Back when I was doing my Olympic Film Festival two of the more pleasant surprises I encountered were a pair of Korean movies. I was completely surprised when I found myself enjoying Forever the Moment, but even this didn’t prepare me for Lifting King Kong which I ultimately decided was not only a “must see” but pretty clearly the second best movie I watched in that entire seventeen day period. (It was bested only by the incomparable Chariots of Fire.) So I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that I wound up enjoying today’s movie, White: The Melody of the Curse, as much as I did. However, I was surprised. I suppose this is probably because I was thinking about the last two movies I’ve watched, so when I sat down this morning to watch a movie, I wasn’t prepared to actually enjoy it. In retrospect, I clearly should have. White, like both Lifting King Kong and Forever the Moment is the story of an organized group of young Korean women and their attempts to overcome adversity. Of course with White being a horror movie, I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that today’s protagonists are somewhat less successful than their counterparts in those inspirational sports movies.
The Pink Dolls are one of a plethora of pre-fab Girl Groups assembled by talent agencies and competing for the hearts of thousands of young fans. The group consists lead vocalist Jenny (Jin Se-yeun), rapper/dancer Shin-ji (May Doni Kim), the pretty one, A-rang (Choi Ah-Ra), and former backup dancer Eun-Joo (Ham Eun-jeong), who has been delegated as the group’s nominal leader by the agency. Unfortunately for them, the group is decidedly second-tier and is having no luck finding a breakout hit song. In the face of their worries that the group might be disbanded, the group is surprised when the agency provides them with a fancy new dormitory/studio for them to use when recording a second album. The Girls are informed that this space was only available to a group of their stature because it was previously damaged in a fatal fire.
Shortly after they move in one of the girls finds a pile of VHS tapes one of which is labeled “WHITE”. Like any sensible person she plays the tape for the group and their Agency Representative (Byeon Jeong-soo), and it turns out to be an old studio recording of another Girl Group performing a song called “White”. Since none of them have ever heard of the song, but they and their management all agree it’s a great song that has the potential to be a major hit, they literally declare “finders keepers” and decide to have the Pink Dolls record the song as the lead single for their new album. After a successful initial performance, (with Eun-Joo’s friend Soon-ye (Woo-seul-hye Hwang), a formerly aspiring pop Idol turned vocal instructor, performing vocal doubling from backstage because Jenny has trouble with the required high notes,) the group’s profile sky-rockets.
The Agency decides that one of the girls should don a white wig and be featured as the lead girl for the single. This leads to a great deal of animosity between the girls, as Jenny, Shin-ji and A-rang all think their particular talents make them best suited for the job. Around this point mysterious things start to happen, and it becomes clear to the viewer that the song itself may well be haunted. What follows is an escalating series of bizarre accidents, strange visions, and a white-haired ghost girl. In the midst of this Eun-Joo and Soon-ye have to investigate and find out what happened to the performers in the original “White” video, and what, if anything, this all has to do with the mysterious fire in their studio.
In the wake of yesterday’s movie about a haunted tire, which was played as a spoof, it’d be tempting to say that a haunted pop song is probably no less stupid. Here’s the thing though… it works. The film uses a nice blend of mystery and terror that proved a pretty good combination for cinematic horror. I also found the way the film mixed the “real-life” horrors of life in a manufactured pop act, with the supernatural terror of the haunted song.
In addition to being an effective horror movie, this film also seems to serve as a pretty brutal critique of the particular niche of pop culture the characters inhabit. I won’t claim to be an expert on East Asian popular culture by any means, but based on what little I do know, and the way things were portrayed in the film, I assume that the reality of Girl Group culture is more or less as it is presented here. And the way it is presented here is pretty horrific. The girls in the film are desperately seeking fame in an industry that is blatantly about exploiting them, then moving on to the next aspiring star. This is pretty blatantly expressed in one scene early in the film when Eun-Joo and Soon-ye are paging through a thick book of karaoke tracks from what must be hundreds of now-forgotten performers. Soon-ye although clearly in her early twenties is treated as a has-been that never quite made it big. The girls compete viciously with other groups for popularity, recognition and everything that comes with it. They also compete viciously within their own group for the chance to be in the spotlight. It’s made abundantly clear that these groups aren’t groups of friends united by a love of music, or whatever romantic notion we might associate with musical groups. Instead they are a group of people that might not even like each other, slapped into a group by an Agency because they fit a particular “type.” Its clear that the Agencies essentially control every aspect of these girl’s lives. Of course, along with the financial exploitation there’s an undercurrent of sexual exploitation as well. It’s mentioned repeatedly, and just a little too casually, that the best way for a girl to get an opportunity is to (ahem) “meet” with her group’s sponsor.
As I write this, it occurs to me that this movie is every bit as much a “message” movie as anything I’ve seen. I know that when I reviewed The Final I criticized it for essentially being a message movie, but that’s because it was poorly done, ham-handed, and trite. Here, I actually had to start analyzing the film before I noticed this theme. Additionally, while “don’t be a bully” isn’t in any way a bold message for a movie to preach, a movie that preaches “pop culture is destroys lives” is essentially going after the hand that feeds it, which deserves at least some points for being bold. This message is something that I think we all know, at least on some level, is true, but for obvious reasons it’s not an issue you see movies tackling every-other day. Yet, that’s what this film does, but it isn’t preachy about it. Instead it uses this as an underlying theme that is nicely woven into the film. In fact, I’m coming to realize that the entire concept of the haunted pop-song is basically a metaphor for this moral.
All this praise for the film’s clever “moral” and innovative story aside, White is not a movie without its flaws. The editing is sloppy at times; sometimes important developments seem to happen off-screen without ever being explained. (I’m thinking maybe there were some deleted scenes, or just some dialogue excised for time.) I suppose it’s possible that there might have been some cultural shorthand that I missed that would explain these things, but it definitely seemed like a lot of jumping around, especially in the middle third of the film. Possibly related to this, some of the characters decision-making really does stretch the bounds of plausibility at times. I would think that if I were running an upcoming pop group, and two of my stars suffered mysterious accidents, that I wouldn’t decide that was the best time to have a third member tape an appearance on a rip-off of MTV’s Fear, requiring her to run around through a dark building with plenty of opportunities for accidents to happen. Even if I was a soulless bastard, this just seems like a bad business move.
At the end of the day though, I wasn’t so distracted by editing and logical issues that I was prevented from enjoying the film. Also, I wasn’t entertained by this movie because it delivered a critique of the very pop-culture that produced it. I liked this movie because it was a damn good horror movie. It was creative, and had a couple nice twists. The mystery-solving portion of the plot was well executed. I liked that the characters didn’t instantly turn into Sherlock Holmes when they put their mind to investigating the issue, but instead made some wrong assumptions and had to work their way through to find a solution. The haunting at the center of the movie managed to be genuinely creepy, but still keep the characters functioning in a fairly realistic world. I also liked that the film didn’t rely on a ton of jump-scares.
So now comes the question of how I’m going to rate the film. Really, it’s not a hard question. Its possible that I might, one day, find a horror movie that I think is a “must see”, but that day isn’t going to be today. There’s too much jumping around in the plot, and, (I suppose,) I’m just too disconnected from the world these characters inhabit to really feel the kind of emotional response that I’d want to give this my highest rating. That said, this is definitely the best movie I’ve yet watched for my 13 Days of Halloween, it is certainly worth seeing.