Popular Korean actress Uhm Jung Hwa, recently in the likes of “Insadong Scandal” and the big budget disaster epic “Haeundae”, returns with something a little different in the form of the twisting thriller “Bestseller”. Written and directed by Lee Jeong Ho, here making his debut, the film is certainly an ambitious affair, taking on a real mix of genres and themes as it tries to keep the viewer guessing through to the end. Although the film is Uhm Jung Hwa’s show in a very real sense, she receives able support from Ryu Seong Ryong (also in “Blades of Blood”) and upcoming child actress Park Sa Rang (“Parallel Life”).
Uhm Jung Hwa plays Hee Soo, a top selling author who has taken an enforced hiatus from writing after being accused of plagiarism, something she cannot bring herself to admit. In an effort to get her back on track her agent sends her to stay in a lakeside house in a remote rural region. Hee Soo soon begins to experience all manner of strange events in the house, with her young daughter (Park Sa Rang) claiming that she is being told stories by a mysterious, unseen woman. These find their way into her new book, which though successful again sees her being hit with charges of plagiarism. Understandably dismayed, and more than a little unhinged, Hee Soo heads back to the house to try and uncover the dark secrets of the house and the seemingly pleasant small town.
It’s a good job that Uhm Jung Hwa is not only one of the most popular, but also one of the best actresses working in Korean cinema at the moment, as “Bestseller” certainly gives her a run for her money. Initially coming across as a mix of “A Tale of Two Sisters” and the Johnny Depp starring Stephen King adaptation “Secret Window”, it’s clear from early on that a large part of the film’s drive will be the question as to whether or not she is crazy – or indeed, just how crazy she is. This kind of role is notoriously difficult to pull off, not only since it forces the character through the whole gamut of extreme emotions, which is certainly the case here, but as it makes audience sympathy much harder to win. Thankfully, Uhm Jung Hwa proves up to the task, capably carrying the film and turning in an impressive performance that manages to keep the viewer caring about her fate, no small feat given some of the plot’s crazier twists and turns.
Lee Jeong Ho puts in every bit as much effort behind the camera, doing his very best to make the viewer as disoriented and tormented as poor Hee Soo. Although the film can be a bit exhausting at times it does work well, and whilst much of it feels familiar (from the creepy old orphanage, the mysterious madwoman who keeps showing up, through to the oddball and probably not very nice locals), it all comes together quite nicely in the end. The film does defy expectations on several occasions, and this really gives the proceedings a boost, with Lee showing the good sense to drop its major revelation around the halfway mark – definitely a good move, since most genre savvy viewers will have seen it coming for some time. This frees up the film to move off in a more interesting direction, and though essentially this just means swapping one kind of psycho drama for another, it helps to keep things exciting.
On a more basic level, Lee displays a good knowledge of what makes a genre film tick, throwing in plenty of shocks and some surprisingly effective scares and ghost scenes. He does a good job of generating an air of mystery and paranoia, with the camera prowling around the house, peering through key holes and the like, giving the building a character of its own. Although the soundtrack is a touch melodramatic, the film is suitably ominous and creepy, and remains tense even once all of its cards appear to be on the table.
Of course, even then Lee can’t help sneaking in a couple more twists, almost as if trying to play a game of one-upmanship with those viewers who think they can see the end coming. He doesn’t quite succeed, though “Bestseller” is still a great deal of fun, and whilst it undeniably borrows from a number of other films it makes for an entertaining and slick ride. Everything else aside, it provides a great showcase for Uhm Jung Hwa, with her increasingly manic protagonist being very much worth the price of admission on her own.
Jeong-ho Lee (director) / Jeong-ho Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-hwa Eom … Baek Hee-soo
Kang-hee Choi … Whisper
Jin-woong Jo … Chan-sik
Sa-rang Park … Yeon-hee
Seung-yong Ryoo … Park Yeong-joon