Set in a competitive Korean high school, this is an Asian horror that believes itself brutal, when in reality we are presented a small number of strong images tied loosely together with a rather basic story. Bear in mind that the film is a first-time feature from music video director Chang (Yoon Hong-Seung), and this of course makes perfect sense.
Death Bell opens to the last day of exams in a high school where ranking is everything, the class motto on the wall reading ‘no repeat exams’. When a class of the best students is assembled for college entry tests, both they and their equally competitive teachers find themselves held within the building, with all communication methods removed, and forced to solve puzzles to prevent the deaths of students, whose predicaments are presented by the school’s CCTV and a voice over the tannoy.
Some of these scenarios must be commended for style; a glass tank, holding the first victim, is etched with mathematical workings, a very nice touch that could be interpreted as a comment on Korean students and their inescapable position within a culture that insists on good grades. A death by candle wax drippings is also aesthetically pleasing, as is the hanging of a student by one ankle, dangling and swinging in front of the aforementioned tank, now full of water.
However, as good as these images may look, the film fails to entertain as a whole. A Battle Royale style countdown, detailing names and time of deaths, is cliched, momentum is completely lost between the deaths, and the culprit(s) are not a surprise when eventually revealed. The use of visions/premonitions and a final shot focusing on a particular student adds some ambiguity to proceedings, but this feels a little clumsy, as does the use of a girl’s period at the film’s opening, signalling bloody times ahead.
Saying this, Death Bell does signal a very good reason to keep an eye on Chang. His background will clearly be serving him well in terms of imagery, and I suspect the script/story is more hindered by a lack of experience as opposed to ambition and an imagination. As such, a purchase is recommended for reference purposes.
Death Bell is available on DVD from today