weaving the horror into the fabric of its characters' lives. In fact, to abuse the metaphor, the haunting itself is just one more thread in a knot of agony.
The main character is Ji-won, a reporter who has just broken a scandalous story about a number of rich and powerful men who have been preying on underage girls. The scandal has drawn a good deal of unwanted attention to Ji-won, from people who want her silenced at any cost; so the detective in charge of the case suggests she make herself hard to find for a few weeks. Ji-won's brother-in-law Chang-hoon offers to let her stay at their second house in Bang Bae; he and Ji-won's sister Ho-jeong intend to move there permanently when their daughter Yeong-Ju gets a little older, but for now it's sitting abandoned. Since there's a high-tech security system already installed, it seems like the ideal place for Ji-won to lay low, finishing her novel while the child sex investigation closes.
But as Ji-won prepares to move, she finds she's being stalked. A man she doesn't recognize sends her threatening pictures in her email, and harasses her with calls to her cell phone. Ji-won is frightened by this attention; but she is strong and resourceful, and manages to keep one step ahead of her stalker. In order to throw him off still further, she intends to change her cellphone number.
Once she installs herself in her new home-away-from-home, she decides not to move into her sister's bedroom — this seems like an unwarranted invasion of their privacy — so, over her sister's objections, she moves herself into a room being used for storage up on the second floor. She even puts Ho-jeong's painting of Yeong-Ju up on the wall for company. However, no sooner has she plugged in her computer and modem when she receives another nasty email from her stalker... but all at once, the computer starts flashing random numbers, and one particular figure — 6644 — comes into prominence on the screen. This is so unlike the stalker's previous attacks that Ji-won isn't sure what to make of it.
Nor is she able to figure out why, when she goes to get her cellphone replaced the next day, the only number that seems to be available is one which ends in those same four digits. Brushing off the apologies of the shopgirl, Ji-won says she'll take the number anyway. Perhaps it's fate, she says.
Theoretically, nobody should know this new number except Ji-won herself and her family, and Chang-hoon. Thus Ji-won isn't particularly concerned when her phone rings while she, her sister and little Yeong-Ju are at a picture gallery, and Yeong-Ju picks it up... but then Yeong-Ju's eyes go wide, and the child begins screaming in abject terror.
The little girl is unable to describe what it was she heard on the phone, but whatever it is has disturbed her to the point of sleeplessness and a level of deep anxiety which is troubling in a six-year-old. Yeong-ju's distress is particularly painful to Ji-won because she has an unusual connection to her niece: Ho-jeong had proven to be infertile, so Ji-won had donated one of her own eggs to her sister. Ji-won considers Yeong-Ju almost her own child.
Ji-won herself starts to receive strange calls. She is unable to understand the noises she hears, but they disturb her deeply. She's convinced they have something to do with the stalker, especially after her friend the police detective is brutally stabbed. The very odd thing is that none of the strange calls can be traced. As far as the phone's records or the phone company's transmission logs can tell, there have been no calls.
Things become even more disturbing when Ji-won starts to investigate the people who had leased her phone number before she did. Two of the people who'd had the number had died under mysterious circumstances: one, a taxi driver, had started refusing night duty because he said he'd been seeing ghosts. Then one day he'd had a fatal car accident — an accident which may have been suicide. Another person, a young woman, had been trapped in an elevator and died of a heart attack, possibly brought on by fright (possibly, my eye... we saw her death in the movie's prologue, and she was clawing her fingernails off trying to get out). A third previous subscriber, a young girl named Jin-hie, had simply disappeared, leaving no trace.
As if all this information wasn't enough for Ji-won, she now begins to have eerie visions. She has dreams about a young girl with very long black hair, sitting on her sister's bed, sobbing. She has clear visions of the last moments of the cab driver and the girl in the elevator when she visits the sites of their deaths. And then, on a cold, rainy night, Ji-won offers a ride to a high school-aged girl she finds shivering on a street corner... only to find herself stepping straight into an urban legend. When the girl silently gestures to her destination — only block from the house in Bang Bae, and right near the spot where the cabbie died — Ji-won suddenly sees a figure, apparently the girl in the seat beside her, step out in front of her car. Ji-won swerves and comes to a halt. When she gets out to investigate, the figure is gone. When she gets back to the car, the girl in the car is gone too — though the door hasn't opened, and there's no sign of her anywhere near. (Watch how this sequence plays out, and you'll see what I mean about familiar material being treated in a compelling manner. The old hitchhiker story has been told millions of times, but as filmed here it feels genuine and spontaneous. Perhaps the familiarity of the story is part of the point...)
It's starting to look as though something much more profound than mere stalking is going on. This impression is borne out when the stalker, fresh from the near-murder of the detective, finally tracks down Ji-won. Just when he has her at his mercy, Ji-won's cellphone, which has been thrown down in her struggles, starts to ring. The assailant, hoping to prolong Ji-won's terror, actually picks up the phone, expecting she'll babble fruitless pleas for mercy into the ears of a loved one... but when he raises the phone to his ear, what he hears sends him into a blind panic. Exit one red herring.
