While Korean cinema has a long and pretty terrifying history when it comes to ghost films, the spooky sub-genre doesn’t tend to be forefront in people’s minds when the discussion of South Korean films leans towards horror. Without a doubt, the far more prevalent and easily more recognisable ‘revenge’ model is the go-to for many film fans.
So with 2020 being the year that a Korean film is the first foreign language film to take home the Best Film Oscar, Shudder are frontloading their offerings with everything they can grab from the country’s fully stocked library of films waiting for a release. And while April’s 0.0 MHz did next to nothing for most fans of the genre, the company’s latest acquisition, Warning: Do Not Play may fare a little better.
An aspiring film maker, Mi-Jung (Yi-Ji Seo – Diary of a Night Watchman) is frantically trying to come up with a new idea for a horror film. When her friend tells her a tale of a haunted film, supposedly made by a ghost and banned from ever being shown, Mi-Jung sets out to find out if the urban legends and rumours are true. Her search for the scary film that may, or may not, have killed somebody durning a university screening doesn’t only turn into an obsession for the young filmmaker, it becomes the inspiration for her own film. She will document her hunt for “Warning” and that will become her own scary movie.
Tracking down the director, Jae-Hyun (Seon-kyu Jin – Kingdom), getting her hands on a copy of this damned film and getting to the bottom of why the film is so feared might not be as easy as Mi-Jung thinks. But as tales of a young actress burned to death, a cursed film, and a vengeful ghost begin to feel more like real-life, Mi-Jung finds her dream project and the urban legends she is chasing come colliding together with horrific consequences.
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In 2007, director Kim Jin-Won (not to be confused with the excellent Kim Jee-Woon) made The Butcher; a found footage style film that took on the taboo of snuff movies, and looked at footage from the angles of the maker and the victim. It was a fun little film with something interesting to say but fell flat with audiences that saw it; primarily for its inability to live up to films like The Good, The Bad and The Weird or The Host that surrounded it. But the filmmaker had an obvious love for the way films are created, and telling stories around their production. Warning: Do Not Play, while slightly self-indulgent, is a love letter to the creation of low-budget found footage horror films, even invoking the name of The Blair Witch Project in his script which, for the most part, is solid and tense.
While not wholly original, much of the tension in this film is built up through the use of a tiny phone flashlight and us knowing, knowing, something is going to come out of the dark straight at us. Early jumps are telegraphed, faked, and then delivered with excellent timing and awareness of audience knowledge. We know that shadow is going to come at us, and we are pretty sure when. Kim Jin-Won knows we know this and racks up the tension before delivering scares accordingly.
Sadly, the director’s tricks don’t last long, and this 85 minute film loses the ability to make you catch your breath and draw goosebumps quite early on. That being said, the scares that hit are good and the ones after that point are still delivered well while looking and feeling creepy, but the story of cursed crews and disastrous shoots has taken over and this horror movie becomes more of a mystery needing solving.
Yi-Ji Seo convinces as the desperate director clinging onto the hope of a great idea to turn into a film. Her insistence in putting her life in the hands of her phone’s measly light in the hope of getting inspiration are admirable and stupid in equal measure. She has audiences begging her to turn and run and screaming at her for going into that basement we all know is going to be far worse for her than she realises. But we can feel the longing for that killer idea in her and while we know it is almost certainly going to end badly, we understand the things pushing her down those stairs and into the dark.
Seo’s performance is the main reason to stick with Warning: Do Not Play. Her torture at the hands of the ghosts haunting her film is brilliantly portrayed,, even if the hints at her troubled past are frustratingly left by the wayside. She desperately needs a bigger and better film to showcase her talents.
Warning: Do Not Play is a mish-mash of its influences. From Ringu and Ju-On, to Lights Out with a healthy dose of One Cut of the Dead, the film homages all these great films while never honouring them quite as much as it thinks it is. It is a film to go into with slightly lowered expectations and a less than critical eye.
Warning: Do Not Play premieres on 11th June on Shudder UK.