Death Bell (2008)

Death Bell first published by

Helmed and co-written by music video director Chang (aka Yoon Hong-seung), Death Bell brings two very different subgenres into the one composite class: the ‘torture porn’ that was so voguish in the middle of the Noughties; and Korea’s homegrown ‘high school horror’, as seen in films like Park Ki-hying’s Whispering Corridors (1988), Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong’s Memento Mori (1999), Tun Jae-yeon’s Wishing Stairs (2003), Choi Ik-hwan’s Voice (2005) and Lee Jong-yong’s A Blood Pledge (2009).

A few days after the completion of their midterms (important exams denoted by the film’s original Korean title Gosa), the pupils who have received the highest rankings in Chang-in High School gather for an elite study group, only to find that they, along with three teachers (Lee Beom-soo, Yoon Jung-hee, Kong Jung-hwan) and a security guard (Lee El), are now all captive to an unseen antagonist who sets them questions which, if unanswered, result in horrific murders. As I-na (K-pop singer Nam Gyu-ri) and her friends race to outwit their captor before they are all killed, it becomes clear that a vicious act of vengeance is being carried out.

The puzzle-based conundrums (and their associated torturous punishments) are cribbed from the Saw franchise, and a long-haired spectre occasionally spotted flickering in the corridors is straight out of the J-horror book of ghosts. Even the film’s prologue – a nightmare had by I-na while she menstruates in her sleep – combines classroom anxieties with zombie tropes. Yet once Death Bell gets down to the business of solving the mystery of who – whether tech-savvy sadist or vindictive phantom – is responsible for these bizarre games of death, it is never quite plausible enough to convince, or indeed to engage.

Far more interesting is the underlying motive for these outrages upon the student body – for it is a bloody revenge perpetrated against the iniquities and inequalities not just of Korea’s competitive school exams, but also more broadly of the nation’s hierarchical ‘class’ system, where those with corrupting money or the right connections will always have the advantage over their rivals, regardless of talent or ability. As such, Death Bell makes a compelling companion piece with Yeon Sang-ho’s The King of Pigs (2011) or Shin Su-won’s Pluto (2012) by using its high-school setting as a staging ground for broader societal injustices.

Summary: Chang’s feature debut is more interesting as social parable than as teen torture porn

© Anton Bitel