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Review © Mandi Apple, 2007.

Directed by Lee Woo-cheol, 2005, 94 min. Starring Jeong Ho-bin, Yu-mi Jeong, Park Da-an, and Seong Hyeon-a.

As a reviewer with a particular specialism in, and fondness for, Asian ghost-type horror, it is becoming increasingly aggravating for me to have to watch almost identikit movies being churned out again and again. Unfortunately, A Tale of Two Sisters seems to have become South Korea's answer to Ring - a work of such genius and innovation that lesser titles plunder it a thousand times over to put bums on cinema seats. Cello takes an increasingly tired premise - central character does something bad in past, represses memory of it and ends up paying for it by supernatural vengeance - and fails to do anything remotely original with it, preferring to recycle a ton of other movies instead.

Displaying an unsurprisingly gothic feel and aesthetic much the same as A Tale of Two Sisters or Ryeong, Cello shamelessly borrows plot points and visual elements from both those movies, even Ryeong, whose borrowing from other movies is almost the stuff of legend. It even goes so far as to borrow the interior design from A Tale of Two Sisters, almost right down to the goddamn wallpaper - every branch of Laura Ashley in South Korea must be rejoicing at this ludicrous overuse of sumptuous Arts and Crafts wallcoverings and soft furnishings so prevalent in recent K-Horror titles ;-)

In its favour, though, it does look nice. Clearly a fairly high-budget piece, it's reflected in the superior quality of its special effects and glossy, beautiful, atmospheric look. And thankfully there are some very good original scares that could have lifted it above merely being a magpie of its peers. Yet there are scenes and images lifted directly from other movies with almost nothing changed: I actually swore at the TV when I saw a particular jump scene pinched directly from both Tale of Two Sisters and Ju-on: The Grudge, managing to combine both the similar scares at the same damn time. It may even be a rare example of something I'll call "combination thieving" for the moment ;-)

As for the acting, its central character Mi-ju is played in an altogether unengaging manner by Hyeon-a Seong: indeed, I failed to be moved by her performance either to the good or bad. I neither liked nor disliked her, she was just there - which is not an ideal emotional involvement for what is supposed to be the heroine (or even anti-heroine) of the piece, so for the most part I ended up neither understanding nor caring about what happened to her. She also displayed a full range of exactly two and a half facial expressions, which I shall call for the time being, 'meh', 'hmm' and 'oh dear, something vaguely unexpected might have just happened but I'm not too bothered about it' ;-) Granted, by the end her performance picked up a bit, but for the most part, it was pedestrian beyond belief.

The supporting cast were also a bit weird; by way of complete contrast, I felt that their performances were for the most part oddly contrived, like in the same way that amateur dramatics players occasionally display slightly over-the-top nuancing. The actress portraying Kyung-ran, the character of the sister-in-law, was particularly guilty of this and at times reminded me of a small child showing off in front of a home video camera, which made me cringe.

To be honest, I also didn't care for the unnecessarily fragmented plotting, which I felt detracted from the emotional weight of the storyline by merely confusing the viewer. In Cello there is just too much going on all at once for the viewer to be able to pull together a cohesive structure, particularly throughout the middle section of the film - everything is being thrown at you from the get-go and it's impossible to distinguish what is an important plot point and what's just window-dressing. Between dead friends, stalking students, mute children, slightly barmy women, offed pets, super-spooky housekeepers and haunted music cassettes, it's all a bit of a whirl with no hint of adequate explanation for most of the movie, which is frustrating and aggravating.

The scares are also similarly seemingly unrelated: one moment the family dog is winding up dead and the next, someone is trying to run over the central character with her own car. Why? Who knows, and indeed, who cares? Was it the housekeeper whodunnit? Was it the student? Was it some random ghosty thing? Was it some mad slasher with a grudge against family pets? Who knows, and indeed, who cares? ;-) Because of the confused plotlines involving far too many potential threats to the main character and none of them properly explained, the story lacks a strong central narrative and left me completely cold.

