The Doll Master Review

Matt Shingleton echoed my sentiments exactly here, when he said that Korean cinema has fallen into a terrible lull over the past year and a half. There have been a number of films trying to cash in on the success of others, to little success. Originality has been practically non-existent and not even one or two gems can excuse the high amount of poor output. By large Korean cinema is beginning to suffer, having lost sight of what made it interesting in the first place. There was a time when it was “cool” to rave on about it, it was a trend that was gaining much attention from Asian cinema fans; and that time was just a few years ago. Hollywood caught onto the trend and as a result it bought the rights to remake some of the most talked about Korean films of all time. The trouble is that now it’s even remaking films that are awful to begin with; yes, The Doll Master will be facing the same treatment and all I can say is that they surely can’t make it any worse than it is now.

Our story begins roughly 60-years ago in Korea. A young man who carves a living out of making dolls spies a beautiful woman, who inspires him to recreate her likeness in the shape of a life sized doll. Impressed by his work she draws closer to him and the pair fall in love. One day the woman is found hanging and her lover is blamed for her death. He’s taken out to the woods and is beaten to death, while soon afterward the doll that he created sits alone by his grave side to forever mourn.

It is now present day and model, Park Hae-mi (Kim Yu-mi) has been invited to a doll museum, where she will pose so that a doll can be made in her likeness. When she arrives she meets the curator, Mr. Choi (Chun Ho-jin) and the wheelchair-bound doll maker herself, Mrs. Im (Kim Bo-young) - she‘s in a wheelchair, you see? You see? [insert plot twist here]. Also arriving is male model, Kim Tae-sung (Shim Hyung-tak), photographer Hong Jung-ki (Im Hyung-joon), student model Lee Sun-young (Lee Ka-young) and the sullen writer, Young-ha (Ok Ji-young) - who carries around with her a doll from childhood named Damien. After the introductions the group is shown around the museum and are allocated rooms, each one as strange as the next. Things seem fine at first but soon events become a little creepy for our residents. A strange young girl named Mina (Im Eun-kyung) is lofting about, who is she? And what’s with the old man chained up in the basement? Who cares as we wait for all of these stunning revelations?

Doll films. They’re great aren’t they? There are two things that can generally be associated with the word scary: clowns and dolls. Clowns creep people out because they’re crazy. But they’re also sullen looking folk who constantly look miserable but act happy; I can't blame them really, I know I wouldn't like a pie in the face every day. Their painted mugs look nasty on a darkened night and you wouldn’t want to meet a clown in an alleyway. Even Ronald McDonald is scary - would you want your kids to love him? Dolls on the other hand have those striking characteristics that put "the fear" into some. The glazed eyes, porcelain features, haunting looks and the uncanny ability to sit still while making the onlooker imagine that they could get up and walk about at any minute - all lend themselves toward a thing of pure evil; which is strange when they’re designed to capture the hearts of little girls - and some sexually confused boys (hate mail to the usual address please). A film about clowns and dolls could be really good though. Mine would be about a clown that is depressed at work and kills a fellow clown, but makes everyone believe that it was a trampoline accident. Soon it becomes apparent that his favourite doll witnessed the murder and blackmails his clown owner unless the clown takes him on a killing spree through Northern America. In the end the clown and doll face off in a research facility, after they both fall in love with the bearded lady, who can‘t decide between either one. They both fall into a container of test serum, along with a radioactive hamster, thus setting up the sequel about a sexually frustrated killer doll clown who attacks convenience store female employees in a customised hamster wheel, before kidnapping them and then shaving the beards off of innocent tramps so that he can construct the ultimate bearded lady. But it would co-star a box of Pringles, just like this one.

There will be some spoilers here.

For his first feature film Director, Jung Yong-ki relies on three things: dolls, clichés and rubbish twists. Twists that are so glaringly obvious that they might as well have not been twists. Giving the entire plot away in the first 20-minutes or so would have served this film better that what we end up with. Wait, he relies on four things: close ups of hands and black hair covering the face gubbins, which is innovative in itself. Is that five things? Anyway it’s more reliance than is spent on the actual screenplay. The Doll Master‘s Achilles heal is that for a horror film its not horrific. Its foreboding sense is hampered by a series of drawn out discussions that inform the audience about how dolls can have souls and all that nonsense, without actually telling us anything; a bunch of umming and ahhhing and “that’s just silly talk” dialogue, which means you just know everything is going to come true. But does it really need to spend half of its run time doing sod all? There’s no incentive to stick through the film; it never draws us in, it never creates a suitable atmosphere, it depends solely on its final revelation that is so poorly delivered you feel ripped off by the end of it all, in what would be better suited as a 45-minute drama as it's all been figured out by then. Horror films tend to have some kind of rule to stick to, The Doll Master breaks them all. It’s a study in boring conversation and on that level it surely succeeds. In terms of death and despair (when it finally happens) everything just goes limp. The director cops out with a series of dull sequences that range from leg-snapping to neck twisting and hanging. Bravo, I almost crapped my pants.

