Ask a number of producers around Chungmuro what their most pressing concern is at the moment, and the answers might actually be surprising. There's likely to be quite a good and different number of ideas, but all the roads more or less lead to Rome. That is, trying to understand the mind of those with the time and money to visit the theater, every now and then, perhaps as a prelude to petting. That magic word, teenager, which can make or break today's Korean films regardless of their quality or subject. With Korean Cinema's Hollywood syndrome reaching its zenith, not only you're starting to see companies mount the offensive almost all on the first opening weekend, particularly for those films that need to sell 4-5 million tickets to break even. But, in the last two-three years, something Korean producers rarely cared about started happening more and more: trying to avoid the maligned "18 and over" rating. Films like 무방비 도시 (Open City), 비스티 보이즈 (The Moonlight of Seoul) and many more were "18-rated" to begin with, but cut some touchy edges to reach every possible wallet, particularly that of those ever elusive teenagers. With only one film out of ten breaking even, it's not surprising they'd try that.
It's certainly a sad state of affairs things got to this point, but the industry can only blame itself: when they had the chance to make moviegoers mature and see films as more than background noise supporting the local Oppa while he examined his belle's cavities free of charge, they wasted their time on inane jopok comedies and star vehicles. Way too many insiders use scapegoats to explain the bubble's sudden explosion, particularly Jang Sun-Woo's insane 성냥팔이 선녀의 재림 (Resurrection of the Little Match Girl) and its 12 Billion won (if you ask me, well spent. Ever seen a Techno-Taoist-cum-Buddhist blockbuster before?). But, really, the biggest issue has become that of "betraying" people with a serious interest in films for their intrinsic values, and a few producers' penchant for banking on the lowest common denominator. So, the Jung Trio go on 상상 플러스 (Sang Sang Plus) acting silly for a night, and suddenly 투사부일체 (My Boss, My Student) becomes a nationwide phenomenon. An event you should participate in, lest you'll fall off the "cool" bandwagon. Because the kiddos who saw it couldn't just say "this is as fun as letting a donkey tip-tap on your cojones," or their number would go from No. 1 to the "Don't answer" zone of their girlfriends' cell phones.
After all, the only reason that lurid cargo ship of cow excrement known as 디워 (D-War) sold eight million tickets is because Uncle Shim went on TV, cried a river while saluting the flag, and made hordes of simpletons follow the pack. Dae~ Hanminguk, and stuff. It also invited the ire of sharp-tongued intellectuals like Jin Jung-Kwon, in what was the most interesting diatribe of 2007, and even those who would rather spend a night caged with a hungry lion instead of watching the film ended up getting caught in Shim's trap. Everyone is talking about it, I want to hate on it so much I need to see it, so let's make that sacrifice. See? All it takes is buzz, and a deluxe BS artist as brilliant as Shim Hyung-Rae can only flourish in this atmosphere - I mean, he found the money to make 용가리 (Yonggari), then investors saw that, and they still gave him 30 billion won? Maybe he should invest in ventilators to sell in Greenland.
Whereas a lot of the generation who grew up with Chungmuro's boom of the mid 90s was actually made of people with a strong interest in films, teenagers these days don't really care about filmmaking. Insiders who keep blaming the lack of second-tier market on illegal downloads completely miss the point in that sense: it's the event that commands their attention, going to the theater itself. The film's intrinsic quality comes a distant second to the social experience. These are not people who are ever going to spend 20,000 won on a DVD, but that's not because they can get it for free. Supporting art, considering film as more than the visual equivalent of popcorn is a difficult concept to understand, when what you're watching simply means two hours of populist, escapist entertainment. That is why comparing the 5 million of 추격자 (The Chaser) or the almost 7 of 놈놈놈 (The Good, The Bad, The Weird) with any jopok comedy or star vehicle's success is simply loony.
This new landscape needs a very able hand in dealing with its audience's psyche, igniting their group mentality and the only thing that might make or break a film targeted at this demographic: word of mouth, buzz, the event atmosphere. In the past, that meant something like "Hey, 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) kicks 25 different brands of ass, so let's go watch it this weekend" or something to that extent. But, if you look at the almost dumbfounding success of something like 고死 (Death Bell), you'll see what the answer is for today's Chungmuro. And, quite frankly, it's not anything which promises a rosy future. Of course, people like Bong Joon-Ho, Park Chan-Wook, Kim Jee-woon, the big name directors will always walk their own path, and you'll always find a new, interesting director emerging out of nowhere. Such is the nature of the beast, even when things gets crazy a la Hollywood. Problem though, is that commercial filmmaking in Korea might actually have to touch the bottom of the barrel, before people seriously start to wake up.
Before you even get to the opening credits of the film, one should admit this is just a masterpiece of marketing. Producers took the hackneyed, one-trick pony set up of the film (wrong answer → you croak) and smartly built its promotional campaign around that. Nothing complicated, no strings attached, just a summer high school horror flick, the only one of the season. Then, the casting. Lee Beom-Soo had just completed a most successful run in that ridiculous mess which was 온에어 (On Air), and starlet Yoon Jung-Hee (sharing name with one of the biggest stars of the 60s, but sadly not her acting prowess) hit jackpot twice in a row with weekend dramas on TV, despite both having the same redeeming values as pigeon ordure. But the two biggest cards they played were youngsters Kim Beom - the most overrated young actor in Korea, but one of the most popular, making his name on the sitcom 거침없이 하이킥 (Unstoppable Highkick) - and singer Nam Gyu-Ri from the group SeeYa, your average "read the lyrics on my thighs" pop garbage. So, a very buzz-friendly cast, who managed to have interviews on EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. After the film started its press screening, they went all over TV even when it had nothing to do with films. For about two weeks, doing the usual round of news for ScreenAnarchy there wasn't a single day when you'd see Lee Beom-Soo or Nam Gyu-Ri pester news headlines, saying the same thing over and over.
