Spellbound (aka Eerie Romance / Ossakhan Yeonae)

Korea (2011) Dir. Hwang In-Ho

Magician Ma Jo-Gu (Lee Min-Ki) performs a horror illusion show in which he summons a ghost in front of the live audience. Playing the role of the ghost is Kang Yu-Ri (Son Ye-Jin) an odd young woman who prefers to keep to herself, refusing all invitations to join the rest of the crew for drinks until Jo-Gu forces her to accept. Despite her warnings about how she behaves after a few drinks, Yu-Ri does indeed cause a scene at the restaurant, accusing Jo-Gu of having no heart and ripping his tailor made shirt. The next morning a concerned Jo-Gu pays a visit to Yu-Ri’s home finding that she lives a meagre lifestyle and sleeps in a tent. Jo-Gu also learns that Yu-Ri is being plagued by ghosts.

Something has happened to Korean cinema over the past few years and it’s not a positive development. After storming ahead to become a major player in the international film market with some incredible and seminal works such as Shiri, Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life, Memory Of Murder, The Chaser, to name but a few, these flashes of genius have paved way for the current crop of films which seem to be confused as to what genre they belong or indeed which market they are aiming at; the latter issue may be that Korea’s ascent to the top of the Asian cinema food chain over the past decade has seen them become overly ambitious to appeal to the mainstream Hollywood audience.

Which brings us to Spellbound. Is it a rom-com, a horror comedy, a straight up horror film, a comedy, a romantic drama, melodrama? The answer is all of the above. I think. Such is the poor structure that it seems every scene is assigned its own genre in order to cram each one into the 112 running time.

One minute there is some giggly girly comedy as Yu-Ri holds a phone conference with her two friends Min-Jung (Kim Hyun-Suk) and Yoo-Jin (Lee Mi-Do) about her feelings for Jo-Gu, the next someone is being spooked by the ghost of Yu-Ri’s Sadako clone dead schoolfriend. Or we switch from silly off the wall comedy to tear jerking emotional bearings of the soul. It certainly makes a unique viewing experience but is it necessarily a good thing? The Koreans seem to think so as this was a big box office hit domestically. Western audiences might not be so patient.

To illustrate the baffling structure, the film opens with Jo-Gu narrating how he first met Yu-Ri, a dour stoic girl who was watching his street show, complete with some cute cartoony illustrations as Jo-Gu hits upon a masterplan to involve Yu-Ri’s apparent strangeness to his advantage. On the other side of the opening credits we jump forward a year to the new horror illusion stage show in all its glory which then leads us to the start of the film’s main thread. Now, this might be nitpicking from a (wannabe) writer/filmmaker but surely for maximum impact, opening with the second scene would have served as better set up for the plot then go into the backstory?

In a similar vein, we also flit between past and present with regard to Yu-Ri’s history, as we also do with Yu-ri’s spectral affinity which also appears to manifest itself as some form of premonition or sympathetic suffering of an injured or dead person. In between all of this, Yu-Ri and Jo-Gu – who already has a model girlfriend – are falling for each other but denying it – you know the drill.

Spellbound isn’t completely unwatchable but its schizophrenic approach to genre hopping, confusing editing and poorly structured narrative lets it down badly. The concept has potential and the cast are all amiable and watchable enough, but the aforementioned facets let them down as much as they do the film. The comedy is fairly cliché although a bit during the end credits featuring Jo-Gu’s long standing partner Pil Dong (Park Cheol-Min) and a ghost is arguably the most amusing part of the film.

There may be some who like the experience of cross pollinating genres or perhaps the rom com aspect will win them over, but for this reviewer Spellbound instead falls flat as a ball of confusion.