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It's a fairly safe bet that the Asian horror market has now reached saturation point. Ever since the international success of Ringu, we've been flooded with a succession of imitators and wannabees, each one progressively less interesting than the last, from Dark Water to Ju-On to A Tale of Two Sisters, until they were virtually indistinguishable. Of course, the inevitable American remakes quickly followed—hell, Takashi Shimizu managed the remarkable feat of making a Hollywood version of The Grudge that turned out to be even worse than his already barely watchable original.

If there's a generalisation to be made, it's that the efforts from Japan have probably been more successful than those of Korea, from where we now get Phone. An unnerving opening sees a young woman in a lift which, of course, breaks down. Since someone always has to die in a horror prologue, her mobile rings and the lift plummets to the ground, but not before she sees a dark figure in the hallway.

Phone
When the main action starts we meet another young woman, Ji-won, who finds herself being constantly harassed by strange phone calls and crank e-mails. To try and escape them, she goes to live at a friend's house, but her stalking continues. Things start to get really freaky when her friend's young daughter, Yeong-ju, accidentally picks up her mobile. Before long the little girl is acting very strangely, while Ji-won starts seeing apparitions around the house. With Yeong-ju becoming increasingly disturbed, Ji-won begins to suspect a link between the goings-on and the suspicious deaths of the people who had her phone number previously, and begins an investigation that will reveal much more than she bargained for.

I think I might actually be living in an Asian horror film myself at the moment—I've got black gunk coming up out of the bath, I had a weird foreign wrong number this afternoon, and my neighbours, while very nice people, keep their daughter at the bottom of a well. At least two of those statements are true, which is a testament to the familiarity of current Asian horror, with Phone more often than not coming across like a greatest hits compilation of all the aforementioned movies. There are all the usual motifs of water, lifts, spooky kids and enough ringing phones to give Sergio Leone a headache. Ahn Byeong-Ki uses these to try to build tension, but inevitably he ends up going for the music sting and the cheap shock. Which is a shame, because his sets and lighting are atmospheric and he has a gift, like most horror filmmakers seem to, for making angelic toddlers look absolutely terrifying.

Most of the credit here though has to go to a truly astonishing performance from five year old Eun Seo-woo, who manages to pull faces of evil you wouldn't have thought possible without make up or digital trickery, and she delivers unquestionably one of the finest turns I've ever seen from a child actor. You simply won't believe some of the things she does, and her climactic scene when she's in the full grasp of possession is the stuff of nightmares and almost warrants a purchase on its own.

And you thought your kids were monsters?
Unfortunately, there's got to be more to a film than one great performance, and this is where Phone starts to fall apart. Characters speak the most ridiculous expositional dialogue—"I thought you'd give up when the doctor said you couldn't get pregnant. But with artificial insemination, you did it."—what the hell is that? Couple that with a somewhat meandering and confusing plot which, though not quite as incomprehensible as Ju-On, is still lacking in any real narrative flow, and you're left with a minor entry in the Asian horror canon that isn't going to leave you anticipating the next one.


Video
Picture quality is perfectly serviceable, but it doesn't leap out. There seems to be a deliberate use of different colour schemes to represent different aspects of the action, and this makes for a mixed bag. Safe daylight shots have a warm creamy palette that results in a certain softness, while the night set terror sequences are filmed with a much colder look, everything tinged grey or icy blue. These scenes are impressive, with a sharpness that's not always evident elsewhere. Blemishes are more or less absent from the print, but there is the occasional sparkle, although nothing too serious.

Phone
Audio
Oh my. Talk about first impressions. Be very careful if your rear speakers are quite close behind you, because you're liable to throw your beer in the air within the first few seconds of the film starting, as a phone rings in your ear with such clarity and precision that you shouldn't be surprised if you try to get up and answer it.

This great start is carried over to the first scene, with the falling lift making a hell of a clatter, backed up by some thunderously good bass. The rears are put to very good use throughout, with some subtle and some not so subtle effects really adding to the atmosphere with a nicely enveloping and robust soundscape.

Extras
Interviews: Director Ahn Byeong-ki and stars Ha Ji-won, Kim Yu-mi, Choi Ji-yeon, Choi Woo-jae, Eun Seo-woo each contribute a couple of minutes, with only the director offering anything of particular interest, as he discusses his thoughts on the horror genre and the kind of films he makes.

‘The Making of Phone’ (63 mins): Split into three sections—‘Making the Film’, ‘Production Notes’ and ‘Behind the Scenes’. Since they're more or less identical, it's hard to fathom why these featurettes have been split up, and why the longest section is ambitiously entitled ‘Making the Film’, because all this consists of is behind the scenes B-roll footage ad nauseam. It's reasonably diverting for a few minutes but soon becomes very repetitive and, by the time if finishes, you'll never want to hear Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata again.

Phone
Commentary: This is another gip—instead of a full length track, it is in fact just ten minutes of young Eun Seo-woo watching a handful of scenes and offering a few comments and recollections. Perfectly watchable, but not exactly a commentary.

Deleted Scenes: Two very short scenes of no great interest. Epilogue (2 mins): A brief visit to the set at the end of filming, with a few words from a couple of folk and everyone saying goodbye to each other. The disc also contains the original theatrical trailer and a TV spot. Finally we have an Asia Extreme Trailer Reel (Oldboy, Audition, Infernal Affairs, Infernal Affairs 2, A Tale of Two Sisters).

Overall
If you've seen any of the other recent Asian horrors then you don't need to worry about missing Phone, and the fact that the extras promise a whole lot more than they deliver makes this a difficult one to recommend. At best, worth a rental just to see the astounding Eun Seo-woo.


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