Death Bell's tight focus on students' fears embodied is elegant even as it's unsettling.
It's the last day of midterms and students at Chang-in High School are feeling both tired and keyed up. At last, there's an end in sight, however temporary. This anxiousness affects each individual differently: Ina (Nam Gyu-ri), the smart and most anxious girl, is especially ready for a break. Unlike the other kids in her class, her parents aren’t rich and she's resentful of her peers' sense of entitlement. "The teachers may be your puppets," she snipes at one classmate, "But you can't always have your way."
If Ina's self-defensive assertion hasn't exactly been borne out yet, as soon as she speaks it, you know these kids -- specifically, the 20 top students at Chang-In, are in trouble. For one thing, they're in a movie odiously titled Death Bell (Gosa), now airing on IFC's On Demand. For another thing, they get some bad news: they're not getting their eagerly awaited break after all, but will instead have to spend a Saturday at school preparing for their college entrance exam.
Reportedly, the schedule change is inspired by an unexpected upcoming visit from Eaton students: the administration wants to look good, and needs the students extra-ready to do so. The students want to be "special," and so they go along without complaints; Ina and her best friend Myung-Hyo help to set in motion a few other slasher movie clichés, namely, fantasizing about being "kidnapped" by the cute boy Kang Hyun (Kim Beom). So now you know -- the coming scary stuff involves flirting and giggling, kidnapping and punishing teenagers for having teenagers' desires.
This stuff begins with a title card, "Friday May 23." The students' worries are underscored as they gaze up at a digital monitor hanging from the hallway ceiling: eyes wide, they wait to see who's deemed extra-special and who's just special. "I hate the rankings," grumps Ina, just before a boy standing in front of her sees his own name lower than he expected and reacts horribly. "Something's wrong with him," a girl whimpers as his face distorts and his limbs flail. Tackled to the floor and strapped to a gurney, the boy is loaded onto an ambulance as he warns, "You're all dead!" Mm-hmm.
A cut to the pretty new English teacher, Choi So-yeong (Yun Jeong-heui), reveals her concern over the boy's unnerving upset, as she argues on the phone with the headmaster. He'd rather not send the student off to the hospital until "after Eaton's visit," and she's properly offended. Not only are the kids to be plagued by a killer stalking the hallways -- a vengeful killer, as all killers in such films must be -- but they are also beset by willfully ignorant and selfish grownups in power. That is, except for So-yeong and her fellow teacher Chang Wook (Lee Beom-su), who do their best to help their charges pass the "exam" the killer will impose on them. The questions in the exam are riddly and preposterous, à la Jigsaw. The killer's preferred method -- abusive, slow murder with elaborate contraptions -- is also familiar, and made sensationally visible to horrified survivors via classroom monitors.
The kids jump to a number of conclusions as they scream and fret, not least imaginative being the notion that they're being stalked by a ghost -- apparently, they've seen films of the Asia Extreme persuasion. Chang Wook reassures them, "There's no such thing as ghosts, some sick bastard is after us." But the killer seems able to get to all kinds of places and by all kinds of people without leaving clues, so his logic isn't exactly persuasive. The students are hardly appeased when their number is depleted one body at a time -- uncannily, swiftly, and very, very gruesomely.
As regular as this plot outline sounds, Death Bell makes the gore strikingly stylish (director Chang is a music video veteran, which may also account for the film's deft pacing). Not only does it target the brutal South Korean school system -- the pressures on students to perform, leading to their own angst, competition, and impossible expectations -- but it also takes clever aim at the folly of group identifications, whether by nation, school, or class (one of the classrooms features a portrait of Barack Obama on the wall, suggesting efforts to be cool or globalized or just aware of the world). None of the students is equipped to handle the life-or-death tension created by this exam. But then none of the adults -- from headmaster to teachers to janitor -- is quite quick enough to come up with good answers either.
As bloody bodies start dropping through ceilings, banging around in clothes dryers, and showing up with cryptic messages carved into them, the group members behave badly, suspecting each other and narrowing their perspectives. The film's own tight focus is of a different sort, elegant even as it's unsettling.