Bunshinsaba (분신사바, Ahn Byung-ki: 2004)

Yu-jin moves to a new school and befriends two girls who are tired of being bullied by schoolmates. They decide to try and place a curse on their tormentors, so they write a list of their names and using a makeshift oujia board they attempt to contact a spirit. They very next day they arrive at school to find that one of the girls – whose name was first on the list – has died in an apparent suicide. Although the police suspect no foul-play, the three friends fear that this is just the beginning of something terrible…

There’s something immediately familiar about this Korean horror film.
It could be the school setting, the long-haired ghostly girl, the back-story of an outsider treated badly, or the plot which is dangerously close to many superior horror films that have come before it. There’s very little in Bunshinsaba that we haven’t seen before elsewhere – and yet it still manages to be a very enjoyable little film.

Director Ahn Byung-ki’s previous effort was the slick and well-received film Phone (2002). His follow up, Bunshinsaba (released in the U.S. as Witchboard) was less well-received on its local release but it follows the same route as that earlier film: using some of the tried and tested tricks, images and ideas from some of the best films out of Asia in recent years – particularly Japan – he has created a half-decent film that feels totally typical of the genre, without necessarily bringing anything new to it.

Plot-wise Bunshinsaba follows the standard teen-horror set-up – someone or something is bumping off schoolgirls one-by-one. The choice of killing technique in each case is pretty nasty (I won’t reveal too many details, but don’t play with fire) and it works well in creating some particularly tense scenes. In fact, Ahn Byung-ki is pretty clued up on what buttons to press to build up an effective atmosphere. Where some Asian horror films take their time to establish their atmosphere and build-up of tension (and that is often what makes them worth watching), Byung-ki dives right in and gets on with the killing after about five minutes – and the scenes of tension come fairly often after that. Although the film is very swiftly paced (this is mainstream stuff) there’s the occasional loss of tension due to the swift movement of the plot. Bunshinsaba scores highly simply by getting on with telling the story, although the result of this is that the film never escapes its familiar b-movie limitations. Byung-ki doesn’t seem to want to escape genre conventions as much as embrace them (you can almost tick them off as you watch) but he does so in a pretty slick manner. If the story doesn’t seem to make complete sense then maybe that’s why Byung-ki wants to tell it speedily enough so you can barely think about the plot-holes and – although there’s the odd moment which will have you thinking, huh? – he almost manages it.

Performance-wise Bunshinsaba boasts a strong central cast. Kim Gyu-ri and Lee Yu-ri are particularly memorable with performances that suggest some hidden depths to their characters – even if the script doesn’t. Some of the supporting roles are a bit shakier – there’s the odd moment of over-acting in the small roles, but it’s usually from someone who will be killed off five minutes later. Serves them right. As an added bonus, people who have seen Phone will recognise a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from a certain young lady.
Without giving the game away, Bunshinsaba has its own ghost that seems like a combination of some of the on-screen J-Horror ghosts that we’ve seen before – although she does come across well as a character in her own right. The film is also at times quite graphically violent, and there’s a few moments of blood and gore that should have you squirming in your seat.

Because the film moves along a pretty steady speed, it’s thanks to some sharp editing that the pacing is kept just right. The usual cheap-shots are used sparingly (you know, when it’s very quite and then there’s a sudden LOUD NOISE!) and the use of flashback and juxtaposition of characters help to tell the story rather than pretend it’s ‘deep’ and confuse us.

Although it’s too ‘by-the-numbers’ to be anything like a classic, Bunshinsaba is a slick, tightly paced and well enough performed little horror flick, and a worthy addition to the horror genre. For all of it’s b-movie faults, it’s to the filmmakers credit that they manage to squeeze fresh juice (and blood) out of what is on paper a bunch of pretty tired ideas. Bunshinsaba is a confident film from a group of talented filmmakers – here’s hoping that next time they try and make something entirely original.

분신사바 (Bunshinsaba)
Directed by Ahn Byeong-ki
Produced by Kim Yong-dae
Written by Ahn Byeong-ki
Starring Kim Gyu-ri, Lee Se-eun, Lee Yoo-ri, Choi Seong-min, Choi Jung-yoon

Bunshinsaba Image © Toilet Pictures