Review © Mandi Apple, 2003.

Written and directed by Ahn Byeong-ki, 2002, 100 mins. starring Ha Ji-weon, Choi Ji-yeon, Eun Seo-woo, Kim Yu-mi, and Choi Woo-jae.

Phone, directed by Ahn Byeong-ki, was the second highest-grossing movie during the summer of 2002 in South Korea, and has the (somewhat dubious) honour of being the first ever Korean film completely funded outright by a major Hollywood production company, namely Disney (via their all-new Buena Vista Korea subsidiary). With the current trend of Asian horror movies being optioned for remake by American directors, you might hope that this represents a move towards keeping new, exciting, local films in their original settings. However, as you might well have expected from a Disney horror film (surely that's an oxymoron? ;-)), and despite its growing reputation as a "really scary" film, Phone simply does not deliver the goods.

With a well-deserved PG rating on the box, which might alone be enough to warn anyone off buying it, and some frankly dodgy scenes, derivative at best, totally ripped off at worst (I'm surprised Nakata Hideo isn't litigating from here to next Christmas, considering the amount of material pinched wholesale from Dark Water and Ring), Phone is nothing new. We've seen this all before, and much more artfully put together, at that.

The imagery, so fresh and exciting and terrifying in the right hands, is starting to look a bit tired here, despite the glossy CGI and big-budget effects: the frightening and mysterious Internet stuff (Kairo, Suicide Circle), haunted elevators and corridors (The Eye, Dark Water), the essential black-haired female vengeful spirit (every home should have one since Ringu, or so it seems), the homicidally possessed kid (how far back do you have to go for that one? The Exorcist?), etc, etc... somehow it all seems diluted, watered-down beyond belief for a teenage market.

Phone even has the gall to rip off scenes to the letter: here's one example of such a scene, from Dark Water, during a moment where long black hair comes out of a running tap; the exact same scene is reproduced, for no apparent purpose, during Phone. And what's worse, the director makes no attempt to hide it or to change the shot particularly. This is a film that really doesn't add anything to the genre, it merely steals from whatever happens to be there already.

And it's a shame, because the storyline is fairly original, and certainly involving, not be mention pretty good entertainment, despite its complete lack of scares. Some of the un-plagiarised imagery is very nice, which makes me wonder why on earth the director chose to rely so heavily on sourcing images and events from other movies. This is horror for 12-year-olds, not so scary as to give them nightmares, but scary enough to get them talking to their mates about it. And in that function, Phone proves its usefulness very well, possibly one of the factors in its slightly alarming domestic success. But don't imagine for a second that the movie will get you looking at your mobile phone askance, in the same way that you might have worried about popping down to rent a VHS at your local rental store after watching Ring, or even switching on your PC after having seen Kairo.


A young journalist by the name of Xia Zhi Yuan (editor's note: this name also appears with its correct Korean spelling of Ji-won on some subtitled copies) (Ha Ji-weon), who has just investigated and helped to bust a child prostitution ring, is being stalked by one of the criminals in question; he makes mysterious phone calls to her, letting her know that she is being constantly watched, and sends her violent, disturbing e-mail death threats. Zhi Yuan has already decided that this case would be the end of her journalistic career, and she needs to leave town in a hurry as she fears for her life. She changes her cellphone number, in the hope that she won't receive any more calls from the stalker, and gets a new phone number assigned to her.

While she's looking for a new apartment in a new city to move to, she meets up with some close friends, Hoon Ting (Kim Yu-Mi). Hoon Ting is happily married to Chang Xun (Choi Woo-jae), a wealthy professional, and the couple have one little daughter, Ying Zhi (played outstandingly by the 5-year-old actress Eun Seo-woo): they seem like the perfect, happy nuclear-family unit. The couple offer Zhi Yuan their new house in the north of the country as a temporary emergency hideout, as Chang Xun has to go to work in his city office every day and they don't have time currently for a holiday.

So Zhi Yuan accepts their kind offer gratefully, thinking that at least this will be the end of her stalker troubles as she'll be changing her phone number the next day, and has a new address. However, much to her shock and dismay, when she arrives at the slightly spooky new house and plugs her laptop into the phone point in the living-room, she receives yet more cryptic and horrible e-mails, including a Photoshopped picture of herself with a knife in her head, and another which fills her screen with green numbers which read '6644'. Oddly enough, when she goes to her mobile phone company the next day, the only phone number they currently have available for her ends in the numbers 6644. So she accepts the new number, and thinks she's now safe from any further attacks.

During the next morning, her friend Hoon Ting comes up to see her at the house, to make sure she's settling in OK, and she brings her little daughter Ying Zhi with her. The three of them make a trip together to the local museum of art, as Hoon Ting was a professional artist before she had Ying Zhi. However, Zhi Yuan's mobile phone inexplicably begins to ring. She is shocked, as she hasn't given out her new number to anyone at all yet, and stops the phone from ringing. But when it begins to ring again almost immedately afterwards, Ying Zhi gets hold of the phone and answers the call before Zhi Yuan can stop her... and what she hears not only makes her start screaming uncontrollably and sobbing, but also appears to have also had a much darker, more sinister effect on the little girl.

