White: The Melody of the Curse (Korea, 2011)
I don’t frequently get excited about horror films, but White: The Melody of the Curse was somewhat of an exception. I had consistently heard good things about its directors, Kim Gok and Kim Sun, a pair who have been churning out low-budget indie horrors since 2003. Sadly, however, I have not had a chance to see any of them yet. White is their first big budget, commercial film, and it is also fairly ambitious, especially from a technical standpoint despite employing a number of done-to-death (excuse the pun) clichés. The other reason I was curious to see this film was its subject matter, as the narratives takes place within the fiercely competitive K-Pop milieu. While I do not know very much about this global Hallyu phenomenon, it does fascinate me and upon hearing about this project, I felt the topic particularly conducive to horror.
One thing about horror films is that everyone who watches them is looking for something different: some want a good story, others a few good scares, and others yet are still in it for the blood and guts. White delivers on all three of these, but probably not to an ultimately satisfying degree for any. I appreciated the K-Pop setting with its fan obsession and competition between performers, but the story that is set within it features a too-good-to-be-true haunted location, a cursed video, and a long-haired and decomposed ghost seeking revenge. This is very unoriginal stuff and a little disappointing. Next, while there are some good scares, some of the set pieces are borderline ridiculous and have the potential of eliciting an undesired reaction. Finally, there is some slightly gruesome violence but these moments are infrequent and lack cinematic flair, which is odd considering how well made the film is.The story gets underway very succinctly and involves a pop band which has fallen from grace. One of them, Eun-joo (Ham Eun-jeong), a former back-up dancer, serves as the team leader and is ostracized due to her background. Her benefactor arranges for them to record in a new studio, which is fancy and high tech but harbors a mysterious past. Eun-joo discovers a secret compartment behind a mirror in the dance hall and within it an old videocassette featuring an old K-Pop routine. This becomes the group’s new song, which, as the title suggests, is indeed cursed. One by one, each girl who is given the coveted center position is subjected to awful accidents and a bit of haunting for good measure. Eun-joo seeks to uncover the secret of the tape with a little help from her friend before it’s too late.
There isn’t too much to say about the performances, which mostly veer into caricature, but everyone seems to handles themselves relatively well here. A couple of the starlets are also K-Pop singers, I wonder if this added anything to their performances. Arguably, not a great deal is required for these kinds of performances.For me, some of the strongest sequences were those in between the scares which were either investigatory, expository, or relationship-based. One reason they worked quite well is that they are so well shot. It is not often with this kind of film that the production values prove a real asset, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) comes to mind, but that was always designed as a ‘prestige film’. The colors, framing, and especially the use of the locations were at times beautiful, foreboding, and menacing. The set pieces themselves also display strong mise-en-scène, but I found it less convincing than the other scenes. This may have been because there was a tendency to overdo it, mostly on the editing side. Rarely, in my opinion, does fancy, hyperkinetic editing add something genuine to a film. As much as I can appreciate its value for horror, which is so often low-budget, quick cuts all too often rob a scene of tension, which needs to be earned.
Despite the reliance on very generic staples, especially of local Asian horror cinema, in my eyes White was a cut above recent K-Horror entries, a lot of which have been disappointing, save for a a few gems like Possessed (2009) and the brilliant Bedevilled(2010), although the latter probably lends itself more to the revenge-thriller sub-genre. However, given people’s very different tastes when it comes to horror, I would suggest that you would do best to approach this one with caution. I enjoyed myself and am looking forward to the next Kim Gok and Kim Sun film, but hopefully they will give us something a little more ambitious next time. Perhaps that is why there is something lacking with White; at times, it feels like a test run.
Pierce Conran writes for Modern Korean Cinema, Twitch and currently lives in South Korea.