"The Phone" Korean Theatrical Poster
Director: Kim Bong-Joo
Writer: Kim Bong-Joo
Producer: Suk Jae-Seung, Gu Sung-Mok
Cast: Son Hyun-Joo, Uhm Ji-Won, Bae Sung-Woo, Hwang Bo-Ra, Roh Jeong-Eui, Jang In-Sub, Jo Dal-Hwan, Lee Sheol-Min, Park Ji-So, Hwang Suk-Jung, Kim Jong-Goo
Running Time: 114 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The Phone joins the ranks of that great Korean tradition – the movie which contains something about a phone in its title. Alongside the 2002 horror movie, which went for the simplistic Phone, and the 2009 thriller, which decided to shake things up with the title Hand Phone, first time director Kim Bong-joo differentiates his own production with the inclusion of a The prefix. It’s as good a differentiator as any, and will surely raise the bar for the next movie which comes along which requires a Phone in the title. Bong-joo is certainly not a newcomer to the Korean film industry, having worked as a member of the directing department on the likes of The Divine Weapon, Running Turtle, and The Yellow Sea. However this is the first time for him to sit in the director chair, one which has him working off his own script.
It’s hard to know whether to feel sorry for or to admire actor Son Hyeon-joo. He’s made a career of playing rather plain and unremarkable characters, cast in equally pedestrian mid-budget movies. In 2013 it was Hide and Seek, and in 2015 we got a double whammy, with both Chronicles of Evil and The Phone. He works just as frequently in the expansive field of the Korean TV drama, and it’s easy to see why, as he brings a reliable presence to whatever character he’s called on to play. You’re not going to get a knockout performance, but you’ll get a believable one, and I highly doubt anyone’s ever spoke the line, “Hyeon-joo was pretty unconvincing in that role”.
The Phone sees him in another mid-budget production, but this time it’s one with a twist. Playing a lawyer in the middle of transitioning to a new role, his wife and daughter find themselves harassed by the death threats frequently found in the mail box, due to his involvement in an animal rights case. On the day he wins the case, he’s due to meet his wife for a long overdue dinner date, but the victory quickly sees a celebratory work drinks session take priority, leaving his nearest and dearest unfairly dumped. On the same day, it also happens that a solar flare is set to be interrupting phone services, explained rather uninterestingly through a TV news segment. The solar flare is bad timing, because on the same night a killer has been sent to off Hyeon-joo at his home, however as he’s out getting drunk, his wife ends up being murdered instead.
Skip forward one year, and there’s going to be another solar flare, as it turns out that these things are an annual occurrence, and specifically affect mobile phones in Korea. While at work, at the exact same time as one year ago, Hyeon-joo receives the exact same call from his wife. However it’s not some kind of time echo, it’s actually his wife on the phone, and he’s able to interact and talk to her. The difference is of course, she’s in 2014, and he’s in 2015. Naturally Hyeon-joo, after some initial disbelief, seizes the opportunity to be able to save his better half, and so goes the central premise of The Phone.
Is it a science fiction movie? It is a supernatural flick? It’s hard to say, however on paper, The Phone most closely resembles a mix of Frequency meets Cellular. Onscreen though, events play out in a way that resemble neither science fiction nor supernatural. The fact that his wife is calling from a year earlier is simply a plot device, giving a slight twist to what is ultimately a rather pedestrian and dull crime thriller. It’s a shame, as initially the premise shows some potential. The wife, played by Eom Ji-won, is able to change things enough so that instead of being outright killed, she gets into a struggle with the assailant in the living room. Hyeon-joo is standing in the exact same spot one year later, and as his wife fends off the killer, sending ornaments and shelves smashing everywhere, so they disappear in present day.
The effect of the past affecting the present day as it happens provides a welcome sense of immediacy to proceedings, and it continues to propel the plot forward until ultimately, events transpire in the past that see Hyeon-joo framed as the murder suspect in present day. It’s a worthy twist, however it’s also one that derails the movie, as it changes the whole focus from Hyeon-joo trying to save his wife in the past, to him trying to clear his name in the present. The sense of immediacy that the phone call from the past plot device brought quickly evaporates, as The Phone descends into a low budget version of bigger and better movies. So instead of the motorbike chase through the streets of Seoul that we got in Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran, we get Hyeon-joo frantically pedalling a push bike instead, with the police meagrely in pursuit, and other such scenarios.
The loss of focus on attempting to save his wife also results in the audience losing interest, just long enough to begin questioning some of the logic behind the plot. Why did the call go through to the 2015 Hyeon-joo anyway, when the 2014 Hyeon-joo is still very much alive and well? Why does the calls taking place at the exact same time as they did a year ago element get completely discarded by the end of the movie? In fairness, even before the loss of focus, The Phone has some believability stretching moments. These aren’t really due to the actor’s performances though so much as a weak script. The fact that the murdered Ji-won is calling a year after her death should be a sizable emotional blow for Hyeon-joo, but his acceptance of it seems to happen incredibly quickly. It felt like just a couple of minutes after the call he’s already over the emotional trauma of speaking to his dead wife, and is calmly explaining to her that he’s in 2015, while she’s in 2014.
The bad guy of the piece comes in the form of Bae Seong-woo, easily one of the busiest supporting actors in Korea. In 2014 – 2015 alone he featured in eighteen movies, including the likes of The Divine Move, Big Match, Veteran, and The Office. Chances are if you’ve watched more than a handful of Korean movies from the last couple of years, Seong-woo would have been in at least one of them. In The Phone his tall stature lends him an imposing presence to the scenes he appears in, playing a corrupt cop whose debts have led him to working as a hitman for a gang on the side, and with a more polished script he could have been a more worthy villain to root against. As it is, apart from some throwaway scenes with his young daughter, he effectively shows up to murder Hyeon-joo and his family with little other purpose.
As a directorial debut I’m always willing to give a little leeway. A movie doesn’t need to have the best script in the world, or even be completely coherent, as long as it shows some promising ideas, a flair for cinematography, or creates an atmosphere which immerses the viewer its world, then it’s still worthy of recommending. The Phone however is simply too much of a damp squib to fully enjoy. The fact that the central plot device, which involves a man receiving a phone call from his murdered wife, hardly seems to matter by the mid-way point, is perhaps the biggest indicator that Bong-joo was trying to cover too many bases with his first screenplay and directing gig. Unfortunately once the focus moves from the central premise, proceedings play out in such a way that The Phone becomes more like a B-movie version of a Ryoo Seung-wan or Kim Seong-hoon flick, a change in direction that does it no favors.
Perhaps the best approach would be for Bong-joo to pass The Phone off as an extended commercial for the Samsung S6 Edge, or alternatively, wait for the next solar flare to happen one year later, when hopefully he’ll read this review from the past and skip making it all together.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10