It’s painful in that the film tries so hard to build up the tension. When checking the dictionary these pop up as an examples:

  • "Barely controlled hostility or a strained relationship between people or groups".
  • "There is a tension created between narrative time and movie time". See below:
    There is barely a narrative.
  • "The act or process of stretching something tight".
    Alright that one has nothing to do with movies.

    So clearly the director fails to grasp the meaning of what it is that he is trying to achieve. Here we have seven characters, each as lifeless as the next. Five of them are hopelessly dim and sit around giggling or staring into each others’ pretty faces, not realising that it‘s all they are; when they’re not doing that that they’re stuffing their faces or aimlessly wandering around just asking to be killed in the most mundane of ways. The other two, Mr Curator and Wheels are supposed to be pretty bad people. When Choi finds Tae-sung hiding in his closet in his private room does he beat the shit out of him or at least do something worthy? No, he just kindly asks him to leave after a dull exchange of words - it would‘ve brightened things up a little. The tension in the air is about as ripe as a day old banana. When more secrets are revealed about Im and Mina (she‘s wearing a red dress!), and the old man in the cellar with one dodgy eye enters the scene nothing is surprising. The viewer isn’t allowed to have his or her senses assaulted, and it seems they’re not meant to unravel some watertight mystery.

    Then there are just too many implausible moments to count, most of them appear to be things that have been made up on the spot. For example: when Hae-mi is handcuffed to a rail in the bathroom near the end, it seems that there’s no means of escape. While buddy boy is hanging (for what seems like five minutes, so he’s doing pretty well) she’s panicking over what to do - how can she save him? Just then she reaches for a dry bar of soap that is on the sink. Presumably using the blood on her wrists she softens it a bit and somehow manages to free her hand and save dopey ol’ Tae-sung from silly little Mina.

    You mean Tae-sung lives?
    No don’t be silly, only two people can survive this one and he is insignificant.

    Production values are slight. The museum itself lacks the required atmosphere. It’s walls are a dull yellow, it’s basement looks like it’s made out of foam (and it probably was) and the only unique thing about the rooms within is that each one is inhabited by a strange doll. Some hold mirrors, some hang from the ceiling and provide lamp shades and some even grace the toilets. Yep, when nature calls what better way to enjoy it than to sit on the lap of a ghastly doll face [insert novelty death here]. Speaking of dolls, and there are plenty, designer Baek Kyoung-sook has done a decent job in providing a lot of them, though mainly they’re just used for show. This is pointless, I’d hoped that the little things were going to come to life and run loose around the museum but they just stay on the shelves; even Damien just sits there and he has an EVIL name. The only dolls that do anything are the ones that live in the rooms and even then we don’t really see much aside from a hand shift or an eye move, which makes for some pretty dull viewing. The Doll Master could be picked at for days but to save my precious time I’m going to end this review here. Watch it at your own peril.

    The DVD

    Optimum Asia has made some interesting choices lately in what they’ve chosen to licence. Still, they bring us a decent enough release for The Doll Master.


    Presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1 the transfer is hit and miss. The thing that will displease the most is that it is an NTSC to PAL conversion, with evidence of combing and ghosting. I’m not sure if Optimum have done this for the majority of their Asian releases but if they keep this up then they’re going to be in people’s bad books, probably page 1 along with Tartan. That aside things hold up relatively well. Black levels and contrast are good, flesh tones are fine and detail holds up for darker moments. There’s an occasional softness still present with the addition of Edge Enhancement but the image maintains a good enough consistency throughout.

    Sound wise we have Korean 2.0 and 5.1 surround tracks, neither of which will blow you away. There just aren’t enough moments to make fuller use of the surrounds. Its original theatrical release sported a DTS ES track, which I believe made it onto the subsequent South Korean DVD release. I can’t imagine how much more the DTS track can add to this one. Things still sound very good; dialogue is fine though I suspect some moments are slightly out of sync, to which I cannot confirm if it is the transfer’s fault or if its just part of the post dubbing process. Aside from moments that involve various weather effects and the occasional scream there is little to get excited about. The track does the job adequately but seeing as the film fails to deliver a single scare it’s pretty much wasted.

    English subtitles are included and these are optional. They read well and I only spotted one grammatical error.


