Sunday, 29 January 2012

Death Bell

Title: Death Bell
Director: Yoon Hong-Seung
Released: 2008
Staring: Lee Beom-soo, Yoon Jeong-hee, Nam Gyu-ri, Kim Sang Bum, Han Na-yeon, Kim Bum, Lee Chae Won

Plot: A group of top-notch students who have been chosen to study over their vacation in order to take a test and impress a sister school. The best students in the school are chosen, but it is to their unfortunate fate. Soon, a sadistic killer traps them in the school and starts kidnapping them one by one. Each kidnapped student is then threatened with a torturous death unless the rest of the students can solve the questions being given to them by the killer.

Review: Seeing how it felt like an absolute age since I reviewed any Asian cinema here on the blog, I though I would correct that situation immediately by watching a title which had been taunting me from the shelves of my local Blockbuster, yet for some reason I’d previously opted to rent other films instead. Right from the beginning though this film grabbed my attention with it’s burning school desks and surprise zombie school girl attack, followed by the even more baffling inclusion of a shot of an embarrassing menstruation, which traditionally has been used to symbolise a change or metamorphosis in a character, although here like the opening shock it ultimately has nothing to do with the rest of the film, apart from to kicks things off with a bang and setting a good pace for the rest of the film, which after the initial half hour of setting the scene, soon kicks back into this high gear and barely lets up this pace for the rest of the film.

Despite seemingly like an amalgamation of “Whispering Corridors”, “Battle Royale” and “Saw”, this film marks a slight return to form for Asian horror, especially with the golden years of the genre now seemingly having long since passed and it was a pleasant surprise to find one film that despite the plot having been seen numerous times before, still had a freshness about it, which might have had a lot to do with it’s refusal to just descend into just gratuitous splatter, as seems to currently be the trend for most Asian horror coming out as of late and it's refreshing to not see it here.

Despite from the outset it might appear that the motive for the films killer might be something relating to the pressure put upon these school kids to excel at their exams, especially with the things being at the point were the school seems to be more of a pressure cooker to the student elite with many seen suffering from delusions caused by this stress and it’s the type of plot which I’d expect to see more in a Japanese film than a Korean film, especially with the country having a social history of it’s youth running wild as a result of the extreme pressure put upon it’s students to succeed and meet the high standards set by their parents. Ultimately though this is yet another misdirection, as the psycho’s motive here is actually more revenge based than anything relating to the educational system, with the fact that he has trapped these elite student in the school, only really serving a purpose with the games he chooses to play, which are all based on the captive students answering questions to free whichever one of their fellow students has currently been captured at that moment.

The traps are all highly inventive when it comes to the methods of despatching the students, with one student stuffed into a dryer, while another receives a candle wax facial and while the majority of the traps being fairly basic in construction and certainly lacking any of the complex workmanship, which Jigsaw brought to his traps in “Saw”, not that it makes much difference as the original deaths on offer help to nudge out any niggling “Saw” comparisons which the film may bring to mind, though it has to be said that the high failure rate of these students, really brings into question that if these are the brightest kids in the school, I would really hate to think what the dumb kids are like.

The cast are all likeable enough with Controversial K-Pop star Nam Gyu-ri pulling of a strong acting debut, though like many of the characters here suffers from the lack of sympathy that she and her fellow students invoke in the audience. Meanwhile Lee Beom-soo possibly best remembered for “City of Violence” makes his horror debut and manages to bring a suitable amount of presence as teacher Hwang Chang-wook, who seems frequently none the more educated than the students he is trying to push into academical excellence, seeing how his presences doesn’t even give them any kind of advantage at solving any of the challenges set outside of perhaps brings more calm to the situation than the eternally panicked students can muster between them.

Director Yoon Hong-Seung had previous to directing this film, had been largely been known as a director of commercials and pop videos and brings a lot of this styling to his feature debut in a genre it is clear he is, as he keeps the tension taught throughout and by trimming the fat of the script has created a lean and fast paced horror film, which keeps the audience hooked for the whole of it’s brief run time, while thankfully opting for old school effect rather than questionable CGI really only helps especially with such a limited budget though you wouldn’t think it from the glossy visuals, which give the impression of the film having a much larger budget than it does.

The soundtrack features a great orchestral score, while resisting the urge to include musical cues to impending doom or shocks, certainly helps with Director Hong-Seung, instead using it more to establish mood rather than trying to impose a fake sense of dread, something which is not an easy trick to pull off and something certainly worth commending here.

While ultimately it might not be bringing anything new to the table, it has given me hope for Asian horror than I have felt in quite awhile and with this film already spawning a sequel, it makes me hopful for the future of the genre, were the output will focus more on genuine scares and less on excessive splatter.

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