“Cello” – A.J. Hakari

For years, Japan has been king of the Asian horror imports, but other nations have begun to challenge that status. South Korea entered the arena with the acclaimed A Tale of Two Sisters and is proving to be a more than worthy competitor with classy and creepy genre films like Cello.

 

Cello is the story of Mi-ju (Seong Hyeon-ah), a brilliant cello prodigy when she was young, who stepped away from a life of playing because of an accident. Instead, she now teaches students at a small school, living a low-key life with her husband, sister, and two daughters. On one strange night, a dark chain of events begins in Mi-ju’s world. Her life is harried enough because she still suffers flashbacks to the accident and must keep watch over her autistic older child, but things take a dangerous turn when one of Mi-ju’s students starts stalking her over a bad grade. Tragedies continue to pile up, including the death of the family dog, the arrival of a creepy housekeeper, and a relative’s gruesome demise. Mi-ju slowly realizes that something far more sinister than a disgruntled student is bent on destroying her life. Is a supernatural force really behind Mi-ju’s mounting misfortunes, or could her own unstable mind be playing tricks on her?

 

Similar to such films as The Heirloom and Dark Water, Cello is more admirable on a level of visual artistry than as an out-and-out scarefest. The film is definitely freaky and often absorbing, but as a horror movie, it doesn’t pack as much punch as films like Land of the Dead and The Hills Have Eyes, movies that go straight for the red-tinted jugular. Cello treads on a fairly predictable path, throwing in an expected turn of events and lacing the story with twists anyone who’s watched three Asian horror films can see coming from a mile away. Still, Cello succeeds as a wholly intriguing ghost story because the filmmakers never let things get boring. First-time director Lee Woo-cheol packs his project with enough lively elements to keep the proceedings engaging and interesting.

 

Foremost, Cello is a terrific-looking film, blessed with a smooth and professional production design that stacks up against bigger-budgeted efforts. Woo-cheol preserves what freshness he can in the plot by playing with viewers’ heads, not a point where we feel cheated but definitely enough to keep us on our toes. What is the reality behind the assault on Mi-ju’s life? Is it a student getting revenge, a ghost seeking retribution for past sins, or merely the product of Mi-ju’s slightly-disturbed, slowly-crumbling mind? Woo-cheol keeps us involved with what’s going on by presenting an intriguing main story and maintaining a relatively swift pace, with some spooky imagery slipping out once in a while (especially during the thrilling and quite bloody climax). Also central to Cello’s success is Seong Hyeon-ah’s performance as Mi-ju, which skillfully alternates between generating sympathy for her character and evoking suspicion that everything is taking place inside the woman’s erratic noggin.

 

Aside from an occasional hindrance (its predictable story takes the punch out of the twists, perhaps one red herring too many, and so forth), Cello emerges as a great-looking, absorbing, and well-paced entry into the foreign horror pantheon.

 

Rating: ★★★☆

 

-A.J. Hakari

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