Mi-ju is not having a very good life. For one, she’s no longer in love with her job teaching cello to a bunch of spoiled brats, one of whom holds a grudge against her and may be trying to run her over with a car. At home, Mi-ju’s oldest (and very strange) daughter is learning to play the cello, and doing a terrible job of it. And then there’s her amazingly uncharismatic fianc’, who just hired a housekeeper who may just be the creepiest housekeeper to ever go into business of cleaning house. Plus, I’m pretty sure that cello her daughter is playing is haunted. Such is life for the heroine of a Korean horror movie.
Of course matters aren’t helped by the inescapable fact that first-time writer/director Woo-cheol Lee’s “Cello” is simply unconcern with being even a semi credible horror movie. For example, the film’s first 30 minutes only features one appearance of a long-haired female ghost, and even then it’s a blink-and-you’ll-never-know-she-was-there moment. What’s the world coming to when you can’t even pick up a Korean horror movie and see a long-haired female ghost for more than a few seconds? Why, I remember the day when horror movies were horror movies, not faux family melodrama dressed up to resemble horror. In the spirit of ” South Park “, I call “Shenanigans” on “Cello”!
But I digress.
“Cello” follows the uninspired, uninteresting, and unintentionally humorous life of Mi-ju (Hyeon-a Seong, “The Scarlet Letter”), a cello professor who now leads a life of — well, I’m not really sure what she does now except drive her car a lot. What matters is that Mi-ju bears a scar from a car accident that killed her best friend, a tragedy that forced Mi-ju to give up her cello career. As to why — well, the film is peculiar about this, and seems strangely uninterested in telling us the origins of the scar until almost the hour mark. You’d think such an important plot point like the lead character’s best friend dying, prompting her to give up her precious cello career, and go into seclusion was something you might want to divulge to the audience, say, before an hour has passed in your 90-minute movie, but maybe it’s just me.
It’s very obvious that “Cello” has interests that don’t jive with the interests of the people who will be seeing it. The film clearly has ambition, wanting to be something more than just a “Korean horror movie”. Unfortunately, this desire to be what it isn’t, or what it’s selling itself as, translates into a poor genre film that, although it is different in most respects from the usual crop of Asian horror, is nevertheless simply not worth 90 minutes of your time to sit through. If movies were bookends, “Cello” would be gathering dust at the end of the library, perfectly satisfied to never have been used. It’s simply just…there. There is some mild perverse joy to be had towards the end as the story finally starts to move, but it’s not worth sitting through the rest of the movie for.
Fortunately “Cello” has some humor in it, albeit the unintentional kind. For instance, it’s quite amusing to watch “Cello” just to see how creepy the people around Mi-ju are. Her eldest daughter never talks, and instead just sits staring off into nothing, occasionally springing to life in order to bite her little sister in the arm. Mi-ju’s own sister seems perfectly lively at first, until her boyfriend dumps her, after which she begins seeing things and talking on an unplugged phone. And of course there’s that housekeeper, who is just really, really creepy. Compared to these weirdoes, Mi-ju is a saint. Although an unfathomably uninteresting and dull one.
As Asian horror movies go, “Cello” can’t help but rely on some of the familiar tropes of the genre, from that pesky long-haired female ghost to a plot twist at the end that’s supposed to leave the audience wowed. That is, if they weren’t expecting it. But since every Asian horror film has a last-minute twist nowadays, or a twist within a twist, (or even a twist within a twist within a twist!) it’s a given that “Cello” would have a similar gimmick. Once you know the twists are coming sooner or later, they can’t help but lose some of their potency. And predictably, the twist will doubtless leave audiences mystified and feeling cheated.
It’s easy to give Woo-cheol Lee props, as the kids say, for wanting to stretch genre norms to embrace something more than cheap spills, thrills, and kills. The problem is that in trying to achieve something unfamiliar within the genre, Lee purposely ignores those things about the genre that has people continually take chances with it in the first place. Is there any gore, at least? Nope. Blood? Yes. In fact, the blood flows quite freely in the last 15 minutes or so, but like the rest of the film, it’s all overly constrained. Most sinful of all is that there are shockingly few ghost moments in the entire movie, something that even the more dreadful of Asian horror films at least manages to fulfill.
There are two notable things about “Cello”: some nice cello music and humorous moments involving Mi-ju’s cute as a button young daughter. Alas, everything else is lacking, with the first hour feeling like an eternity, mainly because nothing happens to warrant keeping your eyes open at all (with the exception of a hanging that’s pretty neat, if a tad silly). At the hour mark, the film becomes unexpectedly sour, starting with the death of a major character that throttles the film into territory that is just excruciating to sit through.
Woo-cheol Lee (director) / Woo-cheol Lee (screenplay)
CAST: Ho-bin Jeong …. Jun-ki
Da-an Park …. Kim Tae-yeon
Hyeon-a Seong …. Hong Mi-ju