DEATH BELL: New Korean Horror
SAW Meets BATTLE ROYALE in Korean Box Office Hit
Author: Kim Song-ho (Loomis) and Keith Aiken
Source: Mirovision Inc., Official DEATH BELL Press Kit, American Film Market, various
Official Website (Korea): Gosa2008
170 days before college entrance exams, the twenty top students at a high school meet for a special Saturday exam cram session. Midway through class, the students are interrupted by Beethoven’s piano solo “Für Elise” playing over the school p.a. system. The picture on the classroom TV switches to reveal the top ranked student, Hye-yeong, trapped in a tank that is filling with water. As the water level rises and the girl screams and struggles to breathe, an unidentified voice comes over the loudspeaker and asks a question from the mid-term exam. If the students answer incorrectly the girl will lose her life. And for each additional wrong answer, another student from the class will die.
With nowhere to run, and only 20 students and 3 teachers on campus, the bloody exam begins just for them.
DEATH BELL (Gosa: Piui Junggangosa) is a new South Korean horror movie which was recently released on home video in its native country and is now being marketed for international export. Released to theaters this past August 6, the movie brought in 1.7 million admissions, making it a surprise hit at the box office. It now ranks as the second most successful horror film in Korean history, behind only the acclaimed A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003).
Much of the movie’s commercial success has been attributed to DEATH BELL being the only Korean horror film released in the summer of 2008. Recently, Korean horror movies have been severe box office and critical failures, with the 2007 crop faring especially poorly. This year, most studios passed on making any such films for the summer (the traditional season for horror in Korea) so DEATH BELL had the marketplace all to itself.
Publicity materials for the film describe it as “SAW meets BATTLE ROYALE”. While most Korean horror movies take their inspiration from scary legends and ghost stories, DEATH BELL comes from the everyday stress of school and exams. The Korean high school system is notoriously tough on its students, with tense competition and overwhelming workloads. School life is so stressful that some students suffer from serious mental problems, so it seems a natural source for cinematic terror.
DEATH BELL is the feature film directorial debut of Chang (birth name: Yoon Hong-seung). Chang got his start directing several high-profile music videos for Korean artists such as GOD, BoA (who recently made her American debut), Nell, SeeYa, Shin Hye-sung, SG Wannabe, and Sung Si-kyoung. In 2007, he was awarded the director’s prize at the Mnet Music Video Festival.
Chang also co-wrote the film’s screenplay with Kim Eun-kyeong. Kim made a number of well-received short films before writing the script for SHINY DAY (Noon-boo-sin Nal-e, 2006) and writing and directing ROOMATES: 4 HORROR TALES (D-day – Eo-neun-nal Kab-ja-gi Cheot-beon-jjae I-ya-gi, 2006).
Apparently, the movie was commissioned as a starring vehicle for Nam Gyu-ri, the lead singer of the popular Korean girl group SeeYa. Nam, along with her co-star Lee Beom-soo, is signed with Mnet Media, one of the production companies behind DEATH BELL. The company made the film unusually quickly in order to premiere it in competition at the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival on July 22, taking only 20 days for the script and 55 days for the actual production. Shot on High-Def video rather than film, the movie was produced for approximately 1 billion Korean won (around $1 million US), well below the budgets of most Korean movies. More than 200,000 people went to see DELL BELL in the first two days of initial release, resulting in immediate box office success.
However, possibly due to a rushed production, the movie received very harsh reviews from critics. For example, weekly movie magazine Cine 21staff reviewer/Extreme Movie editor Kim Jong-chul gave it just one star out of five. Kim believed that Chang was an utterly incompetent director for this type of story and stated that Chang shouldn’t “mess around with the horror movie” genre.
International marketing for DEATH BELL is being handled by the Korean sales agent Mirovision, Inc. The movie was screened in the United States for the first time on November 6 and 10 at the American Film Market in Santa Monica, CA.
Notes on the Korean/English title
While the official English name for the film is DEATH BELL, the literal English translation of the Korean title would be “Gosa: A Midterm Examination of Blood”.
The Korean spelling ‘고死: 피의 중간고사’ is, in fact, a kind of Korean pun. The word ‘고死’, pronounced ‘gosa’ means ‘examination’. The second syllable ‘sa’ sounds the same as a Chinese-rooted Korean word, ‘sa(死)’ meaning ‘death’. So the filmmakers spelled ‘sa’ as ‘死’ to make a more appropriate title for a horror movie.
Though not confirmed, the English title DEATH BELL seems reminiscent of a Korean TV quiz show called CHALLENGE! GOLDEN BELL. The show has one hundred high school students who are challenged with fifty questions. If a student gives a wrong answer, he or she is eliminated. If any one of the students solves the final question, he/she rings a golden bell and becomes the winner. The movie has a similar quiz game premise, but in this case, if a student misses they get killed.
Characters and Cast
Hwang Chang-wook (played by Lee Beom-soo)
“I wanted to save my students, at least.”
High school teacher Hwang is highly regarded by his students and fellow teachers because of his strong principles of education. He also has a firm belief in justice and is never quiet about his feelings of right and wrong. When Hwang is trapped at the school, he stands strong to save the lives of his frightened students.
