“Voice” – A.J. Hakari

It’s easy to cast a doubtful eye upon the future of Asian horror. I should know, I’ve been on the front lines myself, lamenting the lack of Ab-Normal Beautys and Bloody Reunions and wondering who in their right mind is greenlighting all these Apartment 1303s. But once in a great while comes a product of the Asian horror boom that not only does justice to the genre, it comes across as an overall fine film in its own right. Voice is just such a film, circumventing a tired stream of “OOGAH-BOOGAH!” scares in favor of delivering a rather tragic story with a healthy dose of the supernatural.

Young-eon (Ok-bin Kim) is a bright student with a gifted singing voice at an all girl’s high school. One night after practice, she experiences a bizarre nightmare, only to wake up and discover that she’s become a ghost. She finds herself unable to be seen or heard by any of her fellow classmates — except for her best friend, Sun-min (Ji-hye Seo). Although initially freaked out by hearing her missing friend’s disembodied voice, Sun-min gets the hang of it and sets about helping Young-eon learn how she got where she is. Their investigation uncovers a connection between their supposedly lesbian music instructor and a previous student who took her own life. But when another suicide rocks the school, the girls find themselves with little time left to solve the mystery behind Young-eon’s death before any others perish at the hands of an evil force bent on separating the friends forever.

You might not expect it from the gruesome (not to mention misleading) cover, but Voice is a film with a bit of a pedigree behind it. It’s the fourth entry into South Korea’s “Ghost School” series, a string of loosely-connected films that combine supernatural theatrics with a dash of coming-of-age drama. Peer underneath Voice’s ghostly shenanigans, and one can find the compelling story of a couple girls just trying to fit in under the reign of an oppressive educational system. The film’s title has a double meaning; in the literal sense, Sun-min is the only one who can hear her dead friend, but in metaphorical terms, it refers to the girls’ respective senses of individuality, which come in danger of being quashed not just by the school but the sinister forces causing so much death around them. The idea of a possible lesbian relationship between Young-eon and Sun-min, a theme previously explored moreso in the “Ghost School” sequel Memento Mori, is brought up but carefully handled, contributing a whole other layer to the pair’s relationship and never exploited for a few moments of sordid cinema.

It goes without saying that Voice is better as a spooky drama than it is as a straight-out horror movie. Genre fans may be disappointed that the film isn’t packed with gore galore, but it’s a story that doesn’t need it, based more on societal horrors than on Ringu-like spirits carting off souls to the underworld. There are those times when Voice does beckon to the call of including at least a few freaky sequences to shake things up, and such moments are admittedly the film’s weakest points. The scant scares there are come across as awkwardly-staged, including how Young-eon’s body is stumbled upon out of left field. The story also tends to get fairly murky, especially during the perplexing and sort of cheap revelation of not just the film’s central mystery but of some heretofore unknown skeletons in Young-eon’s closet. But one tends to forgive Voice of these flaws, especially when the story does a swell job of absorbing the viewer and when both Ok-bin Kim and Ji-hye Seo turn in sensitive and sympathetic performances as the tortured gal pals.

Voice is more than what strongly resembles a Korean version of The Invisible. It’s an unexpectedly touching picture that doesn’t break down barriers with its themes but rather uses them to help freshen up a genre that’s gotten a little worse for the wear. The atmosphere is chilling, the performances are solid, and Voice’s intentions of showing you an eerie good time outside of the usual grind of long-haired ghosts can be heard loud and clear.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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