Jo-gu (Lee Min-ki) is a magician performing dime-a-dozen shows in malls and street markets around the city. Convinced that a "signature act" would boost his profile and allow him to have a taste of fame and celebrity, he is nonetheless at a loss as to what that act might be until, that is, he spies Yu-ri (Son Ye-jin) in the crowd at more than one of his performances.
Equally beguiled by her sheer beauty and mystified by the fact that she never smiles, he plucks up the courage to approach her, eventually convincing her to become part of his stage act, and, as if by magic (so to speak), fame, fortune and arena-sized magic shows come calling, just as he imagined they would.
However, his attraction to Yu-ri growing, Jo-gu finds himself increasingly frustrated by her refusal to connect, open up or even participate in group activities, unaware, as he is, of the dark secret she is so desperate to hide. For Yu-ri is regularly visited and haunted by the dead...
It will come as no great surprise to anyone who has seen even a small number of Korean romantic comedies that Yu-ri's current problems, and the ongoing issues caused by them, stem from a past trauma and leave her largely unable to move on in her life. As such, the appearances of ghosts and her ability to see the dead serve both as humorous plot elements and references to her being "haunted" (psychologically) by events in her youth. The fact that a number of the ghosts that frequent her home are spectres of those who have recently died and whose bodies are yet to be discovered allows the audience to be repeatedly shown Yu-ri's need to help them find peace and eternal rest, not only on a surface level because that is the only way she can stop them bothering her, but also as an underlying analogy to her desperate yearning to make amends for tragic events for which she (at least partly) subconsciously feels responsible, and thereby finally put the past to rest once, and for all.
The largely benign nature of the aforementioned spirits contrasts perfectly with the malevolence of Yu-ri's dead best friend to take this analogy yet further, underlining the idea that no matter what action Yu-ri takes she can't undo what has already taken place - her character's story arc ultimately becoming her struggle to come to terms with her psychological scars and ultimately find a way of moving towards a bright, secure and happy life where she can concentrate on the present, look forward to the future and put her past problems behind her.
Likewise, the characterisation of Jo-gu mirrors elements of the portrayals of males seen in innumerable classic Korean romantic comedies and the depiction of him as an outwardly confident (somewhat egocentric and self-serving) individual allows for a familiar and often seen "fish out of water" scenario to be created:
From the moment he enters Yu-ri's world and her life, he is completely and utterly out of his depth and, as the ghosts haunting her begin to also haunt him, he has no little choice but to start to see things from her perspective. Thus, he gradually learns to empathise (with Yu-ri specifically and others generally) and as he does so his ability to relate to and accept others (as well as their various needs and issues) grows, eventually blossoming into love for the eccentric and haunted Yu-ri - the (once again) classic idea of fateful love attained in spite of seemingly insurmountable barriers.
It's often claimed (and regularly assumed) that such depictions of troubled characters prevailing in the face of adversity (as well as their struggles to move on from past pain, heartache and/or separation) speak of the turbulent history of Korea itself - pointing to its heartache from being a country split in two and the resultant barriers put into place in the form of the DMZ - and while I myself have referenced similar comparisons to these in previous discussions, I have somewhat of an issue with them, nonetheless:
It's all too easy to read social and political commentary into any narrative that features classic ideas and though the presence of historical references and analogies are in some cases undeniable, in others they are (to my mind at least) simply brought by those searching for justification within entertainment.
In the case of Chilling Romance, while it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that the themes present have social and political undertones, it is far more likely that the overall plot elements are present for one reason and one reason only - because they work.
Aside from the romance and the underlying classic narrative ideas contained within Chilling Romance, the other two major elements are (obviously) the horror and humour present and, most importantly, how well they fit together.
The horror portrayed within Chilling Romance, in itself, provides the majority of the humour throughout the film, both serving as homage to, and parody of, more than one famous "long-haired, wild-eyed, vengeful female ghost" Asian horror movie both from Korea and elsewhere. The most notable example of this is seen in the mirroring of specific scenes from Japanese film The Grudge (e.g. the appearance above a character's bed of the ghost, her hair gradually extending downward towards the cowering victim; ghostly hands appearing through a character's hair and moving onto their face; and the repeated appearance of the pale-faced child), each being realised so perfectly as to almost guarantee to raise at least a smile from viewers.
Of course, being a romantic comedy, the horror elements' ultimate priority is the humour they create (both in themselves and in characters' reactions to them) but nonetheless there are a couple of moments which do make one jump, and even though, in hindsight, it is blatantly obvious that they were specifically set up to do so, they are genuinely surprising enough to add to the overall success of both the humour and the film as a whole.
At this point, note should also be made of the characterisation of Pil-dong (Park Cheol-min). His depiction as a man who deems himself to be a font of knowledge about women and relationships, but regularly has to change his tack due to the fact that he essentially doesn't know what he's talking about is easily as funny as any other element in the film and the very final interaction (as the credits roll) between him and Yu-ri's dead friend (the malevolent ghost) is frankly sublime.
While we're on the subject of characters and cast, unsurprisingly the character of Yu-ri is rightly given far more depth than any of the other characters but for the majority of the film Son Ye-jin isn't really given an opportunity to take her performance beyond the portrayal of a frightened, haunted and world-weary young woman. However, on one occasion (when she's talking on the phone to her friends about her loneliness) she is finally allowed to make the character of Yu-ri totally her own, bringing with it the kind of nuanced, poignant and utterly believable portrayal she is so well known for. Almost no other actress can bring emotions so movingly to the screen and from the second her first tear falls, our hearts are willingly in her hands.
The rest of the cast give perfectly fine performances throughout, though I personally wish that the chemistry between the two leads had been greater. It's not that it's totally absent but, somehow, their relationship never seems to have the need and desperation that the narrative implies.
Son Ye-jin, Lee Min-ki and Park Cheol-min
A film that uses classic romantic comedy narrative ideas and combines them beautifully with humorous homages to, and parodies of, well know Asian horror movies, Chilling Romance may only be light-hearted entertainment at its core but entertaining it is, all the same.
The DVD edition reviewed here is the Korean (Region 3) Art Service (single disc) First Press edition. The film itself is provided as an anamorphic transfer with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and there are no image artifacts (and no ghosting) present. The picture is absolutely exemplary and compliments the visuals perfectly.
The original Korean language soundtrack is provided as Dolby Digital 5.1 and both it and the musical score are well balanced and noticeably nuanced throughout.
Excellent subtitles are provided throughout the main feature but English-speaking viewers should note that, as with many Korean DVD releases, there are no subtitles available on any of the extras.
• Director: Hwang In-ho
• Format: NTSC, Anamorphic, Widescreen, Subtitled
• Language: Korean
• Subtitles: English/Korean
• Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1
• Region: Region 3
• Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
• Number of discs: 1
• Classification: 12 (Korean Film Classification)
• Studio: Art Service
• Run Time: 114 minutes (approx.)
• Audio commentary with Hwang In-ho, Son Ye-jin, Lee Min-ki and Park Cheol-min
• 'Making of Chilling Romance' Featurette
• 'Poster Shooting' Featurette
• Deleted Scenes
• Teaser Trailer
Finally, the official CJ EntertainmentUSA trailer (with English subtitles) of Chilling Romance (aka Spellbound) is attached below: