As I have previously examined with Whispering Corridors (1998) on my own blog, the schoolgirl ghost-horror film is a prevalent and perhaps necessary form of Korean horror which, contrary to the typical depiction of young women in the horror genre, presents a vehicle for the representation of Sonyeo, or the ‘sensitivity’ of young girls. What we expect from schoolgirls in horror films in Hollywood and also in Japan (where the schoolgirl look is a particularly exportable fetish), is precociousness and promiscuity. K-horror dabbles in sexuality but often in more oblique ways, like Memento Mori (1999), which explores the ghostly ramifications of homosexual relationship between two teenage girls and the social alienation that precedes it.
Not two minutes into Death Bell there is a close-up shot of a young girl’s white panties as her period quickly stains them with blood. Despite all the horrific imagery that follows in the film, this is probably the most shocking of all. Upon viewing this scene, my initial thought was that this film would be more sexual and may explore more new ground than its predecessors. But ultimately, aside from the high concept generic mash-up of ghostly horror, murder mystery, and torture porn, Death Bell does follow the same beaten path as the Whispering Corridors series and others have before.
The plot is simple: an elite high school class of twenty pupils are tormented by a vicious Saw-like killer who poses them questions and riddles, which if left unanswered or not solved in a timely manner, will result in the gory death of one of their classmates. After a while, it becomes evident that the reason behind this carnage stems from the unsolved death of a girl in the school two years prior. During its brief and well-paced 85 minute running time, there is no need for much more plot than this and besides the expository first act and denouement, the film contents itself with moving on from one horrific set piece to the next.
Writer-director Yoon Hong-seun exhibits a deft handling of the fairly straightforward proceedings. The film is a potent cocktail of memorable horror staples and is edited in a breathless, visceral, and exuberant style which does it many favors. It may be fair to say that the brief and flighty nature of the film allows it to succeed in glossing over a few mistakes or low points that occur here and there although the strong production values and good performances, especially Lee Beom-su (Mr. Gam’s Victory; Au Revoir UFO, both 2004) as the affable and friendly teacher Chang-wook, make up for this.
The film touches on a couple of themes including Korea’s obsession with good academic results, but it does not serve as a comprehensive commentary on the state of affairs for education in the nation. The climax inevitably evokes a lot of history and, by employing some decidedly Korean melodramatics, it reminds us of Korea’s considerable historical trauma without directly referencing it.
I would recommend Death Bell to any fan of horror or any general enthusiast of Korean cinema as I believe it has the ability to please both with its confident production style and, if not necessarily memorable, its colorful take on the generic territories it occupies. Although some have dubbed this as torture porn (a sub-genre which I despise) I think this film has a little more in common with Battle Royale (2000), although it is nowhere as good near as that film.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.