The Cat (South Korea, 2011)

To be honest, it’s not very difficult for a film to give me a scare, or rather a bit of a jolt. However, unlike yesteryear’s films like The Shining (1980) and Don’t Look Now (1975), which truly inspired terror, the current breed of horror cinema more often than not relies on the juxtaposition of judicious editing and loud noises. It’s an effective technique, because it works on me, but it is not honestly earned and therefore results in just a fleeting sensation which leaves no lasting effect. Also, once the string section has made its impact and we see the ghost/killer/weapon, all the tension disappears, therefore any subsequent action leaves no impression until the next build-up of tension. I may not be a huge horror buff, but it really bothers me that so few horror films even attempt to do more than repeat this technique throughout a feature’s running time.

The Cat explores both the principal character’s scarred past, which manifests itself in claustrophobia and psychiatry sessions, and the antagonists’ agonizing backstory. Although each is kept secret right until the end, neither are worth the payoff, and though they are somewhat logical, they aren’t very interesting or original. What is more unfortunate is that the film doesn’t really explore its concept. Cats have always had supernatural connotations and as Tom Giammarco of articulately pointed out in his article on the history of supernatural cats in Korean cinema, they have been very prominent but of late they seem to have disappeared as a source for K-horror, until this film. Although there are many haunted and possessed cats in The Cat, I felt that they weren’t used as much more than props since the haunting presence in this film is yet another oh-so-prevalent little girl ghost. First and foremost, the story was quite dull. It was very easy to follow but felt very stretched over the 105 minute running time. The world that the plot inhabited felt very limited and was not populated with interesting characters. Secondly, the mise-en-scene was uninspired, especially given the technical skill demonstrated by its Korean contemporaries. The cinematography was functional and coupled with the banal and nearly monochromatic production design, costumes, and color schemes, the whole affair was quite drab. Lastly, I was left cold by Park Min-yeong’s performance, she is very pretty to be sure but I could not care one ounce for her character. I was particularly nonplussed by her ridiculous facial expressions. Sadly The Cat falls into this category of frankly lazy filmmaking, worse it displays no panache with the scares it attempts to conjure. The moments of tension are very brief and don’t amount to much. The problem is that they are so clearly foreshadowed that you can nearly anticipate the exact moment that every reveal occurs. I don’t think I flinched once during the film, which is both a surprise and a victory for me.

The story is extremely simple: So-hee (Park Min-yeong) works in a pet store, one of whose clients dies, leaving behind only a cat, which So-hee takes care of. With this new addition comes visions of a scary little girl with cat-like eyes and a rotted face. Since she is already in therapy, she thinks she is just seeing things, but soon it becomes clear that this cat is linked to the deaths of the people around her. As Tom Giammarco remarked in his reviewThe Cat successfully held its big reveal until the end, which for baffling reasons many films don’t seem to do. Theoretically, this should keep the suspense level up during the film’s running time. Unfortunately, in this case there is no real suspense to begin with. There are a number of reasons why this film didn’t work and I think that they are readily identifiable.  Korea’s film history is principally known for its effective melodrama. Consequently, this means that as a national cinema, there is a predisposition toward the production of horror films, especially the kind that feature past trauma which comes back to haunt people. Just like more typical melodramatic fare, Korean horror films tend to visit protagonists’ and antagonists’ traumatic backstories as a means to explain the supernatural and/or violent happenings in the diegetic present of their narratives.

For the most part, I was very bored when I watched this film, the story was beyond lacklustre, the characters rigid and one-note, and the horror was soporific. I can excuse a good idea that isn’t successfully brought to screen or a talented group of filmmakers who lack a good story, but I cannot abide a film which takes the easy way out at every turn and makes no effort with its mise-en-scene. I felt let down,  and worse, that my time was wasted watching The Cat. I expected a lot more from director Byeon Seung-wook, who previously worked as the assistant director on Lee Chang-dong’s sublime Peppermint Candy (1999).

Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.