Although summer has long been the traditional time for horror films in Korea, the 2008 season only saw one major release in the form of debut director Chang’s “Death Bell”. As such, the fact that the film proved to be a massive success, attracting over a million viewers and ranking as one of the country’s most popular horror hits of all time probably came as a bit of a relief for fans who might have been concerned as to the genre’s recent dip in popularity. Thematically, the film can perhaps be seen as an effort to go back to the well, drawing on the high school horrors which helped to effectively launch the modern Asian ghost form back in 1998 with Park Ki Hyung’s ground breaking smash “Whispering Corridors”, albeit with a fresh, contemporary twist.
The film is set at Chang Ahn High School, where a special class of the top twenty students has been put together for the coming exams. Within this high pressure setup, tempers are soon frayed and nerves are stretched to breaking point, not least for the feisty though friendly Lee Na (SeeYa singer Nam Gyu Ri making her acting debut), the decidedly less pleasant Hyun Kang (Kim Bum, recently in “Hellcats”), and hard but fair teacher Hwang Chang Wook (Lee Bum Soo, “My Wife is a Gangster 3”). Things take a turn for the sinister when the classroom television switches itself on during a cramming session, showing a missing student trapped in a rapidly filling water tank. A mysterious voice informs the class that the girl will die unless they solve a fiendish puzzle, and that this is just the beginning of a murderous game.
It’s actually quite easy to see why “Death Bell” was such a hit, not only as a result of being the only slice of teen horror on screen at the time, but as it is a film which really knows its audience. Director Chang works hard to make it a contemporary, youthful affair which successfully catches the zeitgeist and deals with familiar issues such as teen romance, bullying and exam pressure. At the same time the film does feature a few more adult themes such as financial woes and the desire for parents to see their children succeed, and this helps to add a little more depth. Chang’s background in music videos shows through and helps the film to give a fresh take on the material, packing in plenty of flashy touches and visual flourishes, nicely offset by some shaky camera work that lend the proceedings a believable and edgy feel.
More importantly, when it comes to thrills, “Death Bell” certainly delivers, and Chang throws in plenty of scare scenes from the start, with the eerie opening sequence of Lee Na being in the school yard, surrounded by burning desks and zombie classmates giving a good indication of his intentions. Even though the modern Asian ghost genre has become so familiar over the last decade, some film makers still take the misguided approach of holding off the appearance of the inevitable spirit and the usual scenes of people being suddenly snatched, mistakenly believing that viewers will miraculously be more shocked by having saved such clichés for the final act. Thankfully, the film is packed with shocks, and whilst most of them are fairly familiar, there are a few genuine surprises and some imaginative scenes with some good use of special effects. The body count is impressively high, and the film is genuinely quite bloody and nasty in places, with a few sadistic “Saw” style touches. These give the film a visceral edge, and help differentiate it from other more anaemic genre efforts.
The high concept premise works well, and Chang manages to keep the viewer guessing and on edge throughout. Although the set up is familiar, there are a few unexpected deaths and suitably random twists and thanks to the admirably short running time there is little room for melodrama or sob story subplots. Admittedly, a large part of the film’s relative unpredictability is due to the fact that the puzzles are senseless and impossible to work out, especially for non-Korean viewers or those not overly acquainted with mobile phones. Certainly, the film is essentially a daft affair, and although fitting enough the final revelations make little sense, even in the context of the plot.
Still, given the genre, this is only really a passing criticism, and “Death Bell” works superbly as a slick and exciting rollercoaster ride that should be enjoyed even by those who gave up on Korean horror years ago. Whilst inevitably familiar, Chang directs with gusto, and the film is one of the best examples of the form for some years. One final thing worth mentioning is that viewers should be sure to keep the film rolling for the end credits, which actually help to put a lot of the film’s nonsense into context, as well as being very funny and strangely touching.
Director Chang (director) / Director Chang, Kim Eun-kyeong (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Beom-soo, Yoon Jeong-hee, Nam Gyoo-ri, Kim Beom, Han Na-yeon, Lee Eol, Kim So-hee