Friday, February 14, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Moonlight Sonata

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody and special guest Priscilla talk up South Korean horror.

Back in December, as a sort of birthday/Christmas combo present, Priscilla sent me a batch of movies, most of which were Asian horror films, as she continues on with her mission to convince me that I've been wrong to write off the majority of Asian horror the way I have. (Previously she has gotten me to watch and enjoy Apartment 1303 and Shutter.)

Among the movies she gifted to me was this supernatural thriller from South Korea - 

PHONE (2002)

On a stormy night, a clearly upset young woman returns to her apartment building while ignoring a relentless stream of phone calls to her cell phone, as well as a text message that simply reads: "I'm your destiny." The woman boards the elevator up to her floor, and that's when things really start to go wrong. The lights flicker, the elevator shakes, stopping on the ninth floor. None of the buttons on the control panel respond to her touch. Through the window in the elevator doors, the woman catches a glimpse of a strange, shadowy figure standing on the ninth floor. It sort of looks like a small child wearing a black shroud.

The woman's phone rings again, and this time she answers it, pleading with her caller to stop... A strange, garbled, screechy voice responds, and whatever the caller says seems to drive the woman out of her mind. Right before the elevator drops down the shaft.

More than thirty minutes will pass before we have any idea how this woman fits into the plot.

After the opening scene, we're introduced to Ji-won, a journalist who has been working on a exposé about some very important men being involved in a sex scandal with high school girls. With her work successfully completed, the men arrested and facing trial, Ji-won plans to take a break to write novels. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with Ji-won for having revealed these criminals, and she has been receiving threatening e-mails and phone calls, one of the guys mentioned in her articles is even stalking her. The situation is bad, so much so that she plans on disappearing somewhere and changing her cell phone number.

Talking about it with her friend Ho-jung and Ho-jung's husband Chang-hoon, they agree that she should indeed stay out of sight for a while. That's when Chang-hoon suggests that she use a house the couple owns but don't have any immediate plans to move into just yet. Ho-jun doesn't seem comfortable with her husband's idea, claiming that the house is too big, and that it might be dangerous for Ji-won to stay there by herself. Chang-hoon quickly convinces them otherwise, since a security system has been installed. So with that, Ji-won is all set.

She arrives at the house, and there she stays... alone. Ho-jung was supposed to meet her there and spend the first night with her, but she doesn't want to disturb her sleeping young daughter Young-ju, so they're not able to make it. There's always something off about Ho-jung, you can't exactly point it out, but it's there all along. As the movie progresses, more and more information is revealed, and it all starts to make sense.

During her first night in the big house, Ji-won admires every room and sets her things in the guest bedroom, even after Ho-jung insists she use the main one. She's checking her e-mails when the computer dies. It comes back on, showing a phone number on the screen.

The very next day Ji-won goes out to get herself a new cell phone number and the only number that the phone company employee can get to come up on the computer is the exact same one that appeared on Ji-won's screen. After the "coincidence" from the night before, she decides to keep the number somehow suggested by the computer. It must be fate. She then meets Ho-jung and Young-ju at an art museum, and right away she gets a phone call. She turns the cell phone off, but Young-ju gets the phone and when it rings again, she answers. Given what we've seen and heard of phone calls before this point, we know that a little girl answering one is a very bad idea. As she listens to whatever's on the line, a strange look appears on Young-ju's face, then what she hears bothers her so much that she stars screaming at the top of her lungs.

After that, Ji-won starts having weird visions and nightmares... There's banging in the walls, she keeps seeing this girl everywhere, reflected through mirrors, in the street. Not to mention she continues getting very strange phone calls. And Young-ju is never the same. Her behavior changes drastically and she develops a rather troubling obsession with her father.

Worried about Young-ju and seriously scared and confused with everything that's happening, Ji-won decides to look into things, convinced that there has to be a link between all of the bizarre events that keep going on. Being a journalist, she has contacts, and there's the detective who worked with her on the pedophilia case. He helps her with enough information to go on, and a very curious fact... the calls made to her cell phone cannot be traced, they don't show up on her records, it's like they didn't exist.

The detective ends up being attacked by the stalker, and that's how the perv finds Ji-won. He tries to kill her, but a very unexpected occurrence serves two purposes: it keeps Ji-won alive and it also shows her that there's more to the whole thing than just some ghost wanting to kill her.

With the information she got from the detective, she comes to find out that every person who had that cell phone number, the one she has now, has died. And from then on more and more comes to light, in this very complex mystery/drama/horror movie.

Nothing is what it seems in Phone, and it's not what you'd usually expect from Asian horror. It's not even just about the twists, but about how much deeper some of the characters become after you know more about their story and all the sadness and suffering surrounding it.

That's another thing that makes me love South Korean horror movies. Most of the time, you'll find that there's more to it than meets the eye. It's rarely just the plain old vengeful ghost story with not much depth at all to it. It makes you think, and then after repeat viewings, things make even more sense. Phone is one of the best examples of this and one of my very favorites. It manages to be touching and scary at the same time, never overdoing either one of those aspects.

Phone was definitely not what I expected. Of the movies Priscilla sent me, it was the one I was most uncertain about, as I had very little interest in watching a movie that I assumed would be about a ghost haunting a cell phone. It turned out to be much more than I was expecting, with a very intriguing, layered story. I went into this movie having no idea what it was really about and it had me guessing throughout.

The cinematography by Yong-shik Mun is impeccable. A great example is the scene where Ji-won is struggling to survive her stalker attack. The blue lighting combined with snowfall and lightning flashes is just so pretty to look at. 

The movie does look awesome, particularly in the night scenes, which are very saturated with blue lighting but also have a nice mixture of other colors in there at times.

There's also a lot of white and light cream colors used in the production design, in clothes, furnitures and sets, and it helps soften the tone quite a bit, since the movie deals with very heavy dramatic subjects. There's always a lot of dark wood in the houses/sets, but here there's just a little. Most everything has lighter, brighter colors.

The attention to little details in the movie is great, during one chilling moment there's even a shot to show goosebumps breaking out on Ji-won's neck.

The writing, directing and acting all get A+ from me. The cast is great. All of them are perfect in their roles and deliver some of the best acting I've ever seen in any Asian movie. The little girl who plays Young-ju is simply amazing. Ever since I watched Phone for the first time, I couldn't believe how creepy and heartbreaking her performance is. There are some very powerful scenes with her. 

The scenes with Young-ju were the most unnerving, as I had no idea where that storyline was going, and the implications were very disturbing. The little girl did a fantastic job in the role, and she gets very intense and creepy.

The school girl character is also very good... at one point you feel so bad for the person she's physically abusing that you almost want her to get hurt, it's that effective.

It's not likely that I ever would have watched this if Priscilla hadn't sent it to me. I've been burned by Asian cinema repeatedly, and a South Korean flick called Phone just had no appeal to me. Now I'm very glad that she sent it to me and put me in the situation to watch it, because it turned out to be a really good movie. It has some of the regular Asian ghost story trappings, I've mocked the concept of "scare hair" before and there is indeed long black hair at play in this movie, but it's put to good use and there's much more to the story than the usual.

Phone is a movie that needs to be given a chance, even by people who usually aren't into Asian horror movies. Some of the problems that are part of the story are universal, and you can really feel and almost understand some of the characters' actions. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes a great horror movie.

It's a hard movie to write about, because I don't want to give anything away. I think the best way to watch it is the way I did, having no clue as to what it was going to show me. Go into it not knowing the details and let the story surprise you. It wasn't something I was interested in until there was a copy of it in my hands, but now that I've watched this movie, I also highly recommend it.

Priscilla did it again.

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