The Phone (Deo Pon)
Korea (2015) Dir. Kim Bong-Joo
We’ve all experienced unfortunate events or major tragedies and found ourselves wishing we could turn back the clock to prevent them from happening. But supposing you could actually do this – albeit with the rather vital caveat that the original threat is still an ongoing concern? Confused? Allow me to elaborate…
In 2014, lawyer Ko Dong-ho (Son Hyun-joo) would rather stay out sinking a few with his work colleagues than be at home with his doctor wife Yeon-soo (Uhm Ji-won) and teen daughter Kyeong-rim (No Jeong-ee). One rainy night Dong-ho returns home to find Yeon-soo brutally murdered which he was unable to get over.
A year later, a solar flare causing mobile phones to play up has an unusual effect on Dong-ho’s phone when he gets a call he missed from Yeon-soo on the night she was killed. With the killer still on the loose in 2015, Dong-ho advises Yeon-soo in 2014 to be careful, passing on information he now has to help avoid her death whilst avoiding the killer himself.
Okay, maybe that hasn’t clarified things for you but it makes sense within the context of the film, trust me. The central premise is unquestionably farfetched but the heavy product placement of Samsung phones suggests they wanted to really hype their latest model as something truly special and magical. I doubt this is the true intention but this sort of publicity is priceless.
Not to be confused with the 2002 K-horror Phone this debut from writer-director Kim Bong-Joo is a healthy by-the-numbers crime thriller, dropping an Average Joe into the heart of a dangerous situation. As a high concept outing, the multi-timeline happenings take while to get used to if you submit yourself the improbable fancy of it all but makes for a taut and intriguing puzzle to piece together.
Interestingly the troublesome solar flare that causes this bizarre phenomenon is mentioned twice but never once made a focus of the story, treated more as a throwaway occurrence that is circumstantial at best. By taking this approach of quickly moving on to the main story, the audience isn’t given time to wonder why this doesn’t happen for anyone else.
Originally staged as a break in, Yeon-soo just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time hence her murder, yet the mission the culprit is on may also have made this death a spiteful warning message to Dong-ho. It may have taken him a year to discover but this wasn’t a random break in; prior to this Dong-ho had been receiving anonymous death threats which he ignored.
Having inexplicably managed to defy the space-time continuum via his mobile phone, Dong-ho struggles to convince Yeon-soo their conversation is genuine which she realises a little too late. But as Dong-ho begins to unearth relevant facts and information about the killer, time is reversed again and Dong-ho gets a second chance to save his wife.
Police detective Do Jae-Hyun (Bae Sung-Woo) arrives to investigate the break-in in 2014 but says something that sets off alarm bells and puts Yeon-soo’s life in danger once again. And as if this wasn’t confusing enough, in 2014 Dong-ho manages to make the call to Yeon-soo he failed to make the first time which now gives Dong-Ho two opportunities to save his wife, if only one of him knows why.
It is too much of a cop-out to say “just watch the film” but in this instance, this is the best advice I give without analysing every aspect of the main premise, the plot holes, the inherent confusion created by the overlapping timelines or giving away the entire story. Suffice to say though, Kim and co-writer Lee Jung-Ho are able to pull everything together and create something that is engaging, suspenseful and perplexing enough that we do find ourselves caught up in the drama of it all, despite its silliness.
The reality is that the phone gimmick works much better than physical time travel, which avoids the temporal paradox of having two Dong-ho’s occupying the same time zone by establishing a safe distance in which trust in the key for Yeon-soo. But with Jae-Hyun having spoken to Dong-ho over the phone he now is able to be one step ahead of Dong-ho in tracking him down to complete his mission.
Over the course of this 114 minute ride, the usual crime thriller elements help fill out the time: the obligatory street chase, lazy incompetent cops, and a bank of underdeveloped characters pulled into the fantasy world of time crossing conversations with nary a blink of incredulity among them. The action sequences are well paced and conceptually don’t stray too far from the genre staples but sufficiently provide a welcome energy boost.
Kim’s direction is similarly beholden to the stylings and trappings of the genre, but is made even more exciting and tense by the editing. Through the crossing between the two timelines during the final act, a nervous energy is created with simple overlaps and quick cuts, breathlessly teasing the parallel fates of husband and wife.
Not that this makes the obtuse ending any easier to understand but considering how much we’ve already had to suspend our disbelief for this film, but since the script relies on incidents and asides that initially seem innocuous but have a integral knock-on effect, it’s best to go with the flow.
Heading up the cast is fifty-something Son Hyun-joo, making a refreshing change as the everyday protagonist Dong-ho, his age adding credibility for playing the father to a teenager. Uhm Ji-won is younger than Son but the chemistry between the two is believable, as is her essaying of Yeon-soo’s recurring plight. Bae Sung-Woo plays a rare villain role but is suitably evil as the Terminator-esque Do Jae-Hyun.
The ambitions of the script were met by first time director Kim but stays too much within the conventions of the crime thriller remit; otherwise, one can’t fault The Phone for being perfectly serviceable and enjoyable entertainment.