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Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Cat (Go-hyang-i: Jook-eum-eul Bo-neun Doo Gae-eui Noon) 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 pet store
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 in an elevator, 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 review, The 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.

The animal pound
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.

Korea’s film history is known, principally, for its effective melodrama. Consequently this means that as a national cinema it is predisposed to the production of horror films, especially the kind that features past trauma that 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.

Park Min-yeong as So-hee
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 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 a prop, since the haunted presence in this film is another of the oh-so prevalent little girl ghosts.

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 by The Cat and worse, that I wasted my time. 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).

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  1. Be interested to hear what you think:

  2. Hi there, hadn't noticed this until now! In response to that review (is that you Chris? I can't tell with the alphanumeric codename) I think it posits its theories well and has some merit but... I disagree with it.

    A film can't advertise itself as a horror film and then expect not to be judged as one. I myself am not a big horror buff and I much prefer those with subtext and which try to tell a good story through that generic medium rather than in spite of it. A recent example of a successful Korean film in this vein is Possessed.

    I don't disagree with what's being said in the review, I noticed most of it myself, but for me it just didn't amount to enough to make the film compelling. The main reason for this in my opinion, and this is where I differ greatly with the write-up, is that the film is not well made. While I do attest that some effort was made regarding film technique and production design as a means to reinforce story points, I didn't find it to be a particularly adept display of skill.

    However, horror films are notoriously polarizing and it is very difficult to reach a general consensus about them. I very much admire the points of view put forward but in this case it is simply a difference of opinion.