Film: Death Bell
UK Release date: 10th October 2011
UK Distributor: Terror-Cotta
Director: Yoon Hong-Seung
Starring: Kim Bum, Lee Beom-soo, Nam Gvu-ri, Yoon Jeong-hee
Running time: 88 mins
Country: South Korea
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Stop me if you’ve heard this one, what do you get if you cross Whispering Corridors with the Saw franchise and Battle Royale? The debut feature of music video director Yoon Hong-Seung (aka Chang), that’s what. Ok so I admit, the punchline needs some work, but there’s a reason why Chang has been compared to Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. Death Bell has already been blessed with a sequel back home, so there’s never been a better time to catch up with this 2008 South Korean hit. Starring Lee Beom-soo in his first horror movie role, and K-pop singer Nam Gyu-ri in her acting debut, Death Bell takes a familiar Asian ghost story concept and smothers it in blood, chaos and cruelty.
Set in a Korean high school, the films native title refers to gosa, the important midterm exams that all students are required to sit. Though it has to be said, this year they come with a twist even Simon Cowell would be proud of. The students at an elite high school are held captive and forced into a series of sadistic games. Picked off one by one and held in impenetrable traps, they must rely on the amazing intellect of their classmates in order to survive the ordeal, because every time a question is answered incorrectly, a classmate meets their torturous, grizzly death. So far so Saw then. When it emerges that the students are being picked off according to a pattern, they set out to solve the puzzles and unmask their killer, before the Death Bell rings for them. Death Bell has become one of Korea's highest-grossing horror films ever made, and is available on our shores for the first time courtesy of Terror-Cotta.
Things start promisingly enough, and after a memorable dreamlike opening; Chang’s thriller introduces a group of likeable characters and one hell of a killer concept. Asian ghost stories tend to shy away from blood and gore, but with Death Bell Chang takes a different approach, which is another reason why it compares favourably to the Saw franchise, especially when you take into account the elaborate and faintly ridiculous traps being set. Make no mistake about it; Death Bell embraces the darker shade of red as Chang sets out to depict vivid brutality with sophisticated and stylish visuals. I’m not convinced he always succeeds, but he could never be accused of holding back. His direction is snappy and to the point, and there’s little chance of boredom setting in, but commercial excess comes at a price. The quick-fire editing is a little too distracting at times, and it’s not always easy to keep up. Chang’s debut loses focus towards the end anyway - that can be blamed on a series of unconvincing plot developments - so his occasional flourishes don’t always help.
After a tantalising opening, Death Bell loses its way, bogged down by convoluted plot turns, incoherence and implausibility. The frantic pace is on hand to disguise some wild indiscretions, and Death Bell remains enjoyable horror hokum all the same, but what starts out really promisingly amounts to little more than ‘lank haired ghost story with aspirations of a gory nature’. Considering the fact that Chang has delivered a very simple tale of vengeance, Death Bell succeeds in confusing its audience, possibly because it doesn’t really know what kind of horror movie it wants to be. The opening act hints at Battle Royale style humour and cynicism, but without the substance. Act two lurches into torture porn territory and while successful, only serves to highlight the ridiculous nature of films like Saw 2-7. It’s a lot of fun, as long as you don’t think about the mechanics of it all, but Chang fails to add anything new to a faltering sub-genre. The third act returns to more familiar territory for Asian film enthusiasts, and as a result, only serves to frustrate with an unconvincing denouement.
With so much going on, it’s hard not to love the film a little. It’s far from perfect filmmaking but there’s lots to recommend. With strong performances, a series of brutalising death traps, stylish direction and a rousing zombie dream sequence, Death Bell sure has its moments, but taken in its entirety, Chang’s debut feature doesn’t always ring true.