But later that night, after Hoon Ting has taken Ying Zhi home and Zhi Yuan has called her to see if Ying Zhi is OK by now, Zhi Yuan has a nightmare: in it, she hears crying in an empty bedroom in the house, and sees a young girl, dressed in black, with long black hair trailing the ground. The moment she wakes up, she finds the weird '6644' message appearing on her laptop again, and her mobile phone is ringing - but this is just the beginning for Zhi Yuan, who starts to see weird apparitions of this unknown girl all the time, and she doesn't even have the faintest idea who she is or what she wants.

In the meantime, it seems that Ying Zhi is becoming more and more disturbed by what she heard on Zhi Yuan's phone - sometimes she's sweet and cute, other times totally evil and deranged; and what's worse, she seems for some bizarre reason to be fixating on her father in a totally Oedipal way, to the point where she wants to kill her mother, and her mental state is declining rapidly...

But Zhi Yuan is still under the impression that the stalker is somehow behind this, right up until the point that the man who was stalking her is killed, which leaves her baffled, especially since the weird phone calls and e-mails are still continuing - so her journalistic training kicks in, and she begins to investigate the previous owners of the new mobile phone number. However, she finds out they all died in mysterious circumstances, which leads her to believe her own life is seriously in danger. But a friend of the very first person to own the number, a teenage girl called Jin-hie (Choi Ji-yeon), is still alive, and tells Zhi Yuan the tragic story of Jin-hie, who disappeared some time ago after a terrible relationship break-up and is feared dead.

But how will Zhi Yuan discover the true story behind the cursed phone number before it's too late, when everyone involved seems to have died or disappeared? And what's happening to poor little Ying Zhi, who is getting daily more and more deranged?

Sadly, it seems that Ahn Byeong-ki is clearly under the misguided impression that if you chuck 150 images in from 150 original, outstanding and terrifying movies, that will somehow make Phone 150 times more scary than all of them put together. If you can believe it, I made a list (while planning this page) of all the movies I'd already seen, from which Phone contained direct elements, and the list was simply too long to post in this review.

However, when the overly fast-paced and frenetically confusing first half of the movie (and believe me, it does fall neatly into two halves, giving you the chance of popping out halfway through and making a cup of tea, if you're so inclined) is thankfully over, and your head has been battered by tirades of images from several movies you've probably already seen before (including most of the films reviewed on this site), the really effective plot, which is an original concept, gets a chance to breathe and to develop.

And this is what makes Phone worth watching at least once; there's a pretty good psychological mystery tale in there, under all the cheesy and irritating claptrap. It even has a decent twist near the end of the film, which will make you smile if you didn't already see it coming a mile off (and I didn't). The quality of acting is, in the main, pretty good, with an especially impressive performance from the 5-year-old Eun Seo-woo, and an equally good showing by Choi Ji-yeon as Jin-Hie, although Ha Ji-weon (who, interestingly enough, also starred in Gawi, Ahn Byeong-ki's previous horror movie), Kim Yu-mi and Choi Woo-jae just turn in fairly standard and reasonably good showings.

Had Ahn Byeong-ki not thrown so much (by now) hackneyed supernatural stuff into the movie and played to the film's real strengths - allowing the solid drama of the story to provide a backdrop to what could have been a nerve-tingling thriller rather than a halfbaked ghost tale - it could have been a whole lot better, which is a real shame. The cinematography, although pedestrian, is good: slick, shiny, with some nice shots, although again it falls into the trap of old cliches by equating 'blue tint' with 'scary atmosphere'.

Call me mad if you like (and oh boy, you will!) but I would quite like to see what Gore Verbinski might do with something like this, considering his reasonably tasteful remake of Ringu and his great eye for a tasty visual image... and that's the first AND last time I will ever suggest that a South East Asian film should get a US remake, but under the strange circumstances, well, just this once ;-)

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment value: 6/10
Chills: 3/10 - but only for the very cool and Linda Blair-esque little girl
Violence: 3/10
Shock Factor: 1/10
Scary Children: only the one, but she gets a gold star for effort
Black-haired Girl Ghosts in a sub-Sadako style: 1
Litres of Tomato Ketchup: an industrial-sized vat

***A good mystery story, worth renting***

A big Snowblood Apple thank you to Larry D Burns for giving us his spare copy of this movie for nothing. Thanks Larry!

Phone Wallpaper

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2002

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Larry Burns, 2003

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Ahn Byeong-ki
Ha Ji-weon
Kim Yu-mi

However, don't just take our word for it - here are some completely different perspectives!

Links - dedicated page featuring a streaming trailer, posters for download, and a small image gallery - KFC liked it - positive review plus some nice images - FrightMaster's review at Upcoming Horror Movies - some interesting info regarding Buena Vista's sponsorship of the movie - am I the only person in the world who doesn't like this film?? Quite possibly ;-) - HKFlix have the movie for sale, plus some technical specifications and details of the cast and crew

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