And guess what, it worked. Magnificently.
The film had a production budget of 1.3 billion won, so add about 2 billion for marketing, and all they needed to get back their pie was a mere 1 million tickets. With such a scorched earth promotional strategy and a decent release spectrum, the film opened pretty well, and managed to do what very few films can nowadays, even kimchi westerns: staying within the top 5 for more than a couple of weeks. Death Bell is still going strong at 1.7 million tickets, and although it's almost impossible for it to reach the 2 million, it's become one of the runaway successes of the season. Why this is important for the future of Chungmuro, that is pretty easy to explain. The era of producers throwing billions at the wall with a few stars attached is pretty much over. Both ratings on TV and box office revenues have shown very few people can put asses in the seats with consistency (Song Kang-Ho, Jeon Do-Yeon, Jung Woo-Sung, that class), and if there's no buzz, even the biggest blockbuster can fail. It's very likely, then, that the industry will start focusing a little more seriously on "project films," such as horror flicks with easy concepts, low budgets and surefire buzz machines among the cast. And they'll certainly focus on them youngsters.
Just to make a quick comparison, most films (including blockbusters) only have about 15-20% of under 18 viewers, whereas Death Bell's audience was split fifty/fifty, one of the major reasons why it's still going strong after weeks. Could the reason simply have to do with the lack of alternatives, when it came to horror? That's possible. Although horror in the 60s had to do with more traditional themes (vengeful widows!), and the canon's flag was mostly carried by 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends) on TV, ever since 1998 a tradition of school-themed horror films started emerging, which eventually created the summer horror season. Although viewers have mostly deserted horror film screenings in the last few years, with a few rare exceptions, the idea of having a summer without horror flicks felt so strange it was on everyone's mouth. Beggars can't be choosers, I guess. But, man, if the fruit of begging always turns out to be something like Death Bell, I'd frankly rather starve.
It's seriously hard to take this mess as anything more than an ADD-friendly slasher fest with some MV sensibilities added to the mix. Director Chang's (Yoon Hong-Seung's moniker) music video roots can be felt throughout the film, with flashy editing and visuals almost carrying a personality of their own. The torture and murder scenes are even creatively orchestrated, if you think of them as single set pieces tied together by a simple rope, that of upping the ante in blood and cruelty. You get a student drowning inside a fish tank, one killed inside a washing machine, and that's just the beginning. There's a lot of blood, and as a 90 minute music video, it can be kind of thrilling. But, sit even for a second and think about all of this premise, and then you'll start laughing almost uncontrollably. It's that ridiculous.
Let's just assume the villain in question is an omnipotent deus ex machina able to build such a perfect system, where anyone caught making mistakes gets killed, and escaping from this nightmare is impossible. Then again, this is not exactly the peak of Xanadu. If one sees a classmate getting served flambé next room, what is a sane person likely to do? Like, say, getting out, seeing if Mr. Baddie used some force field a la Star Trek to stop them, and if it's not the case just scream until you get a tan? But no, they all stay inside, scared and screaming, all heading for the ultimate roasting, and that asinine, so-obvious-I'll-get-drunk-to-forget-it denouement. The character development reminds of that episode in 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun), when they didn't have time to finish construction on one ancient building, so just used a huge, 30 foot tall cardboard rendition of the Sui Imperial Palace. Yum.... that's writing for you.
But it's a horror film. Build some decent atmosphere, give me some good acting, and I'll go home happy. Lee Beom-Soo certainly tries, and the tempo keeps building decently until the end, but there's really no vibe to it. It's just a succession of tortures and murders, with no sense of surprise, no interest (they're all nothing more than names and numbers on chalkboard, even the "protagonist" Nam Gyu-Ri), no thematic consciousness whatsoever, unless you consider the "competition in school is bad" mantra to be one (could say more, but that'd be a huge spoiler. Not that this film would deserve such etiquette). Nam Gyu-Ri pestered airwaves for a month about her role here, but other than looking pretty and giving us assorted facial expressions numbering in the one third of three, I don't see any sparks telling us she's ready to abandon her singing career. Or, well, she can. Just not acting would do the job. And Yoon Jung-Hee is not much better, crying here and there, and looking more like someone who came to the wrong set, more than anything resembling a teacher.
It's a shame, because while horror film fans are still gasping for air, this is likely to become the main recipe for our future summer horror seasons. Project flicks banking on lowest common denominator "event" techniques, hoping the "extreme' vultures overseas will start hovering around their decaying limbs, adding prestige to an already winning formula. I'm certainly no fan of straightforward horror films, but seeing this genre treated like this will just enrage anyone who strives to see diversity on the screen. Judging by the sound of it, it looks like a death bell for horror in Korea, all right.....
고死: 피의 중간고사 (Death Bell)
Director: 창 (Chang)
Screenplay: 김은경 (Kim Eun-Kyung), 창 (Chang)
D.P.: 허성룡 (Heo Seong-Ryong)
Music: 김준성 (Kim Jun-Seong)
Produced by: Core Content Media, Water & Tree
Int'l Sales: Mirovision
88 Minutes, DigiBeta, Color
CAST: 이범수 (Lee Beom-Soo), 남규리 (Nam Gyu-Ri). 윤정희 (Yoon Jung-Hee), 김범 (Kim Beom), 손여은 (Son Yeo-Eun), 이얼 (Lee Eol), 김소희 (Kim So-Hee), 함은정 (Ham Eun-Jung)