Spellbound (2011)

DECEMBER 28, 2011


After a botched start earlier this year, Moviepass is back! For those unfamiliar, for a monthly fee (which seems to vary by location; mine is 29.99) you can see one movie a day in participating theaters. Thus, if you can find the time to go every day, you’ll be seeing everything for a buck or so – thus inspiring you to see more movies. I was gonna wait for Blu-ray for Sherlock 2, but opted to check it out in order to get the most value out of the thing. Likewise, I had no problem driving to Koreatown to see Spellbound (aka Chilling Romance), as their CGV Cinema was on the list of eligible theaters.

At first glance one might wonder why exactly this particular movie is being reviewed for HMAD. The movie is more or less a traditional romantic comedy, with a couple of attractive folks having a “meet-cute”, getting to know each other, falling in love, breaking up over something trivial, and finally reuniting (a scene that even has a race against time at the airport!), thanks in part to their colorfully wacky friends and relatives. So where’s the horror? Well, as with many a rom-com, our female lead, Yu-ri, has some hang-ups and baggage, except in this case it’s not an ex-boyfriend or a weird form of amnesia – it’s the fact that she is haunted by ghosts.

And I’m not talking about Patrick Swayze or Greg Kinnear, I’m talking full blown traditional Asian horror ghosts, who have a nasty habit of appearing in the middle of the night and scaring the bejesus out of her and anyone who gets close to her. The scare scenes are surprisingly, well, scary – her situation is not played for laughs. I even jolted a bit on two of them, and they’re all given the creepy, subtle approach – a character will move past a doorway or something and we’ll see one standing there in the background, or one will appear in a window, looking down on our heroes who are having a nice conversation outside.

Obviously, it’s a bit of an odd idea, but it mostly works. The two leads are terrific, and even though I was mostly there for the scare scenes, I was often quite charmed by their “date” scenes, particularly when they get drunk at a restaurant and then decide to “go somewhere else” (they just go to a different table). There’s a funny running gag about her tendency to rip shirts, and both of them are prone to out of nowhere revelations and worries about the most random things (his first order of business when they finally get together – subscribing to a couple’s discounted cell phone plan). And I won’t spoil the specifics, but they discuss a new film that has officially replaced New Moon’s “Face Punch” as my favorite fictional movie.

Two things work against it, however. One is that it’s too damn long; the movie takes forever to get to the point where they finally get together (Yu-ri’s hang-ups and his girlfriend – with whom he has almost zero connection to – stand in the way for the first hour or so), which is fine for a movie like Sleepless In Seattle where the whole thing is about the two of them finding each other. But these two meet and start working together (Jo-gu is a magician who runs a scary magic show, which adds to the movie’s horror quota) in the first 5-10 minutes, which means they should be making out by the 45 minute mark, where here it’s more like 75. No, right around the time where any other rom-com would have the leads start their romance, Jo-gu is helping her on a date with a pal of his, as if anyone might think that they’ll just be friends for the whole flick. It’s an amusing scene and features a great Jenga gag, but it definitely could have been trimmed down or even deleted entirely. They’ve already mixed up the formula with the ghosts – there’s no need to delay the inevitable.

Another issue is that the ghost scenes never fully mesh with the comedic/romantic scenes – many of them just come and go out of nowhere (there’s also a bat attack that feels like they just assumed the movie needed another random scare). Not that it’s ever scary, but Ghostbusters was able to really tie in the romance between Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver with the supernatural elements – Spellbound lacks that satisfying blend. Near the end we learn the true nature of the main ghost that has been haunting her, and it’s a nice little tragic story, but I can’t help but wonder if it would have been more satisfying had it been discovered by Jo-gu in an attempt to help rid her of the problem. Instead it just plays out in random flashback in a rather abrupt sequence near the end, and he barely even mentions it.

There’s also a minor subplot about him being “unbreakable” that doesn’t really pay off either. Basically there are a lot of good ideas here, and actors capable of pulling them off, but it’s like the writer forgot to tie them all together. If someone walked in during one of the scare scenes, they’d never guess it was a rom-com, and vice versa. And that is fine at first, but after a while I feel it would have been an even better movie had they threaded the two concepts together. Hell, apart from the brief appearance of a ghost (played for a gag with one of the supporting characters), the final 10 minutes or so is entirely horror free.

But no one in Korea seems to care, as it is currently their biggest box office hit. And it should be – I’ve been saying for years that they need to try new things with their horror movies instead of doing the same old vengeful ghost stories. And while I meant “make more slashers and monster movies”, I’m totally OK with lightening up that sort of tale and combining it with another genre. I AM a sucker for a good rom-com every now and then, after all – in fact I could even see this being remade in the US with someone like Adam Scott and whoever hasn’t already played a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (which Yu-ri basically is) in a more generic rom-com in the past 5 years. Paging Alison Brie…

What say you?

P.S. If anyone knows where I can get Jo-gu’s buddy’s tree sweater from the movie, please let me know. I would wear that thing everywhere.


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