Having to sit through nearly an hour of just 'lots of things happening for no good reason' meant that it ended up as a vaguely irritating exercise in patience for me, even though there is a good reason for this which becomes apparent further along in the movie. While that worked for Tale of Two Sisters, it definitely didn't work here, because it was made very clear, albeit subtly, that there was a connection, a cohesive thread tying each separate event together. Not so the case with Cello. Also, the pacing is inexplicably really s-l-o-w: there's no good reason, given the amount of scares in it, why I should have found myself looking at my watch 41 minutes in and wondering if there was anything better on TV.


Part-time prof Hong Mi-Ju (Hyeon-a Seong) is being harassed by a student who got a bad grade from her and has subsequently had to drop out of the music college, to the extent that she's even slashing Mi-ju's tyres. However, strange things are starting to happen to Mi-ju persistently: all kinds of seemingly supernatural goings-on are continually disturbing and distressing her. Whilst doing a bit of shopping, Yoon-ji, Mi-ju's older daughter who has learning disabilities, unexpectedly demands that her mother buy her a cello - and that's a key which unlocks a whole lot of bad karma from Mi-ju's past, as well as some new weirdness in the form of a strange and entirely spooky housekeeper, who is just as mute as Mi-ju's daughter and has her own tragic and gothic history.

More weird things happen when Mi-ju complains to her husband that she doesn't like the housekeeper, such as a bedtime visitation by Kayako *cough* I mean, an unnamed mysterious female spirit. Kyung-ran, Mi-ju's sister-in-law, gets a bit of bad luck by losing her fiance, who tells her it's all over between them, sparking Kyung-ran's disintegration into the Bette Davis character from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, replete with maniacal laughing and bawling and smeared makeup, embarrassingly enough. However, something strange happens when she gets a silent phone call she takes to be from her ex, and then winds up dead under mysterious circumstances, having seen the same nameless long-haired female ghost figure that has been plaguing Mi-ju.

It also transpires that threatening phone calls from what Mi-ju took to be the stalking student were never actually made: there are no records of any such call. All the bad events currently taking place seem to be pivot around someone called Kim Tae-Yeon, a person who Mi-ju flatly refuses to talk about. What terrible event in Mi-ju's repressed past could have caused what is self-evidently an unquiet spirit to come back and wreak havoc... and why is Yoon-jin acting so strangely in conjunction with her new-found love of playing the cello?

In the final reckoning, Cello is without a doubt one of the weakest of the recent spate of K-horrors riding on the coat-tails of A Tale of Two Sisters. It xeroxes the entire plot construct of that movie, which is outright and frankly pretty outrageous theft. Goddamnit, even the trailer namechecks both Tale of Two Sisters and The Others as its predecessors! That feels to me a bit like getting burgled and the robber leaving a business card behind on the mantelpiece. Even the infamously derivative Ryeong, pretty poor in its own right, was still infinitely more likeable than this disjointed crap-o-rama. Another sad waste of potential down to a whole collection of horrifically hackneyed aspects, but sadly, seemingly indicative of the current state of the Korean horror scene. In short: Korean horror moviemakers, get a fresh idea please, because this has now been totally done to death and your welcome is starting to wear very thin.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Mysterious Bedtime Ghost Visitations: Ju-on/10
Mysterious Haunted Recording Devices: Ring/10
Mysterious Laura Ashley Decor: Tale of Two Sisters/10
Mysterious Phone Messages from Dead Folks: Kairo, Phone, Chakushin ari/10
Mysterious Obligatory Long-haired Female Ghost: Of course this movie has one, I'm just surprised it doesn't have two just to cause double the aggravation to the viewer. Oh, wait a minute... ;-)
Mysterious False Endings: Ring/10

Films in a Similar Style: Too many to list

*** Hopelessly derivative ***

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Thanks to Tartan Video, who supplied a screener for this movie

Cello Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [1024x768] [1048x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2007

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Lee Woo-cheol
Seong Hyeon-a


http://www.tartanvideo.com/ht_title_template.asp?TITID=617 - buy the movie at Tartan
http://www.hancinema.net/korean_movie_Cello.php - loads of information at the fantastic Korean movie database
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5IQhMCZU7Q - trailer on YouTube
http://www.dvd.reviewer.co.uk/reviews/review.asp?Index=5561&User=35825 - comprehensive review of the Tartan disc, though too many ads!
http://www.beyondhollywood.com/reviews/cello.htm - The ever-reliable Beyond Hollywood give it a once-over

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