Sunday 6 July 2008

Bunshinsaba (2004)

When a film is made by a company called Toilet Pictures, I'm not sure what to expect. No, this is not a Johnny Knoxville movie, it's a Korean horror/ghost story made by Byeong-ki Ahn, who seems to specialise in such things, both writing and directing them. His most popular is a film called Phone, which seems to rate as one of the most successful post-Ringu films that are prevalent throughout the eastern countries. Most feature a horrific and resonating incident, lots of Asian schoolgirls and some sort of device to tie them all together. I've only seen one: his first, called Nightmare, which was OK.

This time out we have three Korean schoolgirls at a school in the country who are getting picked on by their classmates. Led by Lee Yoo-Jin, a girl with awesome eyes who has come from Seoul, they use a ouija board (a bunshinsaba) to pray to the spirits to curse four girls whose names are on a sheet of paper they bring with them. Being a yurei movie, it can't come as too much of a surprise to find that these tormentors suddenly begin committing suicide by putting plastic bags over their heads, dousing themselves in gasoline and setting themselves on fire.

The catalyst seems to be Kim In Sook, a student at the same school thirty years earlier who sat in what has become known as the cursed seat number 29, and naturally there are a number of connections to her. Some of the staff were there at the school thirty years ago, along with the father of the girls' home room teacher and even Yoo-Jin's mother. In fact the entire village soon believes that Yin Joo has somehow channeled Kim In Sook and her mother Chun Hee, and a big nasty dark collective secret is getting resurrected.

What stuns me about all these yurei movies is how the girls who get picked on for being different are always so cute. Yoo-Jin is played here by 24 year old Se-eun Lee who had previously made a slasher movie, Bloody Beach, and would return in a romance, Once in a Summer. I'm surprised she hasn't made more movies. Kim In Suk is played by another young actor who has made surprisingly few movies, Yu-ri Lee. In fact she's only made one more, a drama called Friendly and Harmonious. Many of the other cast members seem to be Byeong-ki Ahn regulars, including Gyu-ri Kim who appeared in Nightmare, along with Whispering Corridors, one of the key Korean horror movies thus made.

A yurei film can be judged in a few ways. Obviously there's the standard question of how good the story is and how well it's acted and directed and so on. There's the surprise factor, because all should keep us guessing at what discovery is going to come late in the film. Then there's the quality of the creepiness, and how effectively it's shown to us. In fact it's this creepiness factor that makes modern Asian horror so fascinating to me, because it's everywhere, often in the way characters move, yet is notably absent from almost all western horror films nowadays. We just go for big bad monsters nowadays without any attempt at being creepy.

Bunshinsaba is a mix of good and bad when judged on these lines. The story is good and it's effectively told. It's good enough to keep us guessing throughout though the surprises are not particularly surprising when they come. What surprises most are the surprises that come after the surprises we expect, if that makes sense. The creepiness is definitely there though, if a little less demonstrably so than in other such films I've seen lately. There are some very effective scenes on the creepiness front. All in all it works out to be a decent if not oustanding little horror film, as many of the Korean horror films I've been watching lately seem to be. It's better than Nightmare or Acacia, but not up to Memento Mori or Wishing Stairs standards.

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