Film reviews – What do you get if you cross cheeky high school slashers with SAW, BATTLE ROYALE and classy Korean cinema? DEATH BELL, that’s what! We’re a bit surprised nobody thought of doing it sooner…
While we’d never claim DEATH BELL is one of the best Korean films ever, it’s still a well-made frothy popcorn horror that coats the gorgeous silliness of high school slashers with a glossily elegant Korean sheen. It’s so pleasing to find a slasher that favours tension and mystery over schlocky ‘jump’ moments, and it’s never wrong for a film to revisit the ‘school system gone feral’ commentary of cult Japanese horror BATTLE ROYALE. DEATH BELL opens with the students of an elite high school suffering from horrendous performance anxiety while prepping for their exams (gosa). You know what’s not helping with the whole uber-important exams thing? There’s someone at the school with a grudge. And they’re going to heal themselves of their grudge by capturing students in sadistic timed death traps that only unlock if the students and teachers solve the (frankly impossible) puzzles supplied to them via mobile phone and CCTV in time. Er, standard. We prefer to heal our grudges by having a cup of fragrant green tea and a gossip.
What’s wrong with this film? If we’re feeling generous we could say something got lost in translation, but the brutal fact is that the solutions to the killer’s sadistic puzzles hold together about as well as a zombie bride dancing a jig on her third-time-lucky wedding day. As everyone knows, there are rules to surviving a slasher horror movie. Those rules do not include “when there’s a death trap puzzle, just WATCH SOME PRETTY WORDS FLY OUT OF YOUR MOUTH that magically turn out to be the right answer”. No! That is not the way the rules go!
So… what’s right with this film? It’s got the K-pop magic, for a start. K-Pop sensation Nam Gyu-ri plays student Kang Yi-na, and she’s really good, even though she was probably cast in the role due to her controversial status in Korean media (wardrobe malfunction, in case you’re wondering. Her costume snapped during a live performance in Seoul and the Korean media never got over it). Even though we knew one of the high school students was a K-pop star, we had no idea which one, because the acting is far superior to American high school slashers. The tension, the likeability of the characters and the mysterious nature of their strange secrets holds the film together with a glue much stronger than the puzzles themselves, fun though they are to watch.
Director Chang has been called the Spike Jonze of Korean cinema, and his approach to the high school slasher is a brilliant positive for DEATH BELL. Through his eyes we enter a creepy, claustrophobic grey high school world where secrets run deep, sinister events play out on the school’s CCTV (and we all know how horribly sinister CCTV is) and the visceral display in the film is rendered vividly but also succeeds in being stylish and sophisticated. Another subtle plus is eyeballing those discreet yet girlish Korean high school uniforms. Move over, zettai ryouiki. If only all school uniforms were so flattering.
If you’re a fan of high school slashers, definitely check out DEATH BELL. It has all the silliness of its American counterparts but an added fineness of quality and genuine suspenseful tension that will draw you into its tale of revenge while enjoying the sadistic puzzles and the social commentary. And the final end credits? So surreal and understated, they’ll play sleight of hand with your expectations, which is the very essence of what Korean cinema is all about. Death Bell is being released on DVD 24 October 2011 – just in time for Halloween. And if we’ve whetted your appetite for horror films, do check out our Top 30 Horror films in 2012.
Buy Death Bell [DVD]