Cello is a Korean film billed as horror, but it's actually more of a psychological potpourri of nothingness. Directed by first-timer Lee Woo-Cheol, Cello tells the story of Hong Mi-Ju and the repercussions she faces in her current life from a haunted past as a cellist. Now a married mother of two little girls, the eldest with a learning disability, Mi-Ju is inundated with strange happenings at the beginning of the film. First, there's the mysterious cassette tape that reminds her of a car accident she was in several years earlier, with a cellist rival who didn't survive. That tragedy has caused Mi-Ju to leave the instrument behind in favour of a career as a part-time music professor, where she's drawn the wrath of a student who received an unsatisfactory grade. Mi-Ju also starts receiving ominous text messages, presumably from the student, but with so much strangeness in her life, who knows.
Meanwhile, a ghostly new maid moves into the home Mi-Ju shares with her family and husband's sister. A survivor of her own tragic car crash that lead to her entire family's deaths, the young housekeeper has been rendered mute by swallowing acid during failed suicide attempts. But wait, there's more! Mother and daughter take a bath that leads to blood oozing into the water. So what does Mi-Ju buy her newly menstruating daughter? A cello, the same instrument that's haunted Mi-Ju with a decade or more of terrible memories. Add to this a sister-in-law preparing for a wedding she'll never see and you've got way too much going on for an audience to care about. These stray tangents are a big part of why the film fails. It jumps from character to character without any real sense of focus or importance.
The film would have been much better had it just settled on an internal portrait of Mi-Ju's psychological struggle, maybe in the same vein as Roman Polanski's Repulsion. The supernatural element fits here, as does much of the movie, but the lack of discipline on the filmmaker's part reeks of too many ideas and too little confidence to stick with the best ones. Instead, the audience is left with a constant stream of new and undeserved attempts at scary images in a film that still doesn't know if it really wants to be a horror movie at all. Only one or two of these even provide the least bit of jolt from the viewer. There's nothing new or surprising in Cello's attempts to thrill. When one of the better visuals is a woman whose make-up is running, it's time to get off the horror bandwagon.
As the main character Mi-Ju, Seong Hyeon-A (also known as Sung Hyun-Ah in some places, including this very disc's extra features) is the film's anchor, despite being given an underwritten character who too often ends up either in hysterics or covered in blood, if not both. Seong, a strikingly beautiful woman and former Miss Korea contestant, gave impressively layered performances when working with two of Korea's most acclaimed directors, Hong Sang-Soo and Kim Ki-Duk. Those films, Woman Is the Future of Man and Time, are both stellar examples of Seong's ability to actually act and create a character, which she's unfortunately deprived of here. Mi-Ju's actions and experiences in Cello feel like bullet points more than development and destroy any hope of the film succeeding as the psychological exploration of a troubled woman. The big, stupid twist near the end provides the greatest scare of the entire film, when it threatens to repeat everything we've seen earlier. Mercifully, the audience is let off the hook after just one repetitious scene of this.
It has to be frustrating for R2 consumers to see Tartan include an audio commentary with the director Lee Woo-Cheul on the R1 edition (also on the R3, though unsubtitled), but not here - despite advertising otherwise. I don't understand this and if there's a reason, I'd be curious to know what it is. There is a substantial behind-the-scenes supplement on the R2 disc, running 36 minutes, with easily a third of the time devoted to watching fake blood being placed on the actors. The remainder of the interesting, if tedious, featurette consists of press conference snippets with the cast and crew, green screen preparation for a vital death scene and real-life cello instructors trying to train the actors for their brief performances in the film. There's also an original Korean trailer that sets Cello as the successor to The Others and A Tale of Two Sisters (it's not).
The image on the Tartan DVD befits the cold, dark colour palette of the film. Tones seem intentionally drab and muted (accentuated by the brighter flashback scenes), and blacks are solid. The video quality overall is good with a strong level of detail, though there's a little more dirt and debris than I'd expect from such a new film. A few artifacts in the dark scenes aren't a distraction and there's minor edge enhancement. The aspect ratio is advertised as 1.77:1, but the R1 and R3 are both listed as 1.85:1. It actually looks somewhere in between on this DVD. Some of the framing, especially in close-ups early on, seemed odd and arbitrarily chops off the tops of the actors' heads, but I'd guess this was probably due to directorial choice (inexperience?) more than anything controlled by Tartan.
Unfortunately, the DVD appears to be have been converted from NTSC to PAL instead of film to PAL. Depending on the quality of each viewer's set-up, varying levels of combing and ghosting may be noticeable. CRT displays shouldn't have any problem with the former, while HDTV owners may see evidence of both. Obviously, the best way to avoid any potential problems for those with multi-region capabilities wishing to purchase Cello would be to get the R1 instead.
The disc has three audio options, all in Korean. First is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, followed by Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and a DTS 5.1 Surround track. The inclusion of three tracks seems unnecessary, especially in light of the missing commentary, but why complain. The audio sounds efficiently crisp and is a nice showcase for the symphonic cello music we hear in the film. Otherwise, the DD 5.1 and DTS surround tracks are barely noticeable, though still superior to the DD 2.0. If DTS is included on a disc, that's normally my preference, but I heard little advantage over the Dolby Digital 5.1 here. The white, removable English subtitles appeared free of spelling mistakes.
I'm not even sure if I should fault Cello for not being scary enough, given the Tartan insinuation that the film should be horror, or if the bigger problems lie within the frustratingly unfocused attempts at psychological depth. The majority of the film feels nothing like a horror movie, and it takes a long time before anything resembles its horror billing. Just when it does build a little momentum, the film jumps around too much to be taken seriously and breaks off in a seemingly new direction too many times. Each character's death feels cold and without emotion, as does the majority of Cello. The characters are weakly developed and fail to elicit any sense of interest or sympathy from the audience. Only Mi-Ju is given any inkling of dimension, but her actions sway from inconsistent to ridiculous. If this is a psychological view into a scarred survivor's mental problems, it's wildly unconvincing. Ultimately, the audience is slapped with a mess of a film and mostly a waste of time, regardless of what genre you want to place it in.