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Review © Mandi Apple, 2006.

Directed by Kim Tae-kyeong, 2004, 98 mins., starring Kim Ha-neul, Nam Sang-mi, Bin Yi-shin, Jeon Hie-ju and Lee Yun-ji.

Written and directed by Kim Tae-kyeong in 2004 as his debut feature, and released at about the same time as other slightly less well-respected South Korean titles as Face, Ryeong (aka Dead Friend, aka The Ghost) is a fairly popular, albeit deeply derivative, little ghost flick that has never really generated the same kind of buzz as others in its field.

Ryeong has much in common with the much higher-key and often criticised Ahn Byeong-ki swipe-a-thon Phone, yet personally I would consider it an infinitely superior product to that on the basis of looks, pace and plotting. While both movies, ahem, "homage" a great deal of other contemporary works, and neither are exactly what you'd call innovatory, at least Ryeong holds your attention. There are more horror payoffs per square inch than in Phone, as well. Most tellingly of all, though, it echoes the plot of another Ahn Byeong-ki horror, Gawi, almost note for note.

Visually, overall it looks impressive. There is a constant, almost subliminal deep sea-green tint to the piece (think: Uzumaki, but not quite as dayglo as that) which, for once, does actually add something to the atmospherics. It may be a horror cliche to tint everything an unnatural colour (normally blue) to make it seem 'super scary', but in this case, the green works to lend everything a muted, more gothic aesthetic. The scenery also bears the stamp of someone who has clearly studied A Tale of Two Sisters, right down to young girls wearing floaty nighties in bedrooms which look like something out of William Morris's nightmares. It's an attractive piece, with good composition, solid cinematography, nice lighting and, thankfully, some rich horror imagery.

The overall quality of the acting is excellent: Kim Ha-neul as the central character Ji-won plays her role with pleasing subtlety, recalling Angelica Lee's outstanding performance as Mun in The Eye, but if anything, with more depth and range. The supporting cast are also quietly accomplished. Another positive point is the excellent pacing. Unlike many others in the same genre, Ryeong trots along at a goodly speed and doesn't drag. It's lightweight. It's likeable. It doesn't have any delusions of grandeur. It does what it's supposed to do, and if you haven't seen quite as many Asian ghost movies as I have, you may even be scared by the jumps which come right out of a ton of other flicks.

Synopsis

Three friends from the same high school are conducting a séance with a bunshinsaba - a traditional South Korean ouija board. As the spirits are called by Eun-jung (Lee Yun-ji), the planchette of the bunshinsaba starts jumping up and down: at the same time, Min Ji-won (Kim Ha-neul), another friend sleeping in the next room, wakes up screaming. When Ji-won comes out, she has a right royal barney with Eun-jung about the séance, and Eun-jung jokingly calls for the ghost they conjured with the séance to kill Ji-won off - and says that since they didn't send the ghost back, it'll be after all their blood.

However, if you've seen enough examples of this kind of movie, you'll know that is perhaps the stupidest thing to do - taunting a ghost and pretending to set it on someone almost always guarantees that it will actually happen ;-) And true to form, almost immediately something bad (and badly derivative of Dark Water) happens to Ji-won.

Ever since that fateful night, she's had amnesia - presumably caused by shock. After a visit to her doctor, she finds out that now her brain waves have stabilised, there's a good chance she may get her memory back. She's decided to leave college, leave her mother and go overseas, to make a new start for herself.

In time-honoured movie tradition, though, little snippets of her memory start to come back in her dreams - and they're almost always tainted by some frightening figure she can't place. Not only that, but they seem to be continually connected to water, whether in the dream itself or by the medium of a knocked-over glass of drinking water next to the bed. But soon enough, inexplicable things begin to happen to her in reality as well - echoes of her dreams, the ghosts of her forgotten past invading her waking life.

