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Friday, 8 January 2010

Cadaver (2007)

Director: Son Tae-woong
Star: Han Ji-min
Expecting another Thai ghost story, a genre I just can't resist after watching Dorm, this one turned out not to be the 2006 movie directed by Dunyasit Niyomkul after all, instead being a Korean horror thriller made a year later, also known as The Cut and Anonymous Blood. It doesn't even appear to have a page at IMDb, so I'm relying on information at the excellent web resource at koreanfilm.org and what I can glean from the subtitles. Unfortunately Korean names can be transliterated in many different ways so it takes a while to cross reference the two. The film's biggest success is that it refuses to stay confined to a single genre but conversely its biggest problem is that it isn't sure what it wants to be.

After a few stylish opening shots, we're introduced to a host of young first year medical students, who head up to the roof to eat and tell spooky stories about cadaver trucks shedding their loads, so we wonder if it's going to be a rather crappy teen slasher movie. Certainly all the characters are easily delineated like a slasher movie, the characterisation for each being more than a little stereotypical. Fortunately it quickly backs off from the standard slasher approach, becoming instead a medical school drama with our students beginning their anatomy classes and struggling through their tests. As the film runs on, there's a decent amount of story dedicated to the balance medical professionals need to find between a necessary detachment (the teacher calls it an inherent avoidance of fear and guilt) and the emotional makeup that keeps people human and grounded.

And yet while all this provides a solid basis in a realistic and down to earth way, every time we really think we're watching a drama we get slapped back into the realm of the supernatural and get confused all over again at what we're actually watching. Perhaps the autopsy room, such a matter of fact place, as large and emotionless as you might expect and full of very realistic cadavers, is merely the perfect place for such newbies to set their nightmares in. Yet they all experience the same nightmares, seeing the same one eyed man with a dragging leg. Gradually they take turns to find themselves alone in the autopsy room at night, only to be assaulted by their dreams and the cadavers come to life. What's more, some of our students follow their superstitions instead of logic, something that's appropriately decried by Prof Han, the tough and capable teacher known as 'The Technician'.
Initially I thought the lead character was Eun-joo Kang, the girl who slices into her first cadaver and sees blood that isn't there. However Eun-joo turns out to be the freaky one of the student group we focus on and she's the first to die, stabbed to death in the autopsy room one night amidst strange ghostly apparitions. She's discovered on one of the autopsy tables with her heart removed, merely the first victim. The real lead is Sun-hwa, who has a history she apparently doesn't know about with Prof Han and some sort of connection to everyone else involved. She even wanders back through time to find out just who their mysterious young cadaver with the rose tattoo really is, watching her story unfold like a hallucinatory dream. She's played by Han Ji-min, who plays the character like a hallucination. I'm not sure if this approach works or not but I can't say I didn't enjoy it.

There's certainly quite a bit of talent here. The direction and cinematography often impress, with hints of genius in the imaginative tracking shots and impressive montage transitions. Yet the filmmakers are saddled with a story that alternates between utterly engaging us and causing us to throw up our hands in despair. The most interesting characters are the ones who died years before our story begins, like the deaf mute Yoo-mi Jung who grew up in the red light district and gave herself to everyone until the first man she rejected stabbed her, or Yoon-ho Suh, the partially crippled doctor who tries to save her, body and soul. The modern day characters feel lacking in comparison, the depth they're given being somewhat forced and the stereotypes stuck in place: the good girl, the boyfriend, the superstitious fat boy, the geek, the cute and apparently rather easy girl. You know the sort.

It doesn't help that the story tries to be way too clever, so much so that at most points I couldn't tell if I was looking at a plot hole or a convenience or something that I shouldn't even have been paying attention to. Was it just me or was one character actually someone else, at least part of the time? And one other character was really...? No, I'm not going to overthink this one because it'll just tangle me up into a knot. Whatever else this film is, it's an ambitious and interesting failure, mostly because of the shenanigans the writer pulls. He's Jeon Sun-wook, according to koreanfilm.org, listed at IMDb as Soon-Wook Jeon, who also wrote Vampire Cop Ricky, a film that would appear to be rather different from this one. I'm not sure if that bodes well or not. I'd certainly give any of the people involved here another shot though and I wouldn't be surprised if it worked out really well.

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