“I always looked forward to the day I would hold a scalpel in my hand,” says Sun-hwa (Han Ji-min). “But now, that the day is here, I’m not sure.” One of six young, ambitious medical students at Sunjae University troubled by nightmares, Sun-hwa has reason to worry. It’s too bad but not surprising that the friends don’t realize they’re all having the same nightmare until late in Cadaver (The Cut), available on IFC’s Festival Direct On-Demand starting 20 May. They are, after all, good J-horror victims, which means they don’t spend a lot of time comparing notes, researching their traumas, or even attending to their own anxieties. Rather, they dutifully show up to autopsy class, cutting into corpses and grinding out the late hours in order to pass endless quizzes dreamed up by their imperious teacher, Dr. Han (Jo Min-ki). And oh, yes, they fall prey, one by one, to a mysterious, brutal, and oh so vengeful spirit.
Though Sun-hwa has always believed she would be a doctor like her father, the creepy goings-on in the autopsy room have given her pause. For one thing, she and her classmates have been assigned to a corpse with a rose tattoo over her breast. Not so significant in itself, the tattoo draws the attention of the predictably immature male students (when, on the first day of class, one boy begins snapping photos of the cadaver’s exposed nipples with his cell phone, a friend tries to rein him in: “How would you like it if someone did that to you?”, to no avail). The tattoo also suggests the dead woman had exotic or rebellious past, and specifically, a past past (“How tacky!”, opines one student, emphasizing that the design is old-fashioned).
The kids don’t follow up on this warning sign, the corpse’s connection to a likely sordid history, but you get the idea. Likewise, you get the idea that each student has a particular shorthand trait: Sun-hwa is studious and pretty, her best friend Eun-joo (Soy) is shy and bookish, and Ji-young (Chae Yun-seo), who shows up at the initial assembly with her long hair colored and curled and her earrings dangly, is plainly doomed from the moment she begins flirting with the designated “catch” of a boy Chan-dong (Ye Hak-young). Ki-bum (Oh Tae-kyung) appears to be the group’s natural leader, spooking everyone on the first night with a scary story about cadavers mangled in a road accident (“Maybe there was a grudge involved”) and offering a clinking-beer-bottle toast to their future, wide open and hopeful.
Directed by Son Tae-young (Derek Son), Cadaver offers up a standard plot, the sort that encourages viewers to feel superior for their anticipatory powers. At the same time, however, the film is punctuated by intelligent, allusive imagery, compositions that offer up their own sort of hope. Long, low shots of earnest conversations suggest the eerie and lonely context the students inhabit. Close-ups of frightened faces are beautifully arranged, as are graceful tracking shots of Sun-hwa and Eun-joo as they walk and ponder, the framing through chain link fence indicating their state before they even quite understand it.
For all its resourcefulness, the cinematography can’t quite solve the problem of the rote plot, in which the corpse with the rose tattoo slowly but surely crushes the kids’ optimism, with help from the stern Dr. Han. He sets the tone early, announcing at first assembly that, despite the fact that “We are not people who believe in superstition,” they can still take solace in the knowledge that the corpses they’re about to work on have been donated. That is, “We’re cutting them up with their permission.”
In class, Han is quick to call out students who seem squeamish or inept (this following the usual first-day-of-autopsy-class vomiting, gagging and fainting). Testing his charges with comparative anatomy questions, he asks what characterizes the “more primitive animals?” then uses the answer—more red blood cells and more teeth—as a roundabout way into his lesson for the day, that what grows larger in “the more primitive doctor” are “Fear [and] guilt, trivial emotions.” If the metaphor is awkward, the essential point is clear enough, that doctors must be ruthless and arrogant, as he demonstrates each time he appears on screen. That he has a dark secret is inevitable, as is his introduction of it through vague conversations behind closed doors with the hospital chief and obscure but assuredly meaningful looks at selected students (mostly, Sun-hwa).
For her part, the ghost with the rose tattoo picks on vulnerable group members first, especially those who will spend after-hours in the autopsy room and then, finding themselves locked in, will crouch paralyzed and whimpering in dark corners rather than fight back or flee. This grants the ghost plenty of time to pad across the room, barefoot and cut up in her cadaver’s gown, a generic horror whose lack of invention and energy is more or less her own point. The kids are suffering for sins committed by others, and when they finally do see what’s happening, it’s way past too late.