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Romantic comedy gets a ghostly twist with the Korean film “Spellbound” (aka “Chilling Romance”), which marks the directorial debut of “Love Phobia” and “Two Faces of My Girlfriend” writer Hwang In Ho. Mixing laughs, love and the long haired ghost shenanigans of Asian horror to surprisingly charismatic effect, the film offered genre fans something a little different to the usual fare, and as a result scored big at the domestic box office with over 3 million admissions. The film’s success was also likely down to its leading couple, boasting a fine paring in popular actor Lee Min Ki (“Quick”) and actress Son Ye Jin (“White Night”).
Lee plays Jo Goo, an illusionist street magician inspired by the ghostly demeanour of Yeo Ri (Son Ye Jin) who he spots in an alleyway one night to work a new horror theme into his act. Pretending to be an exorcist of sorts and with Yeo Ri as his assistant, Jo Goo comes up with an elaborate stage show which launches his career to the next level. However, when he tries to get closer to the shy girl, the truth behind her odd behaviour is revealed, that she really can see ghosts, and is haunted by the vengeful spirit of a high school best friend who died in an accident years back. Jo Goo’s clumsy courtship angers the dead girl, who has been determined to keep Yeo Ri alone and unhappy, threatening not only their burgeoning love, but his life.
Whereas many films might just have played the ghost angle for a cheap gimmick, “Spellbound” wins considerable cinematic karma for actually making a real effort to weave its supernatural goings on into the usual rom com clichés. Thanks to some solid storytelling from Hwang In Ho, who also scripted, this works very well indeed, and though the film is unsurprisingly never frightening as such, it shows a very respectable knowledge of the horror form and packs in a number of effectively spooky set pieces, recalling “The Grudge” in particular. Whilst the ghost elements themselves are nothing new, and indeed romance and the supernatural have been paired up in Korean cinema before, the film is one of the very few high concept romantic comedies to truly gel, its seemingly disparate elements coming together as a coherent and very enjoyable whole.
It also helps that the film is frequently very funny, Hwang managing to successfully provide plenty of laughs without undermining the ghost too much. Though most of the humour is of the slapstick variety, it’s creative throughout and reasonably clever at times, with some amusing moments as poor Jo Goo finally comes to realise the truth about Yeo Ri – special mention goes to the hilarious scenes during the final credits, which are definitely worth sticking around for. Although it does, inevitably get more melodramatic towards the end, the film benefits hugely from the fact that it never launches into full on sappiness, and it’s here that the vengeful ghost premise arguably works best, as it gives the film an actual barrier and threat to their love and to Jo Goo’s life, rather than just the usual lame romantic complications.
All of this helps to distract that aside from its sinister spectre, “Spellbound” is essentially a very familiar film, revolving around most of the expected romantic comedy motifs, right down to t he wacky best friends and the predictable scene in which Yeo Ri gets drunk, sassy and embarrassing. Thankfully, the film overcomes this through a very endearing lead duo in Lee Min Ki and Son Ye Jin, both of whom are immensely appealing and sympathetic, with a real spark between them which makes their developing relationship believable and fun.
Of course, this is the most important box for any romantic comedy to tick, and everything else aside, “Spellbound” scores highly for its basic likeability and sweet natured charm, with a central couple who even the most hard hearted viewers will want to see end up together. Hwang In Ho is to be commended for such an entertaining and skilful blending of two genres, and by offering plenty for both male and female viewers, the film stands as a near perfect date movie.
In-ho Hwang (director) / In-ho Hwang (screenplay)
CAST: Ye-jin Son … Kang Yeo-Ri
Min-ki Lee … Ma Jo-Goo
Cheol-min Park … Pil-Dong
Hyeon-sook Kim … Min-Jung
Mi-do Lee … Yoo-Jin