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Phone (2002)


Rating: 5/10

Running Time: 102 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

The unrestful dead have been communicating with the living through séances, rituals and dreams for as long as ghost stories have been told – but a recent movement in Asian horror, headed by Hideo Nakati’s seminal ‘Ringu’, has updated the classic ghost story with the introduction of technological devices as the new medium for supernatural haunting. It is not that the ouija boards or pentagrams of old have lost all power to frighten – but by transforming the props of our more enlightened age (telephones, computers, video-tapes, elevators, even corneal implants) into objects of terror, these films unravel the sense of security and ease which technology is supposed to provide, and tap right into that newest of anxieties, technophobia. As a schoolgirl in Ahn Byeong-Ki’s ‘Phone’ puts it, “Everyone’s afraid of cellphones now”, and this South Korean film does its best to turn ring-tones and text-messages into vehicles of the uncanny and the horrifying.

Journalist Ji-Won (Ha Ji-Won) receives threatening phone calls from a man involved in an underage sex scandal that she has exposed, so she retreats to an empty house owned by her best friend Ho-Jung (Kim Yoo-Mi) and gets her phone number changed. When Ho-Jung’s daughter Young-Ju (Eun Seo-Woo) starts to behave like someone possessed after answering Ji-Won’s ringing phone, Ji-Won, who is herself experiencing strange visions, begins investigating the deadly history of the phone number’s previous owners, and follows a trail leading to secrets buried uncomfortably close to home.

If the world of horror divides into those who proclaim American remake The Ring one of the scariest films ever made, and those who saw the Japanese original Ringu first, then ‘Phone’ faces a similar problem. If you have not seen Ringu, or The Eye, Dark Water, Ju-On: The Grudge or any of the other brilliant chillers which have recently put Asia at the centre of cinematic horror, then ‘Phone’ may well frighten the bejesus out of you – but if you have seen them, ‘Phone’ will seem as disappointingly pedestrian a rip-off as The Ring. The first half plays as a compendium of all the scary set-pieces already made familiar by other Asian horror – haunted lifts, inhuman voices on the phone, a ghostly girl, screens covered in static, etc. – while the second half is overburdened with seemingly endless flashbacks, neutering the film’s initial irrationality with an excess of exposition (again recalling The Ring).

Which is not to say ‘Phone’ is not worth seeing – the film after all contains plenty of visceral shocks, haunting images and unexpected twists – it is just that, in the flooded market of telecommunications terror, there are much better service providers available, just waiting for your call.

It's Got: A haunted phone, a girl with an Oedipal complex, a journalist who divides her investigations (appropriately enough) between underage sex scandals and the paranormal.

It Needs: More originality, fewer (and shorter) expository flashbacks.


Hardly in the ranks of the best recent Asian horror, but if you have missed the rest, 'Phone' might just ring your bell.