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'Face' weaves mystery, horror together

2004/06/12 Source

Koreans tend to try not to lose face, since a public humiliation is regarded as particularly damaging to one's dignity. "Face", a horror-thriller flick that opened nationwide yesterday, examines the literal loss of face - presented here as the ultimate indignity for a beautiful young murder victim.
Face breaks new ground by mixing a Western technology - face reconstruction - with the traditional Korean horror theme of "han", or suffering, as embodied in The Classic image of a young woman who dies under tragic circumstances and returns as an angry ghost. Director Yoo Sang-gon has infused mystery into the plot, making the film a whodunit as well.

In the film, Hyun-min (Shin Hyun-jun) is a leading face reconstruction specialist, helping investigators identify murder victims by studying the features of their skulls. But he is losing his enthusiasm for the job because his daughter, Gin, is severely ill after a heart transplant.

Renowned heart transplant surgeon Dr. Yoon tells Hyun-min that Gin is experiencing minor complications and will recover soon. But Hyun-min suspects his daughter's deteriorating condition is linked to the unidentified heart donor and asks the doctor to reveal the donor's identity. When the doctor refuses, Hyun-min plans to quit his job and dedicate all his time to helping his daughter make a full recovery. Investigators, meanwhile, are grappling with a bizarre serial murder case in which the killer apparently uses a chemical to strip away the victims' flesh, leaving only skeletons.

Sun-young (Song Yoon-ah), a young and attractive employee of the National Institute of Scientific Investigation, brings the skull of the serial killer's fourth victim to Hyun-min. After failing to persuade him to take on the case, she leaves the skull at his house and disappears.

Hyun-min's house evokes a creepy feeling: A host of skulls are displayed on the shelf together with face reconstruction equipment. And when he moves around at night, he feels somebody is following him or lurking in the dark.

With the arrival of the skull, Hyun-min begins to hear unbearably loud screams and has visions of a distraught long-haired woman in a white robe. This image was popularized in "Home of Legends", a famous TV horror series that enjoyed a strong following in the 1980s.

The sudden appearance of the disturbing vision will surely draw shrieks from the audience. But the ghost does not seem interested in harming the main character. Fortunately, the film does not resort to the trite image of a murderer chasing down victims in dark streets, a formula too many horror movies have replicated over the years. However, some in the audience who expect genuinely scary images may be disappointed since the director is sparing in his use of them.

Realizing something is amiss in relation to the skull, Hyun-min finally decides to work on identifying the victim. Hyun-min reconstructs the face with astonishing accuracy using clay and computer graphics, after recording the minutest details of the shape and structure of the skull.

Sun-young assists Hyun-min with the face reconstruction work and the two begin to develop romantic feelings for each other. It must have been a challenge for the director to set up a convincing romance in a house filled with skulls.

While the romance is brewing and reconstruction of the fourth victim's face is gaining speed, investigators find out that two of the victims were killed so their organs could be sold for transplants, and DNA tests show they were "beta allergy" patients. Interestingly, Hyun-min's daughter also suffers from this fictitious condition, which means she could only have received a heart from a donor with the same problem. All eyes are now on Dr. Yoon, who seems to hold the key to the mysterious deaths.

Like other mystery thrillers, Face sprinkles misleading clues here and there so the audience will draw the wrong conclusion. But despite this device, it is not impossible to guess the murderer's identity. Worse, the ending was leaked even before the movie was finished. In a news conference following the premiere of the film in Seoul, director Yoo said the leak did not bother him.

"I don't know how the conclusion of the movie got out, but it won't have any negative impact since there are other factors that can attract the audience", he said.

But the bigger issue for Face is its weakness as a horror movie. Due to its ambitious attempt to mix different genres, it is a bit questionable whether the film can really scare moviegoers as much as they want.

There is a face-saving factor, though. The audience may find its ghostly images entertaining, in an old-fashioned way.

By Yang Sung-jin

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