Being a half-blooded Korean myself, I have taken an unprecedented interest in Asian cinema in general, but particularly within the realm of Korea in an effort to bond with my mother. As such, I was hoping to get my hands on a copy of Cello, one of the latest among a slew of releases under Tartan's Asia Extreme DVD line. First-time Korean director and screenplay writer Woo-cheol Lee attempts to break away from the stereotypical Asian horror film (of which there are many) in his debut largely by mixing in the element of drama and making the things we hold most dear to us seem frightful in a way we wouldn't normally imagine. An admirable attempt, Cello does come off as a unique addition to the ever-growing genre, but unfortunately, it also has its fair share of faults.
At first glance, Mi-ju Hong (Hyeon-a Seong) appears to have a normal life, but as the events slowly unfold, we learn that this is hardly the case. First of all, Mi-ju's best friend Tae-yeon Kim (Da-an Park) dies in a horrifying car accident of which Mi-ju herself survives, prompting her to turn away from her career as a brilliant cellist and seek a more peaceful and stable life as a local music professor. Unfortunately for Mi-ju, peaceful is not an option at school as one of her former students holds a grudge against her and begins to send her cryptic messages and threats while also trying to run Mi-ju over with her car.
The picture-perfect Hong family wishes Mi-ju a happy birthday.
At home, things aren't much better. After Mi-ju's older and mentally disabled daughter Yoon-jin takes a sudden interest in the cello, a supernatural force seems to take hold of the Hong house and its inhabitants. Mi-ju's sister (or sister-in-law?) Kyung-ran, while seemingly normal at first, becomes increasingly fidgety and depressed after receiving a mysterious phone call from her fiancé in the States. Yoon-jin, while playing the cello rather unsuccessfully, becomes increasingly violent towards her ridiculously cute younger sister Yoon-hye. On top of all that, there's the uber-creepy and recently hired housekeeper who had attempted suicide (and failed) by swallowing acid, thus not being able to speak. All the while, Mi-ju seems to be slipping in and out of sanity, arousing suspicion amongst her husband Jun-ki (Ho-bin Jeong).
Tae-yeon and Mi-ju play their respective cellos at a recording studio.
Cello is definitely intriguing, but due to its slow delivery, some may be quick to lose interest. After all, it takes about an hour in for the mysteries to truly start unfolding, particularly with regards to the cello, the supposed centerpiece of the film. However, if it successfully manages to test your patience, the conclusion, while perhaps predictable to those who have seen a number of Asian horror films, turns out to be quite frightening and satisfying overall. Hyeon-a Seong does a spectacular job of playing Mi-ju, and the remaining actor and actresses also give excellent performances in the roles of their respective characters (on a side note--the little Korean girl who plays Yoon-hye is quite possibly the cutest girl I have ever seen in my entire life). Visually, a lot of the film is actually quite beautiful for being of the horror genre, and this is only enhanced by the accompaniment of its magnetic soundtrack.
What will be the fate of Mi-ju?
Cello comes packaged in the standard black keep case, housed in a sleek cardboard slipcase, and complete with a Chapter Selections insert, typical of most Tartan releases.
Offering an array of sound options from Korean 2.0 Dolby Digital to 5.1 Dolby Digital as well as DTS (all with optional English or Spanish subtitles), Cello sounds great. However, in a film such as this where the pacing is fairly slow, taking place mostly in the quiet Hong household and not relying on typical scare-tactics, the rear channels and subwoofer only seldom spark to life with full force. Other than that, the dialogue sounds clear with everything easily understood. The musical elements also sound quite lovely and play a big part of the overall film experience.
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen ratio of 1.85:1, Cello looks great but not outstanding. The picture appears grainy and noisy at times, possibly due to some type of compression rather than as the direct result of natural grain. Perhaps my biggest complaint, though, is the fact that the screen slightly wobbles during some scenes throughout the film, starting around the 30-minute mark. Although these occurrences are rare and subtle for the most part, I found them to be distracting. Otherwise, the picture is relatively stable with only a few remnants of dirt and dust spots. The colors stand out well, and the blacks are dark and solid.
I would like to preface this section by strongly advising against taking a look at any of the special features before watching the film itself. Inevitably, spoilers are woven throughout the extras, even the theatrical trailer. Okay, now that that's out of the way...
First and foremost is the Commentary supplement with director Chul Yoo (perhaps a typo?) and Sung Do Park, the producer of Cello. While some commentaries tend to put one to sleep, I felt that this commentary was particularly insightful, really helping me to appreciate and respect Cello and its makers on a much deeper level. The commentators talk about many aspects of the film, including the importance of scenes, locations and sets, time constraints and other pressures, the selection of music, thought processes, the single male actor and the many female actresses as well as hopes and regrets. Definitely worth checking out.
Also included is a Behind the Scenes with Cast and Crew featurette which starts off with a ceremony of sorts, then alternating between Q & A sessions and a look at (mostly) the application of blood in various scenes.
While the slipcase mentions a TV Spot, it doesn't appear to be included on the Special Features menu. However, it does include the Original Theatrical Trailer. I was surprised at how many spoilers seem to be revealed within the trailer itself, which is precisely why I advise against viewing it beforehand.
Topping it all off are six trailers featuring "new" releases from Tartan's Asia Extreme collection, including The Heirloom, Pray, Marebito, R-Point, Wishing Stairs, and A Tale of Two Sisters. Before arriving at the menu screen, there is also a trailer for the upcoming Lady Vengeance (originally titled Sympathy for Lady Vengeance), the third and final installment of Chan-wook Park's Revenge Trilogy.
It's obvious that Woo-cheol Lee had a grand vision for his directorial debut Cello, especially after listening to the Commentary track, but unfortunately, it falls short of its potential in the end. Still, for being filmed in just 40 days, Cello is an impressive product for a first-timer, complete with a beautiful soundtrack (too bad a hard copy wasn't included like in the Region 3 release!), stylish imagery, and an excellent cast. If anything, it will serve as a learning experience, and hopefully we can expect greater things in the future. While I cannot recommend going out and buying this DVD, I do believe it's worthy of a solid rental. Rent It.