Thursday, 4 May 2006

Voice Letter 여고괴담 4: 목소리 (2005)

Beware the Korean Horror out-of-nowhere twist ending!

The horror genre is one of the most resistant to innovation in cinema. So when someone makes a groundbreaking horror film, every other director will follow his lead and for the next few years, audiences will be subjected to diverse variations on the same theme, produced with varying degrees of skill – mostly decreasing. That is essentially the story of Ringgu and the current Asian Horror Wave. As a stickler for innovation and quality in cinema, I’ve been looking forward to the arrival of Voice, the latest instalment in the Yeogo Goedam franchise of horror films set in Korean all-girls’ schools. While Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori set the tone for the series with their serious social commentary on life in Korean schools, Wishing Stairs was a major let-down in terms of story (a muddled mess), thrills (riping off sequences from Ringgu and other Asian Horror Wave films), as well as social subtext (petty competition between friends isn’t as hard-hitting as abusive teachers or sapphism). Voice will either rejuvenate the series or sink it entirely.

There isn’t much horror in Voice for me to play up on its horror angle. Instead, the selling point of the movie is in its twist: budding choral singer Young-eon (Kim Ok-bin) is apparently killed by a ghost when she stays back in school one evening to practise her pieces, and now her ghostly self must work together with her best friend and classmate Jee-myun (Seo Ji-hye) to piece together who killed her and why, before more killings take place, as well as search for her missing body. It’s almost like a Sixth Sense in reverse. Topping up the cast for the ghostly mystery are the school’s resident psychic and psycho Cho-ah (Cha Ye-rin) and Heui-yeong (Kim Seo-hyeong), the creepy but sexy music teacher who appears to know more about the disappearance of her favourite student than she lets on.

Since this is a Yeogo Goedam film, do expect the obligatory lesbian sub-plot and attempts at creating arresting cinematography. These feature nicely in sequences where Young-eon’s ghost steps through a metaphysical gateway into the world of her memories. The effect and lighting is good, but I thought the cinematographer could’ve chosen a different look – the transitions he chooses accentuate the special effects rather than highlight the psychological turn of this horror film.

Indeed, the psychological turn is so important that it replaces the customary Yeogo Goedam focus on serious social problems in schools. Voice invests much of its script to explore the depths of the relationships between Young-eon, Jee-myun, Cho-ah, and their teacher. There is more than sufficient material to create a classic right there, but director and writer Choe Ik-hwan is unable to resist the gestures towards the horror genre. But tell me, why should a ghost be afraid of sudden and ominous noises at all? The attempts to inject horror into a perfectly fine supernatural thriller tend to go off-key and sour. The intimate and psychological drama that the writers took to develop carefully quickly unravels into incoherence as they cannot resist adding last minute revelations that create more plot holes instead of illuminating the viewers, a tragic feature of lesser Korean horror films nowadays. If you can figure out the confused ending and the incomprehensible coda that plays out at the end credits, you are either the writers of the movie or a psychic.

In the story, 3 of the main characters are either talented singers or musicians, but the soundtrack of Voice is surprisingly awful. The instruments are fine, but the actresses (most making their jump from television to the big screen) simply cannot sing at all. Not only do they sound perpetually out of breath, they also seem to be singing from a phonetic script that mangles every possible vowel and consonant in the beautiful Latin and English pieces they perform throughout the movie.

While Voice is clearly an improvement over its disastrous predecessor and a brilliant concept movie, its sometimes weak execution make it a lesser film than Whispering Corridors and Memento Mori. Horror fans itching for a radical twist in the genre may want to look forward to the next Yeogo Goedam instalment (with fingers crossed), or the forthcoming Death Note (a horror-murder mystery from the point of view of the murderer) movies in June and December.

First published at incinemas on 11 May 2006

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