Byeong-ki Ahn’s “Phone” is another in a long line of “Dark Hair Ghost Story” movies, in which a vengeful female spirit, sporting unnaturally long dark hair and unsightly dark, black eyes appear in the most inappropriate places to go “boo!” — silently, of course. The Japanese film “Ring” began the craze, which led to, besides a hundred copycats by all of Asia, an American remake in 2002. To say that there’s nothing new in “Phone” is an understatement. The movie is really a giant collection of all the elements of a Dark Hair Ghost Story movie and a Slow Bore Horror film, which itself has many elements of the Dark Hair Ghost Story. (The only difference between the two Asian horror subgenres is that in a Slow Bore Horror film everything crawls by, making a two-hour movie seem like 4 hours by its lack of perceived physical movement.)
“Phone” stars Ji-weon Ha as Ji-won, a spunky journalist who, after one of her articles endangers her life, has to go into hiding. She moves into the newly renovated home of her best friend, who is married with a daughter name Yeong-ju. As the movie opens, a woman dies mysteriously while in an elevator after receiving a call on her cellphone with the text message, “I’m your destiny.” It seems a vengeful spirit, seeking (what else?) revenge for a past deed, is going around haunting anyone who happens to subscribe to a particular cellphone number. And guess what? The latest person to receive the new cell number is none other than spunky Ji-won.
But as it turns out, there’s more to Ji-won’s troubles than mere coincidence. The ghostly spirit used to be a high school girl name Jin-hie (Ji-yeon Choi), who was having an affair with an older man when she mysteriously vanished (and died, since she’s now a ghost, natch). So what exactly does all of this have to do with Ji-won? Or the family of Ji-won’s best friend? Better yet, why is it seeming more and more likely that something, or someone royally ticked off, is possessing poor little Yeong-ju and making her do some bad, bad things?
There are a lot of things so-called “responsible filmmakers” aren’t supposed to do, and one of them is throw a child actor (or in this case, her character) down a flight of stairs. (Yes, I know, it’s a prop. Still…) This particular scene takes place in the Third Act of “Phone”, which despite being incredibly generic, still manages to be quite effective. I was surprised when I jumped at some of the obvious scare scenes in “Phone”, despite the fact that I knew they were coming a mile away. The movie really has no original bone in its body, but that doesn’t stop it from making me look over my shoulder more than once while watching it.
Technology vs. Humans movies have been around for decades, ever since there was, well, technology. The tech element here is the cellphone, which rings constantly throughout the movie. (It was the Internet in “Fear dot com” and “Kairo”, the VCR in the “Ring” movies, and androids in “Blade Runner”.) The cellphone brand of choice here is Motorola, which must have paid a pretty penny to get their logo in every other frame. The reasons why the spirit seems to be expressing her anger via the phone is explained, as well as the seemingly coincidental nature of Ji-won’s involvement in the haunting. (Hint: it isn’t coincidence!)
Like every Dark Hair Ghost Stories of the last 5 years (ever since the Japanese “Ring” and the American “The Sixth Sense”), this particular Dark Hair Ghost Story involves a third party who must discover a terrible secret and, if they can’t put things right, then at least expose the killer/killers. Until they do, the spirit will haunt their ass off. (Excuse the vulgarity.) Anyone who has seen any amount of movies in this subgenre will know what to expect, and “Phone” gives you everything you expected, and nothing else.
What puts “Phone” out of the Slow Bore Horror subgenre is that it doesn’t move slowly at all; the scare scenes come fast and furious, replete with a throbbing soundtrack to remind us to be scared in case we forget. This doesn’t mean the movie is all about fast cutting; if anything, “Phone” is mostly about clever frame composition and computer effects that merge different scenes. Director Byeong-ki Ahn (“Nightmare”) continues to improve within the genre, and although his second stab at a Dark Hair Ghost Story movie is still too familiar and grossly unoriginal, his camerawork is super slick, highly creative, and very effective.
The one element besides the derivative nature of “Phone” that may turn some people off is the usage of the child character. As in the “Exorcist”, child actor Seo-woo Eun is required to do quite a bit of acting, the bulk of which she probably doesn’t understand the reasons for. Because a vengeful ghost is possessing the child, she’s required to act evil and dark, and although the actress is quite good in the role, I have to wonder what repercussions this might have on her in the future. I bring this up only because the child is required to do, and say, a number of things that are, in all honestly, not acceptable in civilized society.
The whole fall-down-the-stairs scene notwithstanding.
FYI: The opening credits of “Phone” features the Walt Disney logo! Also, apparently the Koreans, like many of their Asian neighbors, don’t have the same aversion to the number “13” as those of us in the States and Europe; although I believe the Japanese are a bit skittish around the number “4”.
Byeong-ki Ahn (director) / Byeong-ki Ahn (screenplay)
CAST: Ji-weon Ha …. Ji-won
Yu-mi Kim …. Ho-jeong
Woo-jae Choi …. Chang-hoon
Ji-yeon Choi …. Jin-hie
Seo-woo Eun …. Yeong-ju