Okay, I admit I was duped by the publicity blurb into thinking this was another Eastern ghost tale. And because this was my expectation I was a little miffed to discover that this was not the case. It is in fact a magnificent character study of men coping with the savagery of a hostile environment. The Antarctic region to be more precise.
Once I got over the initial hurdle I allowed the drama to hypnotise my senses with the awe inspiring atmosphere and the truly epic scale of the production.
The plot is fairly simple and all the better for it. The script was co-written by Bong-Joon Ho who previously gave us the excellent Memories of Murder. The story follows a group of Korean explorers as they try to conquer a remote region of the Antarctic before the six months of night arrive to thwart their plan. They have to fight against the hardships and torments of the landscape and for each man it is a test of endurance. Mental and physical exhaustion begins to sap at their failing strengths and soon their pent up thoughts begin to surface after they find a buried journal left by a doomed British expedition from 1922. The six men soon begin to suffer the same fate as the previous expedition...
Now, in most hands this would have been a good excuse to unleash a horde of horror film clichés, etc, but writer-director Pil-Sung Yim painstakingly focuses the camera on the guilt, rivalry and personal insecurities of each man. This generates a great deal of unease, suspense and the mystery deepens with each step that the men take towards their final destination. As they progress further and deeper into their journey each man takes a descent into the nether regions of their closed minds. The external and internal collide and a void opens.
The magnificent scenery of the Antarctic has never looked so ravishing, or as deadly, as it does here. The men look like microscopic ants in a sea of snow and slippery ice. Forget the world of the Supernatural and just concentrate on the creations of Mother Nature. She is a wild beauty who is more deadly than Medusa. The men are haunted by her startling beauty and succumb to her icy charms. In this majestic place their Paradise turns into a blinding Hell. Phantoms, misty shades and spectral figures of the mind begin to take form in the blizzards. Are these hallucinations or something more sinister?
The photography in this film is a gorgeous hymn to the Polar regions of this planet. It is the most seductive piece of tundra filmmaking since Leni Riefenstahl and Dr Arnold Fanck gave us The Holy Mountain. The vast and imposing vistas trap the men like beasts in confined cages. The place is filled with loneliness and this eerie feeling permeates the skins of the travellers. Thanks to the creative and imaginative use of these locations the landscape takes on a very real presence and rapidly becomes a character that is ever present and ever dangerous. Those wide open holes and crags in the ice resemble wombs. Not warm but cold, places to fall into and die. Disappear without trace. This is a place of death with no hope of rebirth. The only thread of optimism is that some may find redemption but at a heavy price.
The sound in this film is placed right at the forefront, the wind howls and wails, the climbing shoes crunch deep into snow and whispers of dialogue are snapped up by the air and wisp away into the snowy valleys. The silence and then the shrieks of the environment assaults the ears and we also suffer the paranoia and dread that the men endure. The score by Kenji Kawai (who also supplied the very effective soundtrack for Ghost in the Shell) is married to the visuals in a truly innovative manner and the minimalist lyricism accentuates the unfolding tragedy.
The ensemble casting is another major bonus in this fine film. The team leader is played by the incomparable Song Gang-Ho (from Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Memories of Murder) who is a wall of ice and calm, his face a mask of inscrutability and Yu Ji-Tae (from Oldboy), as the youngest member of the crew who finds the cursed journal, is able to carry off his role with just the right amount of immaturity, vulnerability and idealism.
The DVD from Enter One is beautifully packaged and designed to look like a weather-beaten leather journal. The box opens up into a 4-way digi-pack that houses 2 DVDs and a thick book filled with photographs from the production and the entire screenplay is also included. The film is presented in a reference quality 2:35 widescreen transfer (Anamorphic) on Disc 1 with a choice of either Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or Dolby 5.1 EX Surround (also includes two commentary tracks) and all the extras, such as deleted scenes, trailers, making-of, interviews, posters, storyboards and even a gripping short film called Boyhood are housed on Disc 2. These substantial and exhaustive extra features are not subtitled, and as such, may appear frustrating to non-Korean speaking fans.
The first-time director, Pil-Sung Yim, took five years to bring this film to realization from script-to-screen. This struggle was sadly met with catastrophic box office takings and the expensive production failed to make a profitable return. It is possible that the expectations of the audience were somewhat different to what the director delivered. There were many occasions in the film when strange phenomenon occurred and no tangible explanations were offered. The scale of the supernatural was also kept to a minimum and maybe this hampered the hopes of horror fans and disappointed action seeking fanatics. This finely balanced psychological film, which explored the icy regions of the human brain, deserved a much better fate at the theatrical box office.
So, as I stated at the onset, ignore the publicity that promotes this film as a horror flick and you will be pleasantly surprised at this superior and intellectual drama.
* * * * / * * * * *