    The following extras have burnt in English subtitles:

    Making Of Documentary (46:44)
    This lengthy behind the scenes look introduces the film as a different kind of horror, separated from the others in that it uses beautiful ball joint dolls to enhance a “beautiful and sad” film. Broken into segments it kicks off with “Invitation” This focuses on the shooting location which was at an old unused building in Taebaek Kangwon-do; already the cast and crew can feel a tense atmosphere for some reason. The story is set up, along with how it follows a haunted house style narrative until we get to the character breakdowns and how each is portrayed, along with the director’s insight into them, which is interspersed throughout. We learn that several prolific polish cameramen and lighting experts were called in, whose work included Three Colours Blue and The Pianist, but the problem was that communication was poor and preparation was slight; and the director acknowledges it as somewhat of a failure in not so many words. The second segment is “The Doll Master”. This takes us behind the scenes where each doll is constructed but concentrates mainly on telling how they’re supposed to represent sadness and soul like qualities. When it comes to the bigger dolls we see them being created and we’re told how important to the story they are, but we seem to see more of them here than in the final film. “Sad Horror” is next and this goes on about how psychologically effective the film is, before we see some energetic acting and set ups of some of the death scenes. The director explains how he wanted the toilet scene to be both scary and funny, which is strange as it’s neither. Then there’s a whole section about the character of Mina and how her “complex emotions” are portrayed, and that no-one but Eun-kyoung could pull off such a feat. It makes for some dull viewing , typically praise filled with little insight. “Secret” follows and this concentrates on the film’s final revelations, with a look behind the scenes of some of the more elaborate effects. Lastly is “The Love of the Doll”, which explains the intentions behind Mrs. Im and Mina. The director discusses the parallels between horror and love and makes his case about a film trying to incorporate these elements into a sad story. We then see make-up footage with Eun-kyoung carrying out her scenes. Director, Jung Yong-ki finishes up by talking about why he chose dolls for the film and gets into some strange train of thought as he explains something about A and B loving each other. At least we can see how dedicated the actors are. They do their best with the material given but in the end it didn’t help much. This feature is also filled with a lot of lengthy clips from the film, so I recommend skipping past them to save on boredom.

    Deleted Scenes with Director's Commentary (5:09)
    The first scene we’re introduced to relates to a sub-plot that involves the relationship between Mina and Hae-mi. This was cut because it was felt that it disrupted the flow of the drama. Next up is a scene involving Jae-won (Mrs. Im) getting all emotional outside. Due to its descriptive nature it was cut. The following scene has Hae-mi and Young-ha talking about Damien, with some nonsense about Damien being Young-ha’s protector. A scene involving a photograph that has something to do with the toilet scene is next for the chopping block, followed by a rhythm hampering, comedic scene featuring Jung-ki and Sun-young going to the toilet. The relationship between Mrs. Im and Mr. Choi is revealed next, again it was too descriptive. A scene between Mina and Mrs. Im is next up and this is one that the director was sorry to have to cut out.

    The problem with these scenes is that there is no option to switch between tracks and view them without the commentary.

    Interview with the film's Doll Maker (5:02)
    Ball joint doll maker, Baek Kyoung-sook explains a little about the history of ball joint dolls and how popular they are as collector’s items in Korea. Due to the sad nature of the film she made approximately one hundred dolls with sad faces to reflect a kind of melancholy. She then mentions the difficult task of trying to create a doll in the likeness of Mina and goes on to talk about the creative process. Clearly she’s passionate about her work and we see the amount of detail and care put into these dolls it’s all very impressive. Doll make-up artist, Han Se-ra is interviewed next. She talks about what kind of paints are used and how they are applied, before we go back to Kyoung-sook who tells us that these dolls are hobbies and that people generally have no idea how to look after ball joint dolls. With a little love and sandpaper you can do anything with them.

    Interview with Director of Special Effects & Make-Up (9:00)
    Hwang Hyun-gyoo talks about having to come up with ways to make the dolls do various things, like hang from walls and kill people. Her team also worked on the various death scenes. We’re just basically taken through the motions here and learn a little about the creative process.

    Theatrical Trailer
    A few spoilers make their way into the trailer so my advice would be to watch it afterward. I find that Korean trailers are often like this, it can be a little frustrating. But then with this film there’s nothing really surprising.

    Optimum Trailers
    Here you can find five trailers for upcoming or currently available titles. These are Azumi, Azumi 2, Arahan, Fighter in the Wind and Sky High.


    So yea, at the end of part 2 Bruce Campbell defeats the killer doll clown with the power of snappy one liners and a box of Pringles - the sour cream and onion ones. Clowns hate sour cream and dolls hate onions. They didn’t use onions in The Doll Master. Onions also make people cry and I almost felt that way after watching this tale. To sum up: dolls + models are of equal measure, neither has any brains and stupidity will get you nowhere.

    As for Optimum’s press blurb:

    “An eerie, atmospheric horror that gets under your skin and refuses to leave”.

    Now there's an insult.

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