Killer Toon (Deo Web-toon: Ye-go Sal-in)

Korea (2013) Dir. Kim Yong-gyun

Tired and overworked artist Kang Ji-yoon (Lee Si-young) has a successful horror themed web comic entitled History Of Lunacy. On the same night she sends the latest instalment to her publisher Seo Min-Sook (Kim Do-Young) via e-mail, Min-Sook recognises the story as one from her own past then is bizarrely killed in her office just like the character in the comic. Similar murders take place with Ji-yoon being the connecting factor. She is pulled in for questioning by Detectives Lee Ki-Cheol (Uhm Ki-Joon) and Kim Young-Soo (Hyun Woo), who discover there is more than this story than meets the eye.

As with any genre once a successful formula has been it is easily run into the ground and diluted to a point where it no longer has the desired effect. For Asian horror this revolves around the long haired female vengeful spirit which possessed everything from houses to people to animals to video tapes to mobile phones to the internet and now artwork. Hideo Nakata and Koji Suzuki probably didn’t realise what they had unleashed on the world when former adapted the latter’s spine tingling novel Ringu for the big screen, creating one of the most iconic – and often imitated – horror moments of the past twenty five years in the process.

Things are a little muddied at first as we learn that Ji-yoon is hallucinating from lack of sleep and inspiration, with a montage of chilling interwoven dream sequences in which she is haunted by the presence of a young girl who appears and disappears with regularity from the passenger seat of Ji-yoon’s car. Unfortunately for Ji-woon these and other incidents are reflected in her best selling artwork – including her latest work depicting the private past life of Min-Sook, so when questioned by the police her innocence doesn’t hold much water, even if the deaths look like genuine suicides. An early and seemingly unrelated addendum is embalmer Jo Sun-Gi (Kwon Hae-Hyo) – who once embalmed his own wife after her death – finds himself in a touch of strife against a spectral visitor that Ji-yoon tries to prevent having foreseen his demise in her artwork, only to be found next to his corpse by Lee and Kim.

Delving deeper into Ji-yoon’s history uncovers some interesting home truths and lateral connections between Ji-yoon and Sun-Gi, which reveals the origins of the stories used in History Of Lunacy. A case of plagiarism but who exactly has had their work stolen and why is it resulting in so many deaths? It seems no-one involved in this has a skeleton free cupboard and unfortunately for them their past is about to catch up with them with the grisliest of results. But it doesn’t stop there so paying attention is vital and the story changes direction more times than Tory party policy.

This latest variation of the overplayed J-Horror phenomena comes from Korean director Kim Yong-gyun who has previous within the genre with 2005’s Red Shoes and it shows, with the story being the facet that tries to mix things up while the scares and set pieces remain largely to type. To be fair, almost every trick in the book has been exhausted but to his credit Kim works hard to try and make them effective. The script is a little uneven at first, introducing a number of secondary characters which eventually have a salient impact on the events, ranging from the cleverly intertwined to the rather contrived, resulting in what is a somewhat convoluted ending in which the plot points trip over themselves in order to make sense.

It seems, however, that the Koreans didn’t mind as Killer Toon was a runaway success, being only the second Korean horror film to sell over one million tickets (the first being 2008’s Death Bell). For all its attempts to outsmart and throw the audience – which it largely does before getting a little carried away – it is a well made and fairly decent affair. Seasoned Asian horror buffs will be all too wary of the warning signs that a scare is approaching, so rather than rely on subtlety Kim makes them fairly gruesome to appease the bloodthirsty viewer but nothing excessively graphic – spilt claret and broken bones is the limit here.  

Possibly one of the harder genres in cinema for an actor to be believable in, leading lady Lee Si-young equips herself extremely well as the film’s mortal focal point Ji-yoon. Without wishing to give too much away her character is quite a multi-faceted one, with Lee required to alter her performance for each stage of Ji-yoon’s life revisited, signifying the differences with welcome little touches both physically and emotionally as well as appearance changes. So convincing is she that one has to wait until the end before we get a true look at who Ji-yoon really is, with a number of deft red herrings dropped along the way to disarm us, one of the film’s true strong points.

When it is apparent that a film is trying its hardest to avoid the status quo and familiar conventions of the milieu in which it wishes to make its mark, it feel churlish to be too critically harsh towards it. However when it slips into those comfort zones too easily, a caustic appraisal is almost inevitable. Killer Toon straddles both of these objectives thus warrants a nod for its neatly crafted if often complex story while its predictable scares are a justified caveat. Not a game changer but a solid effort all told.