Directed by Yoon Hong-Seung (a.k.a. Chang)
The only Korean horror film to be released in the summer of 2008, ‘Death Bell’ proved to be a big hit with the South Korean audience. The film attracted more than twice the number of viewers to break even at the box office.
‘Death Bell’ is set in an elite high school where students are preparing to take the end of mid-term exams. The top twenty students are all put into one class for the coming exams. A sick and twisted “game” ensues as the school is being controlled by an ominous figure. The students are in a race against time to find the killer before he endangers the lives of more students.
The film’s greatest attribute is its pacing. It starts off with a scene that is unforgettable throughout the movie and holds the key to unravelling the constant mystery surrounding the sadistic killer’s identity without giving away too much of the film in the opening sequence. This gives the film a bit of exposure, allowing the audience to see the aftermath of the events and giving them an understanding of what they are in for.
‘Death Bell’ focuses on the ever-changing school environment following the conventions of Asian high school. The film references the underlying theme of success at schools within Korean society; the constant focus on exam results; the strain of which ideals are enforced; and the intense pressure put on both parents and students to conform to the educational hierarchy that is seen in society.
That being said, director Chang conveys his experience and knowledge in making it a contemporary affair which deals with familiar issues such as teen romance, bullying and exam pressures, which are conventionally seen in not only Asian film, but the film industry in general.
Although more common themes are depicted, the film does not steer away from dealing with adult themes such as death and parents’ desire to see their children succeed. By portraying this throughout the production, it helps add depth to a film which is mainly focused on high school students.
The overall setup is similar to the popular western horror ‘Saw’ (2004) it can be argued that ‘Death Bell’ was inspired by the popular horror franchise. For each unsolved question, a student life hangs in the balance and it is up to the students and teachers to answer the questions right in order to save them. There are similarities between both antagonists wanting to test their victims by coming up with imaginative death traps and focusing on the pain and suffering they endure through the “games” created by a maniacal killer.
The final scene of the movie which kept me thinking even after the end credits had started to appear onto my screen. The scene where we see Kang I-Na (played by Nam Gyu-RI) is seen walking down the empty corridor as the results for an exam are displayed on the monitor.
It shows I-Na, who before the incident was ranked fifth in the school ranking, but now in the aftermath of the murders we see that she is now the highest achieving student and ranked first in the school. The reality of this scene really sets the tone for the audience as we see she was able to achieve this result at the cost of her students who saw their untimely end.
Review by Sagar Desai