When I first became interested in Asian films many years ago, they were hard to come by and thus, it was easy to keep track of the more popular directors. Names such as John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and Ronny Yu were well-known amongst fans. Later on, directors like Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu became notable. But, with the overwhelming amount of Asian films now available in the U.S., it's become quite hard to keep track of who the better/most popular directors are. Thus, when I received the South Korean film Witch Board (AKA Bunshinsaba), I was surprised to note that I'd seen the director's other two horror films. Maybe I'm more involved in a trend than I thought I was.
Bunshinsaba takes place in a all-girls high school, where Yu-jin (Se-eun Lee) is often picked-on by her classmates. To exact revenge, she enlists two of her friends to help her inflict a curse on her tormentors by using "Bunshinsaba". (Despite the Americanized title of the film, there is no Ouija-like board here. Yu-jin simply uses a red pen and some characters written on a sheet of paper.) Yu-jin warns the others to not open their eyes during the ceremony, or they could be possessed by a demon. But, as luck would have it, Yu-jin opens her eyes, and views a scary-looking girl.
Following this, Yu-jin's enemies begin to die in a most horrible manner -- they put a plastic bag on their heads and then set it on fire. Due to these deaths, Yu-jin's class is incorporated with another class taught by Mr. Han (Choi Sung-min). Meanwhile, the new art teacher, Miss Lee (Kim Kyu-ri) learns of school's mysterious past. The student who once sat in seat 29, Kim In-sook (Lee Yu-ri), died a horrible death and it is rumored that her ghost still haunts the school. (Thus, none of the classrooms have a seat 29.)
Yu-jin is disturbed by the deaths at school and becomes convinced that she was the cause and that she is now possessed. She becomes even more convinced of this fact when she begins to have vivid visions involving the ghostly girl that she saw during the "Bunshinsaba" ceremony. As the characters learn more about the small town's dubious past, it becomes clear that supernatural forces are clearly at work, not only on Yu-jin, but on Miss Lee as well. What can be done to stop the vengeful ghosts?
As noted above, I've seen the first two films from director Ahn Byung-ki, Nightmare and Phone, so I feel comfortable commenting on him and that's where I'll start the review for Bunshinsaba. Ahn is definitely a technically proficient director and he has a knack for shooting very clean and professional looking films. He is also apparently good at coaxing low-key performances from his actors. In short, his films look as if they were made with care.
However, Ahn seems to have a very difficult time telling a story and that's where Bunshinsaba (and his other two films) run into trouble. For starters, the plot in Bunshinsaba is muddled from the beginning. Yu-jin states that she wants to take revenge on those who ridicule her (and we do witness this bullying), but we never learn exactly why she is a target. Also, the two girls who help Yu-jin with the "Bunshinsaba" ceremony don't figure into the story after that opening scene, which seems quite odd given the deaths which follow.
When I watch a foreign film, I often feel as if I'm missing key pieces (either due to cultural differences or poor translation), but with Bunshinsaba everything seemed pretty straightforward from the outset. Misguided occult practice leads to possible possession, deaths, and ghostly appearances. When the plot twists finally start to arrive in the second half of the film, they aren't very surprising, nor do they really add anything to the story. And maybe it's a cultural thing, but enough with the "creepy" Asian women with hair covering their faces. It worked in Ringu and got old very quickly after that.
So, essentially, Bunshinsaba is a very well-made movie which has little to offer in terms of originality or scares. There are some creepy moments in the film, especially during the opening scene, but it's nothing that we haven't seen before. The story is essentially a ghost/possession tale in which the sins of the past come back to haunt those in the present. The movie has a very nice look and there is one shocking act or violence at the end, but otherwise the tale is somewhat redundant and the ending is both unsatisfying and confusing.
Witch Board (AKA Bunshinsaba) haunts DVD courtesy of Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. This is an impressive transfer as the picture is very sharp and clear. There is essentially no grain on the image and no visible defects from the source material. The colors, most notably the deep reds and blues, look fantastic. The picture has a nice amount of depth and the framing appears to be accurate. Some artifacting was present, but it wasn't distracting.
The DVD features the original Korean audio track and a dubbed English track in Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, thus giving listeners a nice choice. Both of these tracks sound fantastic, as they offer clear dialogue and sound effects. The surround sound is notably good here and the sounds of rain or retreating footsteps really add to the ambience of the film. The subwoofer channel also gets a nice workout here. Some may question the lack of a DTS track here, but the Dolby tracks certainly go above and beyond.
Tokyo Shock has released Witch Board (AKA Bunshinsaba) to DVD in two forms -- a single-disc version and a two-disc version. For the purposes of this review, the two-disc version was screened. Disc 1 features an AUDIO COMMENTARY featuring director Ahn Byung-ki, and actresses Kim Kyu-ri, Lee Se-eun, and Lee Yoo-ri. This commentary is in Korean and can be viewed with English subtitles. This is a fairly straightforward commentary as the group discusses the making of the film. Ahn compliments his actors and the three women describe their experiences making horror films (and they giggle a lot). There is a MUSIC VIDEO by 2Late (?) and the ORIGINAL TRAILER for Bunshinsaba.
The rest of the extras can be found on Disc 2. "Making of Featurette" (53 minutes) features comments from the director and the actors. This segment contains a great deal fo behind-the-scenes footage, but there is no real theme here, just on-set observations of specific scenes accompanied by asides from those involved. We get more on-set video with "Stunts & Special FX Featurette" (15 minutes) which shows the preparations for makeup effects scenes, as well as fires and explosions. "P.R. Photo Shoot" (2 minutes) shows how the poster and publicity stills were created (there is no notable dialogue here). Ahn discusses his view of film in "Director's Horror Film Theory" (8 minutes). Here, he discusses his other films, his take on Korean horror movies, and notes the films and directors who influenced him. (It's very refreshing to here Ahn identify himself as a horror film director.) In "Horror Films vs. Actresses Interviews" (9 minutes) we get to hear the actresses discuss their opinions on horror films, especially those of Ahn. The final extra is a "Press Conference" (7 minutes) in which the director and actors address an audience. (No offense to Tokyo Shock/Media Blasters, but these extras were clearly reproduced from an Asian DVD release and all look quite good.)
Has the golden age of modern Asian horror come and gone? I don't know if it has or not, but I can say that it's been a while since I've seen a good Asian horror film. Bunshinsaba has the makings of a good movie, as it is competently made and has some spooky moments, but the story is hackneyed and the movie simply feels stale and mediocre.