Tuesday, July 8, 2008

VOICE (2005) d. Ik-hwan Choe

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

Marketing a motion picture to an audience is a great challenge and requires a lot of risk. Most films fit fairly tightly into a genre or even more snugly into a subgenre and as a result, the marketing team has to find a way to raise the interest of that target audience or they hazard failure. For example, SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES (1971) was very poorly marketed when it was originally released as a horror movie, even though it was really a counter-culture/occult flick. SIMON didn’t do very well then, and it is only over time that subsequent audiences have seen that film for what it really was and appreciate it. Be that as it may, SIMON was a box-office failure in its day. In comparison, MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING (2002) was made for $5 million, grossed more than $375 million worldwide and showed the world how a small film could make a lot of money if it is carefully marketed and a lot of “buzz” is created. VOICE (aka YEOGO GWAE-DAM 4: MOKOSORI) is an example of a film whose box art says one thing, but once you watch the movie, you realize that the film itself has another message.

VOICE is the story of talented teenage vocalist Young-eon, who is killed while practicing late one night at school. The next day, she learns that no one can see her, she cannot leave the building where she died and only her close friend Sun-min can hear her “voice”. Sun-min tries to help her “ghostly” friend to unravel the mystery of how she died, and with the aid of an awkward loner Cho-ah, answers are discovered, but the threads of truth are shrouded in secrets and lies that entangle the music teacher and a talented predecessor of Young-eon. As the layers of the story peel back, Young-eon is confronted with the terrors of her past and must face a future that is even more frightening.

What at first begins as a ghost story/whodunit similar to THE SIXTH SENSE soon goes in its own direction and to its immense credit. VOICE could have ended up as a cheap knock off of M. Night Shyamalan’s blockbuster, but it carved out a haunting and melancholy path all its own. VOICE blurs the line between ghost story and friendship melodrama but without becoming trite or needlessly theatrical. What emerges is a tale of manipulation, possessiveness, longing and desire as well as anger, vengeance and loss. What makes this narrative even more compelling is that it is told in a semi-linear fashion, but with some fabulously constructed flashbacks similar to interstitial time travel like that of DONNIE DARKO. Without being as convoluted or as challenging as that film, VOICE spins out its threads and connects them to a wide variety of characters, all of which become ensnared in one character’s overarching selfishness and cruelty. Protagonists become antagonists and vice versa, and everyone is an anti-hero to some degree, making this a movie where there is no “happy ending”, just a somber and thought-provoking conclusion aimed at laying bare the reality of how much we hide from each other and from ourselves.

In addition to having an intricate and patient story-line, VOICE is also a VERY good looking film. It is carefully and thoughtfully shot, lit and composed, and that is especially impressive when one considers that the setting is a modern-architecture girls’ school with some opportunities for dynamic angles and lighting schemes, especially in the halls at night or in the basement, but most of the time one wouldn’t think of a Korean girls’ school as an exemplary place to shoot a horror movie. The onus however is on craftily executed lighting, especially utilizing red gels in those same halls and basement tunnels. Other brightly lit halls ablaze with sun-filled windows serve as launching pads for some compelling but nicely understated CGI effects to initiate the flashbacks in time. Working hand-in-hand with the fine camera work are the powerful and evocative performances of Ok-bin Kim as Young-eon and Ji-hye Seo as Sun-min. These young women are expressive, their chemistry is profound and they show fabulous range as they careen through a spectrum of fear, grief, shock, distress and hope. While most of the Korean horror films I have viewed are always well acted, the tendency is usually to be understated, as were most of the performances in BLACK HOUSE. VOICE, however, is replete with much richer acting and combined with the strong directing, camera-work and simplicity of the set, it makes for a film that could almost be a stage production. Just as the uncomplicated set and strong story made THE MIST a wonderful return to form for Hollywood horror, VOICE depends on some simple strengths to be its own best friend.

In comparison to some of its other CJ Entertainment contemporaries like BLACK HOUSE, THE RESTLESS and THE WIG, VOICE has a somewhat thinner extras menu. There is a 24 minute “behind the scenes” featurette which looks at how a series of scenes were constructed and shot. As the “behind the scenes” footage was being filmed, the actresses were often interviewed in a very informal style, which is certainly enlightening, but maybe a little distracting. The eye is drawn first to what is happening on set, but there are subtitles to read and the expressions of the actresses to interpret. It makes for a complicated viewing experience, but a fascinating one none-the-less. The only other “bonus feature” is the subtitled version of the theatrical trailer. In the end, I would have really liked a more in-depth exploration of the writer and director’s thoughts/motivations for making VOICE and how it fits in with the other films in this series, which will hopefully be easy to obtain in the U.S.

So far, I have yet to be disappointed by any of CJ Entertainment’s Korean film offerings on dvd. Hopefully the well will continue to overflow with flicks that catch my eye, make me think and allow me to bask in patient, subtle, well told and well acted stories that look good. What disappoints me is how VOICE and its cousin THE WIG were marketed to “dumb Americans” by Americans. When you look at the box art, what you see is loathsome, bloody violence designed to lure unsuspecting fools into thinking that what they are going to watch will be “torture porn” or “extreme gore” or some other abominable piece of filth. It reminds me of the days of science fiction paperback marketing in the late 60s and early 70s, where if the cover didn’t have psychedelic/surrealistic art, it had a naked woman on it, all designed to persuade young males to buy, and that we did. It was only later that we realized we were getting a higher form of literature and not some bit of fluff. Such is the manner in which VOICE is marketed. It is not what it seems, it is better than what is on the cover, I just hope that the unthinking consumer will not feel like their good will has been manipulated and will turn against this glittering wellspring of compelling horror films. We need more movies to be made by people outside the corrupting influence of Hollywood so that Americans can see that something good can be made without a lot of bangs and flashes and heaps of poorly spent cash. Maybe once that happens, Hollywood can get back to making great horror films again.


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