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Another day, another Korean horror film set in an all-girls high school, involving kids with psychic abilities, long-dead former students who returns as ghosts minus the desire to comb their hair, an evil school bully clique, young and sympathetic, but very ineffectual, teachers, and finally, the old curmudgeon school officials hiding a deadly secret. “Bunshinsaba” (aka “Quija Board”), the latest from avowed horror filmmaker Byeong-ki Ahn (of “Phone” and “Nightmare” fame), is so devoted to the tropes of the genre that you almost have to wonder if Byeong-ki even bothered to write the script, or if he just grabbed one of the scripts from the “Whispering Corridors” franchise and changed the names.
Whatever the case, this is certainly a case of “been there, done that,” although you do have to wonder about the Korean obsession with pretty teen girls in high school uniforms. Oh wait, nevermind.
Our familiar horror tale opens at night at the all-girls school, where a trio of bullied students, led by defiant transfer student Yu-jin (Se-eun Lee, “Bloody Beach”), calls upon the dead spirit of a former student name Kim In-suk (Yu-ri Lee), who died 30 years earlier under mysterious circumstances, to exact payback on the brutal clique that has been bullying them. The ghost does indeed appear, and soon two of the bullies are found dead, bags over their heads, and their faces burned to a crisp. Is the ghost of In-suk back from the grave for vengeance, determined to right the wrong that was done to her 30 years ago?
Well of course she is. They always are in these movies. Haven’t you been paying attention?
“Bunshinsaba” is so unconcern with appearing original that you just have to tip your hat off to it. Or do you? From the plot synopsis and general film outline, it’s obvious from frame one that this is a derivative film meant to cash in on the recent wave of Korean horror. There’s nothing here that can even be mistaken for originality, and as such, the film plays out as you would expect it to, although it’s curious to note that even after two of their own has ended up dead, the bullies really seem unconcern that they’re going to be next. These girls are so clueless, in fact, that even after their attempt to kill Yu-jin fails, they still continually harass her. Apparently admittance into this particular school clique means destroying your brain cells.
The saving grace of “Bunshinsaba” is Se-eun Lee, with her big expressive eyes and soulful looks. Yu-jin’s struggles with the curse, and what she has — or may have — done without her knowledge is what makes the film worth watching. The rest of the cast belongs in a “How to Make a Korean Horror Movie Set in an All-Girls High School Without Really Trying” manual. Everyone is an archetype drawn up to perform their specific purpose, and no more. If it sounds as if I have no respect for the movie’s script, then I’ve done my job, because it’s hard to respect a script that is so unambitious as to be condescending. When a filmmaker goes to such great lengths to not try, one can’t help but feel a little angry.
Rounding out the cast is Gyu-ri Kim as the new teacher who immediately gets in trouble when, on her first day of roll call, she reads out In-suk’s name. Kim, who has been in the similarly themed “Whispering Corridors” and the director’s “Nightmare”, plays so stringently to type that Byeong-ki could have cast a monkey and it wouldn’t have made a different. Actually, that’s not true. The monkey would have brought more enthusiasm to the role. Aside from Se-eun Lee, Gyu-ri Kim, and Seong-min Choi as a sympathetic male teacher, the rest of the schoolgirls flash by in a blur of schoolgirl uniforms and grunting male school officials.
As with all Korean horror films, “Bunshinsaba” excels in the visuals department, thanks to the big-budget Hollywood gloss most Korean films can pull off without breaking a sweat. The movie’s best moment is a brief sequence on a barren highway at night. But even this standout sequence is inspired by other Asian horror movies where the ghost crawls out of various objects (a TV in “Ring”, a puddle of water in “Dead Friend” (aka “The Ghost”), and mirrors in “Into the Mirror”). Alas, in a movie this lacking in surprise, this minor thrilling moment only serves to remind the audience just how by-the-numbers the rest of the movie is.
The American slasher films stopped being frightening when the 1,000th maniac slasher appeared onscreen wearing dirty overalls, waving some kind of killing instrument, and wearing a plastic mask. Similarly, the Asian horror film ceased to be “new” when it refused to innovate, and simply repeated the tropes of its genre ad nauseam. The result is a movie like “Bunshinsaba”, which has the budget to make something good, but instead seems unconcern, or unwilling, to even make an attempt. As such, you won’t find an Asian film more generic, derivative, and uninspired as “Bunshinsaba”.
Hollywood gloss can only get you so far, as Hollywood itself has come to learn after decades of making sloth for the general masses. The Koreans are quickly learning that lesson now, as more and more cinemagoers around the world become used to the conventions of the Asian horror genre, and will eventually come to find them as stimulating as the umpteenth “Friday the 13th” sequel. If the genre is to survive, innovation is quickly needed. Alas, Byeong-ki Ahn and company are not the harbingers of newness, if “Bunshinsaba” is any indication.
Byeong-ki Ahn (director) / Byeong-ki Ahn (screenplay)
CAST: Gyu-ri Kim …. Lee Eun-ju
Se-eun Lee …. Lee Yu-jin
Yu-ri Lee …. Kim In-suk
Seong-min Choi …. Han Jae-hun
Jeong-yun Choi …. Ho-kyeong