Film Review: Spellbound

An understandable hit in its country, this Korean rom-com/horror film charmingly sneaks its way under your skin.

In Spellbound, street magician Jo-gu (Lee Min-ki) encounters Yu-ri (Son Ye-jin) and is immediately struck by her…well, strangeness. She’s quiet and a loner, with something definitely very creepy about her. Jo-gu hires her to be in his act, which becomes hugely successful, and soon finds himself both attracted and repelled by her, and the ghosts which seem to swirl about this literally haunted girl aren’t helping matters. Despite Yu-ri’s alienation and Jo-gu’s emotional immaturity, love grows, although, as he observes, “Horror film heroines never have a boyfriend, because it’s scarier when they’re alone when they scream.”

An enormous hit in its native Korea, writer-director Hwang In-ho’s take on a Hollywood-style rom-com, complete with a brightly antic music score, is liberally dosed with horror elements which, far from seeming extraneous, actually contribute organically to the efficacy—both comic and scary—of his bubbly conceit. The supernatural effects are skillfully wrought, and the ghosts, which include a literally haunting little boy and a creepy, vengeful schoolgirl, are very well-done, in a gloomy, gray palette, which chillingly contrasts with the rest of the film’s attractively sunny look. Although, like many Korean films, it goes on for too long, Hwang has also gaily populated his movie with a gallery of funny, affecting characters in large and small doses which add to the fecund farcical texture. Jo-gu has an appropriately goofy sidekick, while the desperately lonely, socially inept Yu-ri gets dating advice from two perky girlfriends: her old chum, chubby Min-jung (Kim Heon-syook), and snippy actress Yoo-jin (Lee Mi-do), whose pretentions are put down by Min-Jung, who says, “You’re not even the friend of the star: you’re the friend of the friend of the star!”

There’s an amusing date scene for Yu-ri, chaperoned by Jo-gu, who rolls his eyes at the jock boastfulness of the new guy (dazzlingly handsome Lee Ki-woo), who totally wimps out when confronted by the extraterrestrial. Lee and Son make a very pretty couple and share a lovely, innocent, slightly dopey chemistry, making plans for that all-important shared telephone account. Doe-eyed Lee has a loose comic grace and also one of the best male movie wardrobes ever, although his natty shirts are often ripped to shreds by a suddenly rapacious Yu-ri in a running gag. Son is a real delight, giving an impressively rangy comic performance which veers from spooked deadpan hilarity to drunken loucheness, in which she insults by disconcertingly calling him “Pork Rind.”