Class dismissed. Permanently.
Director/Writer: Yoon Hong-Seung / Writer: Eun-Kyeong Kim / Cast: In-sook Choi, Da-Geon, Sung Jin, Yi-seul Kang, Bum Kim, So-hie Kim, Jeong-hwan Kong, Hyeon-sang Kwon, Beom-su Lee.
Body Count: 11
Schoooool’s out for summer. Schoooool’s out forever!
School’s certainly out for some kids at the exclusive Chang-in High School in Seoul, where exams mean everything. Yes, EVERYTHING. Unlike in the flowery West, the students at this hive are publicly ranked so that all n’ sundry know how smart – or how NOT smart – you are.
At the end of final exams, the top twenty or so of the year are to stay behind for some sort of inter-school nerd-off that means everyone else is off campus bar three teachers and the security guard. Good time girl Ina and her friend Myung-heyo sneak off to a club, chat about boys and somehow we’re to believe they’re both in the Top 5 students at the whole academy.
Another kid, Beom, is cracking up. He’s seeing your typical Asian Ghost Girl over Ina’s shoulder, tries to throttle her and winds up being carted off in an ambulance, only to be allowed to return later! No sooner is class in session, a TV flicks on to show the Number 1 student cooped up in a fishtank, which begins to fill with water, drowning the girl if the class does not solve the equation written on the glass.
Panic wins out and the girl dies and a voice over the PA system informs them that more will die if they do not solve the riddles they are being set. They will die if they try to leave campus (as a cocky teacher discovers), the phones are out and they’re stuck there until all questions are answered.
Why? As it goes on, Death Bell slowly reveals a grim past event concerning the previous holder of the Number 1 position, who was murdered sometime before. Is it her ghost setting up sub-Jigsaw traps? Has Beom royally flipped? Ina, her love interest and teachers Ms. Choi and Mr Kim are intent on finding out and stopping the body count from stacking up.
A boy is literally waxed to death and a girl stuffed into a washing machine and put on the spin cycle while the students split into small groups, Battle Royale-style, in attempts to hide or distance themselves from any kidnap attempts.
It turns out that the kids are being offed in order they’re ranked and, once the killer is subdued, it looks as if all is well. Here, Death Bell produces the Ace from its sleeve and a pretty damn good twist on who the killer actually is (and has been all along) is unveiled. In truth, I’ve seen something a little similar before in Slaughter Studios but it’s not nearly as well executed (‘scuse the pun) as it is here. Flashbacks to things we’ve already seen highlight what’s been under our – and the characters’ – noses all along.
I wondered if academic success really is such a big deal in Korea? Would parents REALLY bribe teachers for better grades? As soon as I left school I downplayed my GCSE results quick smart, allowing a nice cloud of college and Uni results to eclipse them into oblivion.
While the end made me go “oh yeah! Awesome!” Death Bell is not without its flaws: characters have to behave quite stupidly in order to be abducted, so some of the cut and dried tropes of slasherdom are played too contrivedly but the Korean cultural backdrop kind of allows this to slide, as it were. It’s way better than both Record and Nightmare. There are some areas where gaps in the plot are left unfilled, such as the ghost of the dead girl going unexplained (maybe in Asia this is just a fact of life, or rather death?) and why the killer is disfigured, and is there really an actor/actress in Korea called ‘Bum Kim’!?
If you’re enjoyment of a film can be unthwarted by such trivialities, I’d totally recommend Death Bell as something that gets good mileage out of an assembly of old ideas – but if like me, you’re crap at mathematics, don’t even bother trying to solve some of the killer’s brain teasers. If it’d been left up to me everyone would’ve died! But then I’d never make the Top 20 *sulk*