The release of the Korean Summer horror blockbusters on DVD continues with “To Sir with Love” from director Im Dae Woong. Unsurprisingly, the film has nothing whatsoever to do with the 1967 Sidney Poitier classic of the same name, but is in fact a wonderfully vicious and twisted slice of mayhem which gives the genre a much needed shot in the arm.
After an unpleasant prologue depicting the birth of a deformed child, the plot begins with police arriving at the scene of what appears to be a massacre which only two women survived — one young, the other old and bed-ridden. The younger one awakes and relates her story to a detective, telling of a reunion of elementary school classmates who gathered together to visit their ailing teacher, Ms. Park at her seaside home, with the rest of the film unfolding in flashback. Although sixteen years have passed since any of the former students have seen Ms. Park, it soon transpires that their memories of their time under her tutelage are by no means pleasant, and as the day wears on and the drinks begin to flow, more and more past grudges are aired. When night falls, things start to turn bloody, as a maniac, possibly the teacher’s mutant son who has spent his life locked in the basement, wearing a bunny mask stalks and kills the visitors in sadistic fashion.
As this synopsis suggests, “To Sir with Love” is every bit the archetypal slasher film, with a young cast being whittled down one by one at a remote location in a variety of nasty ways. More importantly, viewers will be relieved, and probably shocked to hear that the film does not feature a long haired ghost in any capacity whatsoever. This in itself is enough to earn director Im a gold star, though thankfully he goes a step further and packs the film with everything that makes the genre great, reminding genre fans how much they have missed it during these days of anaemic, half-hearted hauntings.
Make no mistake about it, this is a full blooded and at times startlingly brutal film, with killings which outstrip anything seen in Asian horror for many years, showing a clear debt to the classic gore of Italian directors Argento and Fulci, and filled with loving close-ups of knife wounds and surreal torture.
Im’s direction is tight throughout, and the film rattles along at a good pace, wisely kept to a running time of just over ninety minutes. Although he does get a little zoom-happy at times, Im shows a skilful use of flashbacks and sudden visions, which are thankfully not played for exposition, but instead to disorientate, a trick which works well in keeping the viewer on tender hooks for most of the running time. The tension gradually builds throughout, leading to some genuinely frightening moments, largely due to the fact that Im makes it clear from the start that he means business, and never cheats with the kind of false scares which are all too common in the genre. As a result, there is a genuine feeling of threat, a fact which helps make for an unnerving and decidedly visceral viewing experience.
Even without the blood, “To Sir with Love” would have to rank highly as a nihilistic and downright disturbing film, with a set of sympathetic, if not actually likeable characters, and a closet crammed full of dark secrets. Themes of guilt and responsibility for broken lives resonate throughout, along with some social commentary on the way the poor are discriminated against by the Korean education system adding a welcome layer of depth and a vague feeling of sadness.
The last act, which comes complete with a series of wacky plot twists, does veer into rather crazy territory, giving the film the air of a homicidal version of the classic Korean horror “A Tale of Two Sisters”, though never in a way which undermines what has gone before. Indeed, although the viewer is left with a sneaking suspicion that none of it actually makes any sense, the resulting ambiguity inspires not frustration, but a desire to go back and watch the film again in order to try and work things out.
“To Sir with Love” is easily the best Korean horror film in years, and should be welcomed by genre fans with open arms. Bloody and fiendish, it pulls no punches, and by bucking the trend of pasty faced ghost films, it offers something that is fresh, shocking, and above all, entertaining.
Im Dae-woong (director) / Park Se-yeol (screenplay)
CAST: Eung-su Kim …. Detective
Dong-kyu Lee …. Myung-ho
Ji-hyeon Lee …. Sun-hee
Hyo-jun Park …. Dal-bong
Yeong-hie Seo …. Nam Mi-ja
Hyeon-Soo Yeo …. Se-ho