The key to this mystery seems to be the missing Jin-hie. The schoolgirl had disappeared after an unhappy love affair with an unknown boy (or man). From certain clues (like the phantom sounds of a piano playing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, her unknown lover's favorite music) her friends had concluded she was dead, and in some ghostly form she had returned to haunt the school. Her closest friend had started receiving strange and ghastly sounds on her cellphone, to the point where she put out her own eyes and ears with a pen.
In the meantime, something terrible seems to be happening to Yeong-Ju. First, she seems to develop an unhealthily obsessive attachment to her father, at one point kissing him fervently on the lips. She also begins to throw violent tantrums against her mother, hitting her and scratching her with her nails. Sometimes she looks and speaks like a much older girl, a girl raging with emotions no six-year-old could possibly understand...
(Or could they? If there's one thing that truly distinguishes Phone from any other film, it's the impressive performance of Eun Seo-woo as Yeong-Ju. In one moment, she'll be the picture of angelic innocence, and in the next a hate-filled monster. The sheer range of her performance would be astonishing in an actor who was over the age of ten; but in a girl who looks barely old enough to be out of kindergarten, it defies belief. Two moments in particular really shine: first, when the girl's reading of a sweet fairy tale suddenly sours; and then at the climax of Yeong-Ju's possession, when the collected rage of the spirit inside her comes pouring out in a single moment. Where does a girl this young find such reserves of emotion? How is she able to give such perfect voice to them? In a way, she's too good, because when we see such an accomplished performance coming from an actress so young, it becomes impossible for us to look at it objectively. We're too aware that we're watching a small miracle take place... hers is the single most terrifying performance by a child that I can think of in the whole horror genre; but rather than be truly frightened by it, we're more likely to feel the urge to stand up and applaud.)
As the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, it starts to seem as though Yeong-Ju's possession isn't just the result of her answering the wrong phone at the wrong time. There may be a very intensely personal reason why the ghostly presence seems to be connected to Bang Bae, and to Ji-won, and even to little Yeong-Ju and her family. Yeong-ju in particular has a very significant role in the unfolding of the plot. Terrible things happen to the little girl as the haunting reaches its crescendo; but even though the idea of child abuse figures prominently in Phone, we don't find the violence directed against Yeong-Ju exploitative. This is partly because the script treats her with respect, and partly because her character has been brought to life so vividly by such a brilliant young actress. Yeong-Ju is not merely an object designed to advance the plot, as so many children in horror films are.
And that's enough about the plot. Go see it. Now. I think you'll find plenty to enjoy.
For those who are anxious to find parallels between Phone and other movies, I can suggest one no one seems to have thought of: Lucio Fulci's Sette Note in Nero. I know it seems as though I'm obligated to throw in a plug for a Fulci film in every review, but I'm absolutely serious. The two films share a leisurely, slowly-paced unfolding of a doom-laden plot, as well as a dream-like atmosphere. Both films take a nasty turn in the middle which changes our impression of everything we think we've seen. Both films revolve around messages from some kind of supernatural force... messages which are misinterpreted until it's too late. The stalker is Phone's "Rospini", the character we think is responsible for the villainy, but who may not be what he seems; and the two films share a certain... physical trait in common, too, which anyone who's seen the Fulci film will recognize. I'm not suggesting that Phone was actually inspired by Fulci's early thriller, though it may have been partly inspired by another film that also has many parallels with Fulci's: Robert Zemeckis's What Lies Beneath. Like the Zemeckis film, but unlike Fulci's, the presence from beyond in Phone has a personality and a motivation of its own.
I suppose it's almost unnecessary for me to add the Phone is magnificently photographed, well-acted and atmospherically scored2. It is, after all, an entry in the South Korean horror renaissance, which has been characterized by a very high level of technical achievement. However, I should probably point out that Phone uses few special effects to create its potent scares. It relies for the most part on very traditional means: in addition to the most basic elements of light & shadow, sound, and movement, it also plays on our understanding of and our concern for the characters involved — be they living or dead.
1. As I write this, George Romero's Land of the Dead has opened in theatres across the US. No matter what their opinion of the current film ay be, the critics seem to be using the movie's release to bring up the old chestnut about how disappointing Day of the Dead was back in 1985. As it happens, Day is my favorite of the trilogy (er, tetralogy! Sorry! I'm going to have to get used to this). From the first time I saw it at the time of its original release, through its splendid re-issue on DVD by Anchor Bay, it has remained high on my list of favorites. I find it has aged better than Dawn; and in any case, Dawn was such a potent piece of social satire it could be intellectualized and kept at arms' length. I could find no such comfortable distance with Day. I was overwhelmed by the implications of Day, which I thought did a great job creating an atmosphere of absolute hopelessness. And I have never been so frightened by the zombies in any other film.
And I still can't figure out why nobody agrees with me.
2. References to classical music seem to be an in-joke in the Korean horror community: practically every Korean horror film includes at least one. This film uses quotations from Beethoven and Mahler. Another prominent example is Tell Me Something, which not only uses Mendelssohn and Shostakovich prominently, but also buries a quote from Bach in the incidental music. Although the Bach theme is not used obviously, and is never quoted in full, the actual work is listed in the end credits...