Phone (South Korea, 2002)

Phone, written directed by Ahn Byeong-ki, is more than a horror film.  It’s more than an Asian ghost story.  Phone is a murder mystery, a complicated love story, and a supernatural thriller.

The story begins a bit slowly with the predicament of Ji-won (Ha Ji-won), a reporter who exposes a major child-sex scandal leading to countless arrests of some very powerful people.  Not long after her story appears in the news, Ji-won begins receiving phone calls and emails threatening her life.  The detective on the case as well as Ji-won’s editor recommends she disappear for a while after someone tries chasing her down in their car.  Ji-won goes to see her sister Ho-jeong (Kim Yu-mi) and brother-in-law Chang-hoon (Choi Woo-jae), who offers their house for her to stay in; it’s furnished, but they are in the process of renovating it so no one is currently living there.  She accepts the offer and decides to change her phone number as well.  At the cell company, one number keeps coming up in the computer, which is strange but Ji-won takes it.  She soon gets her first call, but her young niece Young-ju (Eun Seo-woo) answers and after hearing the voice on the other end, she drops the phone and begins screaming.  Ji-won begins to investigate the number when she continues to receive strange phone calls.  At first she wonders if the people making death threats got her new number, but the detective finds there is no record of any of the calls.  Meanwhile, Young-ju begins to act very strange…getting aggressive with her mother and overly affectionate with her father.  It’s as if the little girl is possessed—and maybe she is.

As Ji-won’s investigation continues she discovers that there were three people who had the number before her; two of them died and a third, a teenage girl named Jin-hie (Choi Ji-yeon), disappeared.  Jin-hie’s mom had the number cancelled after her disappearance. Ji-won hears some strange things while talking to the girl’s classmates and finds something completely unexpected in Jin-hie’s room.  It seems someone is hiding a dark secret….or are there multiple dark secrets?  The last half-hour (give or take a few minutes) reveals many things involving the main characters, but I just can’t tell you what they are….I hate spoilers.

There’s a lot going on in this movie but Ahn keeps the narrative coherent and moving at a steady pace to the movie’s unpredictable conclusion.  The writing and directing are equally effective at allowing the story to develop without giving anything away too soon.  Even when you think you have it figured out, you don’t.  I love twists and unpredictability and Phone definitely has both.  As the story progresses and Ji-won begins putting some of the pieces together, there is a realization that what opens the movie is also a sneaky bit of foreshadowing.  Ahn handles the material exceptionally well, as Phone could easily have spiraled downward into a crass, soap opera-ish kind of film.  And the ghost in this this particular film proves to be cunning, malevolent, and full of rancor.  As they say, Hell hath no fury, and so forth.

The acting is also very good, especially Seo-woo Eun as possessed child Young-ju.  She probably gives one of the best performances in this film.  As the story is told, Young-ju actually gets scary.  She gives me the creeps every time I watch Phone.   There is a scene in which Young-ju is reading Snow White while her mother is asleep and after closing the book she comments on how young girls such as herself can even believe in the “happily ever after” crap.  I think it’s one of the best scenes in the movie!  It’s also an example of this little girl’s amazing acting ability.  Her facial expressions are enough to scare the pants off you.

Overall, though it lacks gore and brutal violence, I think Phone is an excellent film.  It’s loaded with revenge, murder, illicit sex (though not actually onscreen), love, obsession, and loss.  It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions and still manages to stay quite frightening.  It is available through Tartan Video in their “Asia Extreme” series and its runtime is 100 minutes.