Kol | 2020 | R | starring Park Shin-Hye and Jong-Seo Jun | directed by Chung-Hyun Lee | 1 hr 52 mins | In Korean with English Subtitles |
In my look at this year’s terrific Russian monster movie Sputnik I talked about a possibly tendency to over-score or be delightfully surprised by foreign films because they appear before us instead of being hyped to hell by media and trailers that give away everything. There may be a shred of truth to that, but a boring movie would still be a boring movie. Cliche is still cliche and unfolding a story in slow surprising pieces is still fun. It sure as hell didn’t work for one of the year’s worst movies, The Plagues of Breslau, but it did work for Sputnik and even more so with The Call, an even more stylish, more outrageous thriller that still manages to roll out it’s surprises one measure at a time. The Call may not be great art, it won’t be studied in film classes, but it is such a deliciously entertaining nasty thriller that it fast became one of my favorites of the year.
When Seo-Yeon (Park Shin-Hye) loses her phone and pulls out a landline in the old house where she lives with her mother. The phone dials another girl, Yong-Sook (Jong-Seo Jun, Burning), who is heard begging for help from her own abusive mother. Soon the girls realize that they are talking to each other from the same place, but 20 years apart in time, Seo-Yeon in 2019 and Yong-Sook in 1999. While Seo-Yeon seeks to help her friend fight off her mother using the power of internet research, Yong-Sook sets about setting things right for Seo-Yeon in the past; but the girl’s meddling starts to change the future around Seo-Yeon and what starts out as good intentions ends up in a psychotic cat-and-mouse game holding her past hostage to her future.
A stylish, amped-up, red-blooded remake of the 2011 Puerto Rican, Rachelle Lefevre, thriller The Caller, director Chung-Hyun Lee takes that film’s high concept and fleshes it out with that trademark South Korean flair for casual gore, a slow rolling character arc and increasingly wild twists. It’s a prototype for how to do a remake and infuse a fresh take in the details. The way The Call rolls out plays more like Chan-Wook Park’s Thirst or Pascal Lauger’s Martyrs, movies that don’t just have twists, but so fully commit to each direction that they don’t bid time until the next twist, but feel like this is where the movie has parked for the duration. It makes the story all the more thrilling when it evolves into something new. As the girl’s explore the possibilities of their new power, the movie unfolds 3 or 4 great ideas, any one of which could (and probably will) be peeled off to fuel a single 90-minute Hollywood thriller of heroines walking down dark hallways.
The film joins the creative cinematic hopper of South Korean thrillers like Thirst or I Saw the Devil with their now reliable mix of inventive visuals, exploration of psychopathy and realistic bloodletting and ruthless torture. Yong-Sook’s mother is over-the-top in her torture which only fuels Yon-Sook’s bloodlust, a path with dangerous consequences that Seo-Yeon can see play out from the future. The movie knocks out a few things I find catnip in thrillers – most effectively a cat-and-mouse game, in this case two characters at war across time using the future to manipulate the past and the past to change the future. As they work the problem each new move and counter-move (splitting off into different possible futures) is a thrill. The film builds Yon-Sook’s understandable villain arc a piece at a time, from her repulsive eating habits to her laughter that becomes more maniacal as the movie goes.
The Call is an absolute blast. A clever sci-fi concept, packed with ideas, thoroughly explored as a crime thriller with smart characters and endless imaginative surprises. It’s not exactly subtle, but that’s true-to-form in genre. There is a problem here and it’s that the film has two endings, either of which might annoy the audience. It’s a happy ending, a horror ending and, maybe, a sequel set-up (?) But at that point, I was all-in for whatever it had to throw at me. A live-wire, a good story well told. If you like cat-and-mouse thrillers, The Call is as good as it gets.