Korea (2002) Dir. Byeong-ki Ahn
Investigative journalist Ji-Won (Ha Ji-Won) is being harassed after the publication of her controversial articles on sex scandals, including threatening phone calls on her mobile phone. In order to escape Ji-Won changes phone number and moves into the house of close friend Ho-Jeong (Kim Yu-Mi), for whom Ji-Won supplied the eggs for her daughter Young-Ju (Eun Seo-Woo) due to Ho-Jeong’s infertility. However the calls still keep oncoming, only this time the messages are intelligible and unsettling. When Young-Ju innocently answers the phone her behaviour begins to become erratic and occasionally violent. Ji-Won’s investigation into the mysterious phone calls uncovers a chilling backstory that puts everyone close to Ji-Won in danger.
It’s hard to figure out what might put the most cynical viewer off from watching this film first: the superficial resemblance of the plot to every other J-Horror of the past decade or the fact the production company is called “Toilet Films” (I kid thee not)!! If one can look past both of these minor cavils Phone is a fairly decent chiller with a solid if typical psychodrama plot to support the horror classification. Granted it does owe a considerable debt to Hideo Nakata’s two finest works Ringu and Dark Water (more so the latter) but writer/director Byeong-ki Ahn is canny enough to put enough of his own stamp on this familiar formula to create something that stands on its own merits.
Along with the menacing phone calls Ji-Won’s laptop also begins to play up, going into autonomous mode and flooding the screen with the number 6624 – the last four digits of her new phone number. Her investigation reveals that the previous owners of that number both died under mysterious circumstances while the original owner was schoolgirl Jin-Hee (Ji-yeon Choi) who has since been missing and never found. Jin-Hee’s story is one of a teenage love with a married man that ends disastrously when she becomes pregnant. Meanwhile little Young-Ju’s schizophrenic behaviour is simply put down to her being a growing child, a bit of a stretch for a five year-old with spiritual possession not even considered a possibility, despite all the signs being there: the rolling of the eyes in the back of the head, the violent outbursts and the disturbing amorous designs shown towards her own father. Even when she stays with Ji-Won when both parents are away on business the strangeness continues unabated, but fear not Ji-Won is on the trail for answers.
The bulk of the story leans closer towards psychological mystery than true horror, so Ahn throws in the odd scare to meet the remit of the latter – some clever, some wearing their influence very clearly for all to see. Perhaps unlikely to make one jump out of their seat, Ahn builds up most of his scares through surreal dream sequences that trouble Ji-Won, blurring the lines between facts and fiction. But is this an attempt to throw Ji-Woon of course from finding the truth or is someone (or something) sending her a message to find the solution quicker? Ahn is careful not to give too much away which makes some of these scenes feel spurious and distracting as timelines are jumped with some frequency during these scenes.
For the true horror in this film, one has to look to adorable little Young-Ju, whose near bi-polar actions carry a greater cachet coming from one so young. Eun Seo-Woo was also just five years old at the time of filming and no-one can be forgiven for thinking she was older, such is the power of her performance. Linda Blair can no longer claim to be the scariest kid in cinema as Eun Seo-Woo’s portrayal of Young-Ju easily rivals that of Blair’s Regan. The precociously talented Seo-Woo doesn’t just scream and pull faces to articulate her possessed state, she literally changes personality, taking on a more mature and darkly cynical character in both speech and physical presence. When the possession reaches its chilling apex the youngster contorts her entire body in an eerily manic and unstable manner with such conviction one believes she is truly possessed.
Along with Eun Seo-Woo, Ahn made some good choices in his adult female cast, with Ha Ji-Won, Kim Yu-Mi and Ji-yeon Choi all embodying their roles with the requisite understanding of their characters’ differing and unique personalities. Even as the catalyst for all the grief the male lead Choi Woo-Je is almost a secondary concern to the director reflected in his relatively forgettable turn here.
If anything is going to hold Phone back for many viewers it is that it will seem like just another Asian horror flick with the long haired vengeful spirit terrorising the living world through modern technology. Perhaps it is, but this has enough layers to the story with a neat final act twist and moral ambiguity, bolstered by Eun Seo-Woo’s impressive debut performance to demand a viewing with an open mind. Just make sure your mobile phone is switched off first…