Eastern Premise #44 – Death Bell

After a Christmas hiatus Jason Julier is back with the first Eastern Premise of 2012!

Mention Asian films to someone and the likelihood is they’ll immediately think of a horror film. This genre has been the main gateway to the West and new markets for Asian filmmakers with Hollywood remaking a series of J-horror entries.  Hopefully so far with Eastern Premise, I’ve proved that there is more to the Far East than just revenge and horror tales.

Once in a while I do like to spotlight a film new to the UK and debuting on DVD. In the case of South Korean film Gosa: Piui Junggangosa known as Death Bell, it’s also the first release on the ‘Terror-Cotta’ label; a horror offshoot of dedicated Terracotta DVD imprint. The Terracotta label has delivered a mixed bag of films with the highlight being memorable ‘Breathless’ and the more bizarre such as Big Tits Zombie 3D (yes, I kid you not). Without official confirmation I’d sadly presume that films such as the latter outsell worthwhile dramas and by creating a new label Terracotta can open up a new revenue stream and continue to release a wide variety of films in the UK. Tartan Asian Extreme has shown that there is a market for such films and bountiful pickings are out there for the UK market. So as I write this on the eve of Halloween; let’s step into Death Bell.

Originally released in South Korea in 2008, Death Bell marked the debut of music video director and co-scriptwriter Yoon Hong-seung along with K-pop star Nam Gyu-ri. It proved to be extremely successful at the Korean box office with its mix of gruesome fatalities and fresh young blood; seemingly the teen demographic lapped it up.  High schools are a plentiful hunting ground for horror and Death Bell unfolds during the pressurised college scholarship entrance exams at Chang-in when the top pupils are pitched against each other. The film opens with a bizarre sequence of classroom devastation and post-carnage exploration; this could almost be a scene from Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions which dealt with a more tangible threat in the form of the HIV virus.

The plot soon beds down into familiar territory with teenage lust and high school interactions. Initially one male student is haunted by a serious of visions involving a Grudge-like female student and focuses his fury on Ina. Then the deaths and traps begin in earnest with Hye-young’s aquarium tank being broadcast across the school. The elite students and remaining teachers are warned against leaving the facility and that they will face a series of tests. There are echoes of Battle Royale with the setting, ensuing hunt and victims treated as mere statistics. The survivors are forced to comply and remain within the main buildings and surrounding grounds overnight. This sparks much internal debate about the motives and a possible killer, as the questions they face become tougher and each wrong answer will result in another student dying.

The reasons for this slaying only materialise towards the end during the final challenge. Whether it is indeed supernatural, revenge or pure lust, I’ll leave for you to discover. Death Bell never thankfully reaches the gruesome levels of Hostel or Saw or their ilk and thankfully so. Yoon Hong-seung attempts a balancing act of suspense, gore and the unknown but the script and his inexperience are evident. He may have set out to make a new type of horror film as expressed in the ‘making of’ documentary but this is all too familiar ground. Moments of fear are missing and when the atmosphere does creep into your living room it is only briefly. However Death Bell is ideal fodder to start a horror DVD label and will go down well, assisted by the number of fatalities and its Asian roots.

Death Bell has certainly taken its time arriving on UK shores and Terror-Cotta was not helped by last years Sony warehouse fire. The DVD features a healthy selection of extras including a music video, a making of documentary, special effects and more information about the parent label and its annual film festival. The second release on Terror-Cotta will be Wong Ching Po’s Revenge: A Love Story and hopefully many more will follow on both labels. While I wasn’t greatly impressed with Death Bell, being characteristic of many subpar Asian horrors of recent times, it will find its niche alongside Shock Labyrinth 3D in the UK.   

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