South Korean film “Call”, which was initially supposed be to be released in South Korean theaters early in this year but eventually got released on Netflix two days ago, is an increasingly tense and chilling thriller film coupled with a bit of fantasy element. While it is automatically compared with other similar films such as “Frequency” (2000) in my mind during my viewing, the movie is an efficient genre piece which skillfully toys with our expectation and prediction, and it is also supported well by two different strong performances from its two lead actresses.
At first, the movie, which is based on the 2011 Puerto Rican film “The Caller”, establishes the current situation of a young woman named Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) in 2019. Since her father died 20 years ago, Seo-yeon has lived with her widow mother, but she and her mother are not particularly close to each other for a reason associated with her father’s death, and Seo-yeon’s feeling toward her mother is not changed much even though her mother is about to have a very risky brain surgery for removing a tumor.
Feeling bitter and lonely, Seo-yeon returns to her big family house located in some rural area, and then she happens to discover something odd about the house as staying there for a while. It turns out that there is a hidden entry behind one of the walls on the second floor of the house, and this entry leads to an underground space which is dark, shabby, and ominous to say the least. As innocently looking around this space, Seo-yeon finds an abandoned box full of personal items, and she naturally becomes curious about their owner.
In the meantime, another strange incident happens to her. Not long after Seo-yeon installs an old telephone in her bedroom, she receives a call, and it seems to be from some desperate young woman around her age. When that young woman calls again, Seo-yeong thinks it is just a prank call, but she is later unnerved to find that the address told by that young woman on the phone actually belongs to her family house.
As that young woman continues to call her, Seo-yeon gradually comes to realize something quite improbable is happening to her. That young woman is really in Seo-yeon’s family house, but her time period is 1999. Her name is Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), and she has lived alone with her stepmother, who was the owner of the house before Seo-yeon and her mother moved into the house shortly after her father’s death.
Although Young-sook cannot believe Seo-yeon’s words at first, she eventually comes to realize that Seo-yeon did not lie to her at all, and she and Young-sook subsequently have a series of friendly conversations during which they tell each other a lot about themselves as well as their respective time periods. At one point, Seo-yeon informs her new friend on the upcoming comeback of a certain popular local pop star, and that and a certain kind of commercial snack made me a bit nostalgic a bit.
Meanwhile, along with Seo-yeon, we get to know more of the dark and disturbing sides of Young-sook’s daily life. Because of her stepmother, she has been mostly confined in her bedroom which will incidentally become Seo-yeon’s, and her stepmother has been quite harsh and strict to her. She firmly believes that Young-sook must be cured of something by any means necessary, and Seo-yeon indirectly witnesses another bad incident between Young-sook and her stepmother at one point.
As feeling quite sympathetic to her new friend, Seo-yeon wants to help her new friend as much as she can, especially after Young-sook takes some risk for her. Thanks to Young-sook’s timely action in the past, Seo-yeon’s surrounding environment is dramatically changed as a result, and the movie becomes a bit sentimental when she experiences something she has yearned for years.
However, it later turns out that Young-sook has not been totally honest to her new friend. When she finds that Young-sook is soon going to be murdered by her stepmother, Seo-yeon hurriedly warns Young-sook on that, and that saves Young-sook’s life, but then, alas, it is revealed that Young-sook is not a merely miserable and disturbed girl at all. Aghast at the following severe consequence of her well-intentioned action, Seo-yeon tries to prevent another grave consequence, but it seems that there are not many options for her, while Young-sook is already quite ready to strike her and her life from 1999 as much as she can.
Steadily throwing dark plot turns to jolt us, the movie dexterously dials up and down the level of tension, and director/writer Lee Chung-hyun and his crew members including cinematographer Jo Young-jik and editor Yang Jin-mo, who recently got Oscar-nominated for Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019), did a competent job of accumulating suspense and dread on the screen. Although Lee’s screenplay feels contrived from time to time, it handles well the dynamic development of its two main characters’ relationship along the plot, and that is one of the main reasons why the expected climactic sequence works on emotional level.
Above all, the movie is held tight by a compelling duo performance from Park Shin-hye and Jeon Jong-seo. While Park Shin-hye, who was unfortunately wasted in “#Alive” (2020), demonstrates more of her acting range during several key moments in the film, Jeon Jong-seo, who has been mainly known for her haunting supporting turn in Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” (2018), has lots of fun with her wild and unnerving role, and their convincing interactions on the screen bring a considerable amount of fresh air to the familiar genre territories of the story, which also decidedly places their characters and several other female characters above a few male characters.
On the whole, “Call” is entertaining for not only its good direction but also two terrific performances to be appreciated, and it is certainly one of better South Korean films of this year. Although it is probably more fun to watch it at a movie theater considering that some of its suspense is based a lot on what you hear from the soundtrack, I am glad that it is widely available via Netflix at least, and I recommend you to give it a chance someday.