"I feel like I've been reborn... It feels like today is my birthday..."


When her mother is admitted to hospital with a brain tumour, in the present day Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) grudgingly returns to the village she grew up in, still blaming her ailing parent for the death of her father years earlier. Before she even has a proper chance to settle back in to living in her childhood home, she begins to receive unsettling phone calls from a distraught woman of a similar age, Young-sook (Jeon Jung-seo), begging for help to stop her stepmother from abusing her, setting her on fire and trying to kill her.
Further conversations between the two; the discovery of Young-sook‘s dust-covered diary from years earlier (when she was the age she now claims to be in the phone calls); and the seemingly otherworldly appearance of burning embers on previously walled off basement stairs at the exact time Young-sook claims to be being burned - the embers and smoke completely disappearing shortly thereafter - all soon lead Seo-yeon to the undeniable realisation that the two young women are actually living in the same house, just separated by two decades – Seo-yeon living in 2019, Young-sook in 1999 – though both of them can barely believe such a notion to begin with.
As the two bond further, Young-sook tells Seo-yeon “It’s the little things like these that can change a person’s life”. However, Seo-yeon has no idea of how much more her situation is a perilous case of ‘careful what you wish for’...


The Call opens with Seo-yeon trudging along a country road leading to her childhood village, dragging wheeled luggage behind her, when strawberry farmer Seong-ho (who will play an integral part in the later story) passes her in his van, picks her up and drives her to her family home, telling her “it’s still the best house in the village”. On entering the property, in spite of opening the curtains in the middle of the day the interior still has a gloomy, half-lit ambience within which dark, shadowy areas abound. Of course, this by its very nature sets an ominous feeling to proceedings from the outset and perfectly, creepily underlines how unsettling the wailing, often aggressive calls from the strange woman (we don’t yet know as Young-sook) screaming about her mother’s insanity and abuse of her are to already jaded Seo-yeon. However, equally important if not more so is how these imagery and atmosphere choices are used palpably throughout the film to not just reflect Seo-yeon’s mindset but actually stand as direct visual personifications of it:
Early on, as already stated, the current gloomy, oppressive ambience of the (as we'll soon learn) once stunning, picturesque family dwelling, its dim ill-lit rooms and darkened corridors seeming to somehow actively shun light all mirror Seo-yeon’s feelings about her grudging, almost forced return to her childhood home; the requirement for her to engage with her sick mother when she has long harboured anger towards her; and her unease regarding the unsolicited calls from the as yet unknown screaming girl claiming abuse and demanding help. As the two women start to warm to each other after realising their connection is across decades, a life-changing event instigated by Young-sook (heralded by one of a minimal number of highly effective and impressive CGI segments showing changes in the present resulting from alterations in the past, in real time) brings Seo-yeon to a position, for a time at least, of sheer joy and utter contentment and this too is reflected with ambience visually representing her mood, the house (impressively) morphing to its earlier pristine condition – bright, warm, sun-filled and brimming with love. Likewise, as Seo-yeon begins to realise that her newly perfect world is in danger of crumbling as her friendship with Young-sook takes a negative turn, the sunshine she bathed in turns to overcast and the vibrancy of summer pastels of her clothing fade and of course as the film’s violent and visceral conclusion approaches, visual palpable darkness once again fills the (suddenly) again dilapidated condition of the house, speaking perfectly to the destruction of Seo-yeon’s dreams.
Equally, darkness and light visually mirror Young-sook’s changing moods, perceptions and decisions, from the grim ambience surrounding the (apparent) abuse she suffers at the hands of her stepmother to the sunshine and vibrant colours of her later freedom and these increasingly standing as an almost inversion of Seo-yeon’s situations deftly points to the truth of her mindset with no exposition whatsoever needed.

Over the years, Korean cinema has flirted with stories of connections across time on a fair few occasions. While examples such as Will You Be There? (2016), My Mother the Mermaid (2004) and the like see characters either being presented with a way to physically travel to the past or inadvertently finding themselves there, from as far back as the New Korean Cinema wave of the late 90s and early 2000s through to recent years stories about characters connecting across two separate time periods through some otherworldly means are equally if not even more prevalent, whether the connection is via a mystical mailbox in Il Mare (2000); through a ham radio signal across time in Ditto (2000); The Gingko Bed’s (1996) enchanted bed (obviously); Failan’s letters linking a man to the already deceased love of his life, a woman he has never met; or more recently Time Renegades' (2016) characters in different decades connecting through their dreams.
As such, The Call’s phone line connection between Seo-yeon in the present and Young-sook in 1999 feels wholly and classically Korean, even though its origin and basis is a British/Puerto Rican film called The Caller. Of course, The Call is a horror/thriller through and through while the aforementioned classics were and are almost without exception dramas dealing with love and longing in which the characters’ connection routinely enables changes in the past to alter the present and in the process save a life, but here too The Call fits within this narrative trope, not only in its early stages detailing how much Seo-yeon misses her deceased father and her yearning for him to still be alive but also in its culmination as our heroine frantically tries to use the otherworldly phone connection to save another character from being killed.
Ultimately, fans of the aforementioned classic Korean ‘love across time’ narratives (if you will) will find The Call both familiar in its drama prior to the thriller aspect fully taking hold and refreshing in its step away from the ‘norms’ of this almost Korean cinema sub-genre to ultimately move into searing horror.

The Call’s individual scenes move at a measured pace while the overall narrative unfolds and progresses fairly briskly. This deft scene restraint allows ample time for character personalities and traits to be seemingly fully shown before, in the case of one individual, being revealed as a case of ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ and ensures that the many twists, turns and contentions presenting can be easily followed throughout (especially well thought out considering the fact that they’re fairly involved and deal with two separate timelines running concurrently and equidistantly forging forward) and indeed as the narrative briskness ramps up yet further as we approach and enter the pulsing story culmination, the separate timelines and the changing effect of one on the other constantly and swiftly being switched between, are perfectly clear with no risk of viewer confusion despite the timelines' cause and effect intricacy.

That early scene measured pace also works hugely in favour of actresses Park Shin-hye and Jeon Jung-seo’s portrayals of Seo-yeon and Young-sook, again allowing the time to make the characters feel fully fledged. I’ve long been a fan of Park Shin-hye and here, as always, she hits every mark to perfection in a perfectly natural, beautifully understated manner. However, it is Jeon Jung-seo’s astonishing portrayal of troubled Young-sook that knocks the ball not only out of the park but right into the stratosphere too – all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Yeon Jung-seo’s only prior professional acting work was in a supporting role in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. In short, her portrayal of Young-sook in The Call is an absolute tour de force performance that is not only memorable to the point of being absolutely unforgettable but also one of the major, major strengths of an already strong, gleefully twisted horror/thriller.


Regardless of being based on a British/Puerto Rican film, The Call feels wholly Korean through and through. With a tour de force performance from actress Yeon Jung-seo, The Call is ultimately one of the strongest contemporary Korean horror/thrillers of recent years that respectfully tips its hat to classic Korean cinema too.


THE CALL (콜) / 2020
Director: Lee Chung-hyun
Starring: Park Shin-hye, Jeon Jong-seo, Lee El, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Ho-san


All images © Next Entertainment World, Yongfilm, Netflix
Review © Paul Quinn