Korean filmmaker Chung-hyun Lee makes a splashy K-horror debut with “Call,” which Netflix has unhelpfully retitled “The Call” for North American purposes.
Lee takes a simple supernatural premise and runs it to death and then some in this sinister tale of a land-line that cuts through time, if not space, in a Korean village.
Two young women of 28 who lived at the same address, in the same house, but decades apart, connect on an old cordless phone.
Seo-yeon (Park Shin-Hye) has had a bad day, resentfully visiting her sickly mother in the hospital, nagged to visit her father’s grave. To top it off, she lost her phone on the train back to the village where she grew up and the big old house Mom (Kim Sung-Ryung) has held onto all these years.
Luckily, she tracks down the cordless phone. But when it rings, she hears a frantic, confused voice that doesn’t make any sense. It takes her a while to figure out that the voice is that of someone who used to live there. It takes her a longer while to convince the voice on the other end, Young-sook (Jong-seo Jun) that her 1999 “present” isn’t Young-sook’s present.
“No Walkman? You listen to music on your ‘smart phone?'”
And it isn’t long until Seo-yeon realizes that Young-sook’s “present” is hellish — kocked indoors, tortured and subjected to occult rituals by her adoptive “shaman” mom (El Lee). Poking around the house Seo-yeon finds evidence of a secret basement room where some of this took place.
The late fall of 1999 was a fateful month in both their lives. And when Young-sook hears how Seo-yeon lost her beloved father, she makes a pitch (in Korean with English subtitles).
“Maybe I could bring your Dad back to life!”
If you know the date, time and means of accidental death, and it’s coming right up on the calendar, why not? Seo-yeon barely has time to get used to this miracle (Ho-San Park plays her dad) that transforms her life when, digging around, she uncovers Young-sook’s upcoming date with death.
“The Call” becomes a story of what comes afterward, the obligation, shared guilt and intertwined destinies of these two. Because one of the them is a lot more twisted than the other and saving her isn’t quite as simple as preventing a house fire.
The script cleverly hides the Mobius Strip engineering built into this tale of salvation, murder and woe. Young-sook, from the past, has an easier path to impacting the future. Seo-yeon has to do more research and up her game to 3D chess to fight back.
Pathos and suspense compete for screen time as the party line from Hell consumes them both, and others become collateral damage. Writer-director Lee taken that haunted phone/phone-calls-through-time gimmick from “Don’t Let Go” and other films and made the stand-out movie in the genre out of it. The effects — showing scars, and then people and automobiles vanishing as history is altered, are first-rate.
The leads aren’t given much time to soak in this incredible turn of events they’ve fallen into, and the script is at its trickiest in making us guess just how much info each has on what’s happening or about to happen that first time they connect via phone.
El Lee, in cadaverous makeup that gives her the look of a murderous manikin, stands out in support. Jun, playing an under-socialized naif with boundary and self-preservation issues, is a manic fright. And Park ably suggests an “innocent” dragged into this who isn’t all that innocent, and has inner resources of her own.
There have been too many movies titled “The Call,” so when Hollywood remakes it they’ll have to tweak that. But Chung-hyun Lee has delivered a tight, surprising and moving thriller good enough to ensure that they will.
MPA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence
Cast: Shin-hye Park, Jong-seo Jun, El Lee, Ho-San Park and Sung-Ryung Kim
Credits: Scripted by directed by Chung-hyun Lee. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:52