Cinderella (신데렐라, Bong Man-dae: 2006)

Hyunsu has a close relationship with her mother Yoon Hee, who’s job is a plastic surgeon. Yoon Hee has performed surgery on some of her daughters friends, and everyone is shocked when one of these young girls dies in mysterious circumstances. Although the incidence is viewed as a tragic accident, when more of the group of friends start to die it becomes clear that it cannot be a coincidence. Hyunsu begins to suspect that her mother may understand more about the events than she admits…

Bong Man-dae’s Cinderella is part horror, part psychological thriller with a large amount of  melodrama thrown in for good measure. With an atmospheric opening sequence that promises dark things to come, Cinderella looks and sounds good. It’s certainly not long before there’s a few mild scares – the sort brought about by long-haired girls and clever camera editing – and some even more effectively uncomfortable scenes revolving around the practicalities of plastic surgery. A group of teen girls are all swiftly introduced, most of whom are just about unlikeable enough to justify having something bad happening to them – in that flimsy way that your typical horror film morally justifies itself – and then… it all falls quite flat on its face. After a promising opening, Cinderella becomes so run of the mill that an attempt to pick the film up in the films final section is a lost cause.

Don’t expect Cinderella to be one of those gruesome horror films or you will be rewarded only with disappointment. Although the plot is fairly typical of the horror genre, Cinderella proves to be a brave but largely failed attempt by Bong Man-dae to add some depth by developing the story as a psychological horror. The problem is, you can’t really have it both ways without some real development of plot and character, and after after it’s creepy opening scenes the film lacks pace and it feels like it loses direction. By the time the end credits roll you can see where the film was heading, and it’s not too bad – the problem is how we got there. With a mother and daughter relationship at its centre Cinderella attempts to tell create a story in which dark secrets are unlocked and truths are revealed, all of which should then be able to explain the earlier ‘dark goings-on’ – namely the creepy deaths of a bunch of teenage girls who have recently had plastic surgery. That the conclusion of the film makes little sense in explaining the reasons for these deaths is almost beside the point – horror films can be hung on the thinnest of plots and ideas but still, to a degree, be quite effective. Cinderella gets so caught up in it’s own drama that it doesn’t know what to do with it – should we be sad? Should we be scared? Should we care? By it’s conclusion – when the pace begins to pick up to a speed quicker than the snails pace of the middle section – we’re probably not really that bothered. With dramatic performances that make you groan at how moving they ‘think’ they are rather than producing a sense of sympathy in the viewer, Cinderella has well and truly lost the plot. Treated differently the same story could have been effective and – yes – both scary and dramatic. As it stands it’s neither, it’s as dramatic as a spoilt child who can’t get their way – just a lot of noise and flapping.

Visually Cinderella does have a couple of memorable moments. There’s one or two typical ‘horror’ visuals in the opening minutes which are well done, and a couple more later in the film that will remain in your memory – particularly the exploits of two girls in their arts class. It does seem a shame that (like many recent Korean horror films) the marketing material has much more vivid imagery than the actual film.

As the central character Hyunsu, Shin Se-kyung does what she can with the thin material. Her relationship with her mother is initially quite believable, and she manages to hold together the narrative until it veers off into strange territory towards the end. Do Ji-won, playing the mother, fairs a little less well – but not really through a fault of her own. While she readily engages with Yoon Hee’s dramatic character, it’s a badly written part and hinges too much of the ridiculous plot twists and melodrama onto her shoulders – all of which would prove to be too much for even the strongest of actresses.

To call Cinderella a failure seems a bit harsh, but it doesn’t really work on most of it’s levels. It’s a shame because it’s a worthy attempt at elevating a standard story, but it just doesn’t come together properly. Drawing inspiration from other psychological horror films may have seemed like a good idea (there’s some striking similarities with A
Tale of Two Sisters), but the film-makers try and reach too far with a thin idea. Cinderella may be worth picking up if you’re desperate for a slice of Korean horror, but there’s a hell of a lot better films out there.

신데렐라 (Cinderella)
Directed by Bong Man-dae
Produced by Park Min-hee
Written by Son Kwang-soo
Starring Shin Se-kyung, Do Ji-won, Ahn Gyu-ryun, Ahn Ah-young, Jeon So-min

Cinderella Image © Mini Film Inc.