Lee Beom-soo (born January 3, 1970) is a prolific veteran actor who is popular for the energy and charisma he brings to every role he takes. He began acting in 1990, and by the end of the decade had emerged as a respected supporting player. In 2003, his performance in the romantic comedy SINGLES made him an A-list star in Korea. Best known for his comedic work, DEATH BELL is Lee’s first horror film.
His notable works include WET DREAMS (Mongjunggi, 2002), SINGLES (Sing-geul-jeu, 2003), OH! BROTHERS (O! Beu-ra-deo-seu, 2003), MR GAM’s VICTORY (Superstar Gam Sa-Yong, 2004), CITY OF VIOLENCE (Jjakpae, 2006), MY WIFE IS A GANGSTER 3 (Jopog manura 3, 2006) and FORBIDDEN QUEST (Eumranseosaeng, 2006). He also starred in the successful TV series ON AIR (On E-eo), which was broadcast between March and May of 2008 on SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System). His recent popularity from ON AIR is thought to be one of the reasons for the box office success of DEATH BELL. Lee Beom-soo also helped the film by taking a reduced salary from his usual acting rate.
Choi So-young (played by Yoon Jeong-hee)
“Don’t just rush out! What’s the plan?”
Choi is the high school’s English teacher. Though she has a somewhat cold and distant demeanor that makes her difficult to approach, she has a deep love for her students. When the horrific events begin to unfold, she calmly faces the situation and methodically works to solve the problems and protect her students.
Yoon Jeong-hee (born December 21, 1980) is a former Miss Korea. She has modeled for several commercials from major companies, including Coca Cola, Nestle, KTF, SK Telecom and Lotte Department Stores. She starred in a successful but controversial Korean soap opera called LOVE IN HEAVEN (Haneulisiyeo, 2005), which established her as a household name. DEATH BELL marks her feature film debut. She is currently starring in the SBS drama series GLORY OF THE FAMILY (Ga-moon-eui Yeong-gwang, 2008).
Ina (played by Nam Gyu-ri)
“They’re being killed by their ranking… then it’s me.”
Ina is a popular high school student, known as a loyal friend and well liked by both her male and female classmates. She realizes the students are being murdered in the order of their class ranking, and is terrified because she is fifth in her class. Despite her fears she looks after her peers more than herself.
Nam Gyu-ri (born April 26, 1985) started her entertainment career as the leader of the Korean girl group SeeYa. Launched in 2006, SeeYa has performed very well in the music charts and record sales, and Nam became especially popular for her distinctive appearance. She starred in several music videos for her own group, as well as one for SG Wannabe, an enormously popular Korean boy band who is also the producer of SeeYa. DEATH BELL is her first film.
Kang Hyun (played by Kim Beom)
“I’ll stand by you and protect you.”
Kang is Ina’s would-be boyfriend, and he attends the Saturday class to be near her. He swears he will sacrifice his own life if needed to protect her. Unlike the other students who are overcome with terror, Kang is able to remain calm… and this may be the key to escaping the threat they all share.
Kim Beom (born July 7, 1989) is a hot idol in Korea, nicknamed ‘hasookBeom’ (Beom the lodger) by fans after he appeared in the megahit TV sitcom UNSTOPPABLE HIGH KICK (Geochimupsi High Kick, 2006). His first film was the 2008 comedy HELLCATS (Ddeugeoun-geosi joh-a). Following his work in DEATH BELL, Kim returned to television for the MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation) drama series EAST OF EDEN (E-den-eui Dong-jjok). He just signed to star in the war movie 71, which will begin filming in early 2009.
Yoon Myung-hyo (Ina’s best friend): Han Na-yeon
High School Groundskeeper: Lee Eol
Teacher Lee Chi-yeong: Kong Jeong-hwan
Kim Ji-won: Ham Eun-jeong
Park Woo-ram: Jin Seong
Choi Eun-joo: Kang I-seul
Ji-won’s Mother: Kim So-hee
Myung-hyo’s mother: Choi In-sook
Ghost: Jo Ah-ra I
Writers: Kim Eun-kyoung, Chang
Executive Producers: Kim Kwang-soo, Lee Soo-hyeok, Lee Jaw-hyuk
Producers: Im Seong-been, Hong Jung-pyo, Yook Eun-joo, Kim Kwang-soo
Director of photography: Heo Sung-ryong
Director of lighting: Park Soon-hong
Editing: Yoo Young-ju
Sound: Lee Seung-chul (Wave Lab)
Music: Kim Joon-sung
Recording: Lee Jong-ho
Production designer: Cho Ki-won
Editor: Yoo Young-joo
Costume: Kim Ji-young
Makeup /Special makeup: Kim Hyun-kyoung
Special effects: Jeon Keon-ik
Visual effects and CG: Park Yong-jung (Metafive)
Production Companies: Core Contents Media, SK Telecom, Water n Tree, Mnet Media
World sales: Mirovision, Inc.
Running time: 86 minutes
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Sound: Dolby SRD
Theatrical release: August 6, 2008
R3 DVD release: November 8, 2008