Just at this time, Ji-won gets a blast from the past: Yu-jung, one of the three friends who conducted the seance years before, comes to find her after she saw her in a dream - and not only that, one of the other girls, Eun-seo, has died after telling this girl she had seen something bizarre. It's not long before Yu-jung also has a terrifying supernatural experience related to Ji-won - and realises that the ghost they called up years before indeed really did never get sent back.

Now all of her friends who conducted the seance with her are dying under mysterious circumstances. But what is the identity of this ghost, how is it linked to her own forgotten past, and can Ji-won find out how to save herself?

So, is Ryeong truly derivative of every Asian horror movie made in the last few years? Oh yes. Yes indeedy. In fact, just as you think it's shaping up to be a carbon copy of one movie, two minutes later it mutates and turns into a different movie altogether. Two minutes after that, another, and another, and another, ad nauseam. There are chunks of Dark Water, chunks of Kokkuri, chunks of Ring, and I haven't seen so much water in a Korean movie since Bimil. (It kind of makes me wonder if the South Koreans have a particular cultural fear of water, since it pops up so often as an underlying theme.) There is even a ghost character which is pretty much a downright Sada-clone, replete with the exact same eye-shots - and an entire sequence which bears an odd resemblance to one in Shutter, which is clearly a coincidence since both movies were released in 2004. To make a fairly crappy analogy, Ryeong is like a tossed salad of Asian movies.

And that was a real stumbling block for me: there were just way too many movies that got raided to make this one. Again, like Phone, I couldn't list them all - there were simply that many. From Ju-on to Phone to Ring to Dark Water to The Eye etc etc etc, eventually it started to grate on me - and when I finally realised that overall it had become just a (infinitely better handled, admittedly) retread of Gawi, I almost gave up on it entirely. That said, by the last quarter Ryeong does recover marginally, and even manages to find its own identity with a very pleasing and deft ending.

In the final reckoning, despite the fact that it's entertaining enough, unpretentious and quite enjoyable, unless you've seen precious few Asian ghost films, Ryeong probably isn't worth buying. Maybe worth a rental, but even then I'd advise caution. And that's a real shame, since there are so many good things about this movie, from the gorgeous visuals to the excellent performances. Despite all its failings and flaws, though, I still ended up rather liking it. It could have been a classic: certainly, the range of its emotional tenet far outdoes many other movies of its ilk and places it into the Dark Water sphere. Just a pity, then, that so many of its positives are cancelled out by its derivative scenes and lack of true scares.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:

Entertainment Value: 7/10
Chills: 4/10
Suspense: 4/10
Sex: 0/10
Violence: 4/10
Sadakos: 1
Mitsukos: 1
Samaras: 1
Litres of tomato ketchup: nary a single tomato was squashed for the sake of this movie
Litres of water: another super-soggy South Korean chiller ;-)

Films in a Similar Style: http://www.mandiapple.com/snowblood/index2.htm ;-)

*** A waste of potential ***

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Ryeong Wallpaper
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Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2006

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Kim Tae-kyeong

Links

http://www.upcominghorrormovies.com/reviews/asian/deadfriend.php - UHM's sentiments about Ryeong pretty much echoed mine
http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews16/ghost_ryeong_dvd_review.htm - DVD Beaver's comparison of various releases of the movie, with lots of images and some nice poster artwork too
http://slasherp.nexcess.net/htm/reviews/deadfriend.htm - Slasherpool's AnthroFred gave this a solid, positive review, while all the while acknowledging what a rip-off it actually is, interestingly
http://dvd.monstersandcritics.com/reviews/article_9427.php/DVD_Review_The_Ghost - fairly neutral review from DVDReview
http://www.beyondhollywood.com/reviews/deadfriend.htm - an excellent (and enjoyably snarky) review by Nix at Beyond Hollywood, but watch out if you've not seen it - there's a bit of a spoiler
http://www.shuqi.org/asiancinema/reviews/ghost.shtml - I honestly can't understand how David Bjerre got freaked out by this movie, but each to his own I guess O_O
http://www.dvdtimes.co.uk/content.php?contentid=61719 - positive review from Kevin Gilvear of DVD Times, with some helpful info about extras and technical specs



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