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The strings of my hurt
A region 2 DVD review of CELLO / CHELLO HONGMIJOO ILGA SALINSAGAN by Slarek
 

Korean cinema is certainly in vogue at the moment, not least thanks to the works of Park Chan-wook (the Vengeance trilogy) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder and the upcoming The Host), whose films are frankly wiping the floor with their western equivalent, if they can be said to have an equivalent. Korean horror has also made itself known, with films such as Whispering Corridors, Phone and A Tale of Two Sisters finding an audience beyond the domestic market, although we still await the Korean-made horror film that has the widespread impact of (or frankly is as scary as) the best that Japan or Hong Kong have to offer.

Joining the horror line-up is first-time director Woo-cheol Lee's Cello, which is very much in the tradition of the J-Horror works of recent years, especially those that borrow from their predecessors. The borrowing itself is not really an issue – the later films in any genre are going to owe a dept to the pioneers – we rarely see westerns criticised for including elements that were successfully employed in Stagecoach, or vampire movies chastised for the influence of Bram Stoker and Bela Lugosi. But in these days of second-hand cinema, where just about everything worthwhile is being remade or ripped off, I've become a little over-sensitive to the recycling process. If you're going to lift ideas from other movies, well OK, but make damned sure you do something interesting and/or original with them.

Cello (the Korean title is the longer Chello hongmijoo ilga salinsagan, which I gather translates as Cello: A Song of Murder) certainly builds on a solid if well-used foundation. Mi-ju is a cellist turned music teacher who lives with her loving husband, her two young daughters and her soon-to-be-married sister. The arrival of a speechless housekeeper taken on by her husband as a favour to a friend seems to trigger a series of increasingly sinister events, all of which point to something in Mi-ju's past that even her husband is unaware of and that she has tried her best to forget.

The plot device of old sins that come back to (literally) haunt the present has proved a popular one in recent horror cinema, but still has a few miles left on its clock. There are hints of a troubling but unspecified past event from an early stage, with flashbacks to a serious accident and wrist scars that clearly have a tale to tell, but full disclosure is, as you'd expect, both a long time coming and not quite what we are first led to believe. More than once we are (with varying degrees of success) misdirected over the cause of Mi-ju's woes, with one instance of apparent spiritual possession rationally explained as the dazed result of a romantic bust-up, only for supernatural forces to pop up anyway and dispatch the unfortunate victim. As the incidents and bodies pile up, the demands on your concentration increase, and you'll need to pay close attention to avoid finding yourself floundering in "what's going on?" territory. At a time in which many western genre films are dumbed down to the point of idiocy, any film that expects its audience to do a little work to join the narrative dots has to be seen as a good thing. And when prepared to stand on its own creative feet, Cello tells its story well, aided by decent performances and an effective music score.

However...

Although it is inevitable that any new film made in the J-Horror tradition is going to be influenced by previous genre successes, director Lee takes this a step too far by explicitly lifting ideas and even scenes from the horror hall of fame. The Omen proves a particularly rich source of cinematic nibbles, from the sinister housekeeper to the child who can silence a dog with single look, and deaths by hanging and a balcony fall. Hideo Nakata's Ringu is similarly plundered, its most iconic and repeated image of the eye of the avenging ghost girl making its unsurprising appearance, and its now famous climax reproduced with a picture frame standing in for TV. Two particularly memorable sequences from Takashi Shimizu's Ju-On are lifted and combined, as a sleeping Mi-ju is caressed by a floating black cloud and on waking is terrorised by a demonic female face beneath her bed-covers.

These cinematic crutches can't help but suggest a lack of confidence on the part of either Lee or the studio, using tried and tested elements as safety net for their own material. For anyone who knows their J-Horror, however (and let's face it, that's where Cello's core audience will lie), the reverse proves true, as you find yourself groaning as you tick off the movies that have been recycled – my girlfriend, who is well versed in Eastern horror, was actually shouting at the TV in places.

The thing is, Cello genuinely doesn't need this, as nestling comfortably behind the borrowings is a well thought-out and effectively developed genre work. it's not particularly original or as scary as it should be, but once Lee gets down to doing his own thing it works pretty damned well, and it's this material that makes the film worth seeing. Although it could be argued that those new to Eastern horror will not suffer the same sense of déjà-vu, I would still recommend they seek out and watch the originals first and give credit where its due. But Cello is still a well made and atmospheric piece and bodes well for director Lee's future projects, whatever they may be.

sound and vision

The packaging claims an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 but my measurements make it closer to 1.82:1. The picture is anamorphically enhanced and is in better shape than a fair few UK DVDs of Eastern horror films, with decent sharpness and contrast, even in the darker scenes and earthy tinted interiors, which are pleasingly free of compression artefact assaults. The odd dust spot is visible, but the print is otherwise clean.

Three soundtracks are on offer: Dolby 2.0 stereo, 5.1 surround and DTS surround, and as you'd expect, the 5.1 and DTS tracks are the only way to go. The surrounds are well used, though the shock moments tend to be aurally fuelled by the same one-note blasts you'll find in almost any Eastern horror doing the rounds at the moment.

extra features

The Making Of Featurette (36:10), unlike the one on the recently released Inner Senses DVD, does feature a variety of behind-the-scenes footage, including two scenes of blood-letting, the actresses laughing their way through a cello playing sequence, and the green screen set-up for an death scene in which actress Da-an Park expresses her desire to "die with charisma." There's also some press conference footage in which the director and actors talk about working on the film.

The Trailer (1:49) presents the film as part of an ongoing horror style and tradition and gives a tad too much away for my liking.

summary

A decently made and acted Eastern horror that would have registered higher in my estimation if the filmmakers had left the contents of the recycling bin alone. It's still definitely worth checking out, although those most sympathetic to this style of horror film are also the ones most likely to recognise the second-hand material. Tartan's DVD does rather well on picture and very well on sound, even if the extra features are a tad light.

Cello
Chello hongmijoo ilga salinsagan

South Korea 2005
90 mins
director
Woo-cheol Lee
starring
Hyeon-a Seong
Ho-bin Jeong
Yu-mi Jeong
Da-an Park

DVD details
region 2
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
DTS 5.1 surround
languages
Korean
subtitles .
English
extras
Making-of featurette
Trailer
distributor
Tartan
release date
13 November 2006
review posted
8 December 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews