Ghost Game aka Laa-thaa-phii (2006) Thai Reality TV Horror

Ghost Game posterGhost Game, or Laa-thaa-phii, its original title, is a great concept. Set in the world of Thai reality TV where horror meets greed and a group of 11 wannabes, the winner(s) have to spend a pre-ordained amount of time in a haunted Khmer Rouge prison and those who make it to the end will win a whole lot of Baht (5 million). On top of this fairly clever premise is the filmmakers decision to use real-life contestants from Thailand’s own version of American Idol, called Academy Fantasia.

In one review on IMDb, the statement is made that the characters are all “unappealing.” Well spotted! Of course they are, they are really contestants from the vile world of reality television. Sadly, the film does not hit all the right spots, as say the 2008 miniseries (later turned into a film by putting all the bits together) Dead Set. In Dead Set the producers took the stomach turning reality TV show “Big Brother,” fictionalized it and had zombies attack it.

Granted, not quite as original as Ghost Games but the chance to see show host Davina McCall get turned into a zombie made it a real winner, but that could just apply to this viewer. In the 2006 Thai film, the hopefuls all come from the “real” world of Thailand’s reality TV. Interestingly, the government was a more than a bit peeved about the show’s premise.

poster of Dead Set

Setting it in a haunted Khmer Rouge prison where thousands of innocents were tortured and murdered, hit a little too close to home. Cambodian officials decried the film saying that the filmmakers were benefitting from the mass Genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. Thailand offered apologies and then released the film.

The Cambodian government were not too far off point in their complaint. While they charged that the producers were turning the horrific genocidal episode into a profit making drill, they did not mention the total disregard of the victims. At one point in Ghost Game, the contestants actually denigrate the remains in the prison, insulting their death and stating that they “deserve their fate.”

This is actually rather disturbing and one cannot help but feel it was a bit unnecessary to the plot. The evil commander figure who will reek havoc over all by the end of the film was going to do so anyway, the addition of insulting innocent dead – in a scenario that is all too close to real life – was in poor taste.

Sadly, the film, despite its original concept, loses pace and becomes a bit mundane as it trundles towards its climax. In some instances, the movie induces unintentional laughter. One character is meant to be running away in terror when something halts his escape. The scene, is pretty impressive until one notices how the character was running.

My daughter pointed it out, while screaming with laughter, and, once seen, it changes the feeling of the scene forever. The chap is in the background hunched over and scurrying comically rather than running in terror. It is truly funny and every single time I’ve re-watched it, laughter is my first reaction.

Ghost Game may have, after its original concept, lost pace and its way, but over all it still entertains. Thai horror has moved up several notches since its beginnings in the Asian horror market. The Ghost of Mae Nac, released one year prior, was a complete yawn-fest of slow moving
boredom.

Poster for Phobia aka 4bia Fast forward a few years to 2008 and the Thai horror anthology 4bia which was clever, well done and in this reviewer’s opinion, bloody brilliant. There are other films that prove Thailand is learning the horror lesson well, not least of which is the top notch film Shutter. Made in 2004, this film hits all the right notes, but from other films on offer, it appears that the lessons are hard earned and sometimes forgotten.

Ghost Game, or Laa-thaa-phii works well enough that it still manages to entertain despite the odd, and inadvertent, comical moments in the film. Certainly no worse than much of the dross that Hollywood puts out, “can anyone say Uninvited?” (A shoddy remake of a classic South Korean horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters.)

A great example of how Thai films are progressing and as said before, the concept is pretty damned original and worth a look. 3 out of 5 stars.

Scene from Ghost Game, "Get out!"
Yes he is saying, in very bad English, “Get out!”

Hansel and Gretel aka Henjel gwa Geuretel (2007): South Korean Grimm Tale

Directed and co-written by Pil-Sung Yim, Hansel & Gretel is a South Korean masterpiece that uses a Brothers Grimm palette to paint a dark fantasy/horror film.

Driving through a mountainous area by a forest, Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) is on the phone arguing with his pregnant girlfriend about his decision to see his sick mother. In mid-argument his car crashes. Injured and in shock, Eun-Soo stumbles into the forest and gets hopelessly lost.

As night falls, he stumbles across a young girl holding a lantern. She is Young Hee (Eun-kyung Shim) and she leads Eun-Soo to a fairytale cottage deep in the woods. Once there, he meets her “family.” Older brother Manbok (Eun Won-jae), little sister Jung Soon (Ji-hee Jin) and their “parents” all welcome Eun-Soo to the house.

As he is still in shock from the accident Eun-Soo does not notice the strained atmosphere in the house. But we do. The parents are too eager, too ready to please and the children are disconcerting. After offers of help, Eun-Soo is treated to a children’s version of a meal; all sweets and pastries and ice cream.

Eun-Soo will soon discover that all is not what it seems and after the parents disappear, he discovers that the children are not what they appear to be and that a new arrival to the “house of happy children” may kill them all.

Gingerbread house.
Gingerbread house.

Pil-Sung has done a brilliant job with this film. The European fairytale theme is omnipresent in the film. The paintings on the wall, the furniture, the colours of the house and its many rooms all scream Brothers Grimm, including the very house itself. The location of the house and its secrets are in the deepest part of the forest and like the original Hansel and Gretel, each time Eun-Soo tries to find his way out he gets lost. This prompts Young Hee to tell him that he needs to place bread crumbs on his trail.

The music is evocative of the darkest fairy tale imaginable; it is vaguely reminiscent of a Danny Elfman score in places and overall sets the mood of the action brilliantly. The mixture of the music and the story can put you instantly in the emotional mood of the scenes. Eerie, sad, forlorn, scary,  and magical, the score fits perfectly.

The young actors playing the children are beyond brilliant. They convey the longing for real parents to love them and protect them. The children can then “turn” and be damned scary and creepy when it looks like they won’t get their most heartfelt wish. Eun-Soo grows up while he is with the children and his ordeal makes him realize what is really important in his life.

Later in the film when the children lure another couple to the house, Byun (Hee-soon Park) and his not very pleasant wife. Byun says that he is a man of the cloth, in reality he is a twisted and sick child murderer; his wife is never explained, but it doesn’t matter as she does not last long in the house and is one nasty bit of work. Hee-soon Park is terrifying as the serial killer who is so incredibly dark and scary.

Deacon Byun and his nasty wife.

This film is unforgettable and is easily one of the best  to come out of South Korea. The imagery and  the back story of the children, added to the confusion of what is really going on make a scary, disturbing thriller and yet it tugs at the heart-strings while arousing feelings of anger and pain for what is going on and what happened in the past.

Amazingly this film was panned in South Korea as being “too European.” While that is somewhat puzzling, the film is brilliant and I have a copy in my collection that is watched often.

Every once in a while, I find a film that defies any sort of star rating system. Hansel and Gretel is one of those films. If you do not watch any other film from South Korea, make sure that you watch this one. It terms of greatness it rivals Kim Jee-Woon‘s A Tale of Two Sisters.

Hansel and Gretel will stay with you long after you have seen it and if you can watch the ending of the film and not have at least a lump in your throat the size of Texas, something is wrong.

Manbok and the secret door.

I Saw the Devil (2010): A Clash of Wills

Starring Byung-hun Lee  ( A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird,   G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra) and   Min-sik Choi (The Quiet Family, Oldboy, Crying Fist, Lady Vengeance) and directed by  Jee-woon Kim (The Quiet Family, A Tale of Two Sisters, A Bittersweet Life, The Good, the Bad, the Weird), I Saw the Devil is devilishly hard to watch.

The film opens with a young girl,  Joo-yeon, who is travelling by car through a snow covered countryside. Her car tyre goes flat  and while she is waiting for the breakdown service to arrive, she calls her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon  (Byung-hun Lee), who works for the Korean Secret Service. While she is talking to Kim a man comes up, Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) and offers to change her tyre for her.

Joo-yeon  refuses and the man leaves only to return with a hammer to smash her window in with. He strikes her with the hammer and takes her unconscious body away. Kim is understandably upset that his fiancée is in danger. Kyung-chul in the meantime has raped and murdered Joo-yeon. Afterwards he cuts her body up and scatters the pieces around the countryside.

Joo-yeon’s father is a policeman, a squad leader and he is present when the police find Joo-yeon’s head. Kim Soo-yeon uses a suspect list that Joo-yeon’s father has to find the murderer. He vows to get revenge for his fiancée’s death.

Jee-woon Kim, has made a powerful and disturbing film. I Saw the Devil could be described as a modern morality tale. Kim Soo-hyeon’s cold determination to catch his fiancée’s killer, has him brutally questioning the suspects to narrow down his search for the killer. When he finally discovers that it is Kyung-chul, he begins a series of violent and gory retribution against him.

Kyung-chul though is a different animal from the usual sexual predator. He is actually a predator, full stop. Kim’s brutal torturing of Kyung-chul just makes things worse. Kim finds out, to his horror, that Kyung-chul is a twisted type A personality, a ‘right-man’ who will not stop until he has either won or died.

When Kyung-chul finds out who has been tracking him and injuring him repeatedly, he vows his own revenge on Kim Soo-yeon. A deadly cat and mouse game between the two ensues, with Kim having to sink to the same level of evil as Kyung-chul.

The film was excruciating to watch. The rape scenes were uncomfortable and horrible. The scenes of retribution against Min-sik’s character, although satisfying, were equally horrible to watch. Although we feel the rage that Kim feels and that the actions he takes are justified. We cannot help but be saddened by the toll it takes him and on everyone involved.

The police are frustrated and angry, Kim begins to lose his grip on normalcy and everyone peripherally involved gets caught up in the action.

This is the latest offering from Jee-woon Kim, one of the best directors in South Korea. If you are a Jee-woon fan you will not want to miss this film. If you are not aware of Jee-woon Kim’s work, it is a good introduction to his prowess as a director.