Asian Horror is a tough genre to wrap your head around. For some, the rather non-linear setups are too taxing, for others, the repetitiveness of the storylines easily jades the casual viewer. What I enjoy about the J-horror set is something that many other gorehounds might find dull. I am always intrigued by the structure of the films in question. More often than not, these movies are long on story and short on action. But when the action comes, it comes at a furious pace, often leaving the viewer on the edge of their seat. Cello is exactly this type of film, but even more so. In the 90-minute running time, a full 70 minutes are given over to establishing the backstory of the piece before the full-blown terror begins. But I promise you, if you hang in there, the final revelation is absolutely worth the wait.
Mi-ju (Hyeon-a Seong) is a brilliant Cellist with a tragic past –the only survivor of a horrific car accident that took the life of a fellow student. Now married and with a family of her own, Mi-ju has returned to teaching aspiring students, but has given up the instrument herself, until one fateful day when her daughter wishes for a Cello of her own. As the past begins to resurface, Mi-ju starts to suspect that all is not as it seems and that sometimes, long-ago events can come back to haunt you.
Like so many of the features that arrive on these shores from the Far East, Cello is a supernatural ghost story. But those of you expecting the raven haired, black eyed, blue hued apparitions that have made such a showing of themselves in the more user-friendly films of directors like Hideo Nakata are likely to be disappointed by the lack of spook spectacle that appears in Cello. Much like The Shining, all of the slow burn terror of Cello takes place in the psyche of Mi-ju, and like the lush vision of reel upon reel of Kubrickian epics, Cello is a stunning visual representation of an antiseptic life. The set design and cinematography are decidedly sparse; illustrating the terrible separation Mi-ju feels from society and family. This overwhelming sense of isolationism comes to a jarring climax in a sequence, which finds Mi-ju visiting campus for a recital. In that one brief and masterfully staged set, all the power of the film’s final descent into madness begins to take shape.
The understated performance from Seong is adequately withdrawn, providing much needed distance between her character and the other occupants of her world. Indeed, much of her emotion is played simply through mannerisms and eye movements, again, working to the benefit of the films languid pacing by almost embracing the audience in a surrealistic envelope of paranoia. I was also particularly impressed with the films constant use of chamber music to illustrate the mood. In a film entitled Cello, one would expect – no – very nearly demand, a matching soundtrack. Truly, the score to this film is heads above anything I was ever hoping for; it’s somber movements perfectly punctuating the impending doom of the final reel.
Though the pacing is slow, and the horror is exacting for the better part of an hour, when the final tragic twenty minutes of time unfurl you will be tearing your own eyes out at the terror on the screen. Cello is certainly not a film for everyone, but that can often be said for numerous other foreign films that are made with their home audience in mind and not for the cynical attention deficit disorder consciousness of the American movie going public. Those of you who see the value in a rich, if slightly demanding, storyline will be paid off by ultimately bearing witness to an evocative tale of how a simple twist of fate can unreservedly destroy an entire family.