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Friday, April 22, 2011

Bestseller (베스트셀러, Beseuteuselleo ) 2010

Production values add to the atmosphere

Along with Moss and Bedevilled, Bestseller is one last year’s rural-set films where local villagers hide an ugly secret or secrets. Each is very different but they all set the countryside as a site of horror and a place for repressed memories. Kang Woo-suk’s Moss is an atmospheric thriller about a son who goes to a village when his father dies and finds that everything isn’t quite right. Soon he begins to suspect foul play in his father’s passing and tries to dig up the secrets of the community, which is lorded over by the village foreman playing by the brilliant Jeong Jae-yeong. Bedevilled shows us an island and a woman who is brutally raped, attacked, and persecuted by the other islanders through the eyes of a visitor from Seoul. Following a cataclysmic event she snaps and exacts revenge in this scopophilic masterpiece. Finally there is Bestseller, which starts out as a creepy haunted house horror when a famous writer gets away from the big city to write her comeback two years after having been accused of plagiarism. A big revelation switches the focus of the film, which becomes a thriller where she tries to uncover the death of a girl who she believes was killed by the villagers.

Director Lee Jeong-ho treads carefully in his debut as he maneuvers through the conventions of horror and name checks half a dozen classic horror films in the process. A writer going off to a big haunted house in the countryside for some quiet to write is basically the plot to The Shining (1980), not only this but just like in the famous opening scene from that film we follow the protagonist from various eerie helicopter shots as she drives to the remote location. Besides this the film also makes heavy allusions to Psycho (1960) and Don’t Look Now (1973). The first half of the film is an exercise in suspense and is very effective. The mise-en-scene is wonderfully executed as the sets, sound design, editing, and cinematography are all top notch. The problem is that it feels like a bit of an exercise and can come off as a little lifeless. Eom Jeong-hwa, an accomplished actress who has some horror experience with Princess Aurora (2005), looks good in the role but sometimes misses the mark with her constant staring and paranoia. This could also be a product of Lee’s direction as he takes such pains to evoke an atmospheric horror. 

Like so many other Korean films, Bestseller deals with past trauma and repressed memories. As I mentioned earlier it does this in much the same fashion as Moss and Bedevilled by situating the trauma, by proxy or otherwise, in a rural environment. The villagers, at first welcoming, quickly turn sour on the writer’s presence as she begins to dig up the truth on the 20-year-old disappearance of a young girl. The secrets they hide are predictably dark and while they do not stem directly from political atrocities, like the revealed trauma of films like Save the Green Planet (2003) and A Man Who Was Superman (2008), they do echo a number of related themes. For one the brutal countryside could be seen as a representation of the North, it could also be seen as a metaphor for the past and how modern Koreans choose to deal with it. Various events in the film point to a manipulation of memory and show us how most characters are deeply affected by it a key concern in Korean cinema. 

Unfortunately the film has some very significant drawbacks, I’ve already mentioned Eom’s performance but far more problematic are the atrocious lapses of judgment in the execution of the finale. There is a supernatural bent to the film that is necessary to complement the style of the first half but this angle is played down during the rest of the narrative until the very end when it comes back with a vengeance. The problem is that the logic of the film goes right out the window. Laws of physics are blithely disregarded, generic codes are awkwardly juxtaposed, and the obvious resolution is forced into place. Ultimately the film is a great display of technique and a competently made horror/thriller with lots of fun twists but it lacks cohesion and focus.

★★★☆☆

The villagers turn on the writer


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