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Ghost in Love (Jagwimo, 1999)

Lee Kwang-Hun

Korea

126 min, color, Korean (English subtitles)

Review © 2001 Branislav L. Slantchev

What would you do if your fiancee dropped you like a bad habit for the promising relationship with his boss' daughter? Would you take revenge on the three bikers who raped you in front of your boyfriend? How far would you be prepared to go? Would you be ready to sacrifice your soul?
When Chae-Byul (Kim Hee-Sun) discovers that her long-time boyfriend and fiancee Han-Soo is fooling around with Hyun-Ju, she contemplates suicide with the thought of punishing him by dying in front of him. While she stands perilously close to the edge of a subway platform, two ghosts appear and urge her to jump. She almost does but when she hesitates, one of the ghosts gives her a nudge and she is crushed by the train.
She finds herself admitted into SGA: Suicide Ghost Association, which, by the way is the alternative title of the film, whose members are people who have committed suicide, and whose purpose is to recruit new members, by any unorthodox means possible. They also encourage other unsavory activities, like taking bloody revenge and such. Chae-Byul is quickly drawn to the dark side of Pale Face, a vengeful spirit, who is seeking to murder to three thugs who had raped her in front of her boyfriend. Chae-Byul entertains bitter thoughts of sweet vengeance and wreaks some havoc in the unhappy Han-Soo, but every time she is about to do something rash, Seung-Woo stops her and dissuades her.
Seung-Woo (Lee Seong-Jae) is a strange bedfellow: restrained and reticent, he does not appear to blend in well with the crowd at SGA. Moreover, he seems to be helping people rather than induce them to die. Although not dead of his own volition, he is nevertheless with the renegade ghosts of SGA because he was unable to forget Young-Eun, his love and survivor. After a car accident, he is brought to a local hospital in such critical condition that the doctor refuses to operate. Young-Eun decides to do it herself but she is unable to save him.
What should a ghost do? Or, rather, what should we do when someone hurts us? How far can we go in a quest for retribution? Should we even attempt it? The film's position seems to be that there are things in life which are beyond mercy. Take, for example, Pale Face. She is hunted by the netherworld police for judging living beings (and finding them wanting). She is in danger of losing her soul forever and yet when she finally catches up with the last of the rapists, she plunges her long nails straight to his heart. There is no mercy, there is no rejoicing, there is only sadness and emptiness in her gaze. Yet she does it and then accepts the punishment without a flinch.
On the other hand, human frailty should not be harshly judged. Chae-Byul's initial instinct is to scream bloody murder and thwart her unfaithful fiancee get-rich-quick scheme. Although not prepared to go the extremes of Pale Face, she nevertheless almost knocks him off the roof when she hears him blab about her being nothing more than a sex object. Eventually, and through the good offices of Seung-Woo, she comes to the realization that regardless of how much she would like to hurt her ex, she should not do it. Still, according to the unusually harsh penal code of the netherworld she must be punished for the attempt. And the punishment is death forever...
Ghost in Love is a CGI-fest, but with taste. Unlike its big-budget siblings this side of the pond, the film uses effects judiciously to create the dramatic atmosphere where characters can fully develop their individual tragedies. As such, the film is mostly actor-driven despite the effect-laden surface. The two main leads, Kim Hee-Sun, the gorgeous and talented star of the recent hit Bichunmoo, appears as the dreamy and confused ghost who cannot decide how much pain she can take in order to let her past alone. Her equally handsome partner, Lee Seong-Jae, is also up to par with a very subdued but forceful performance. The chemistry between the two is so strong, one is surprised how little the film banks on a romantic link there. I must say I enjoyed the effects and I think the mix was incredibly well done. Another big plus for the film is the music, reminiscent of the techno sound of Enigma, which fits the mood perfectly.
I was also fond of the lack of sermonizing here. As mentioned above, the film seems to make a distinction between rape and abandonment and seems to sanction certain acts, which would routinely be condemned by more "modern" or "civilized" scripts. Regardless of this position, however, the story is about a woman's efforts to come to grips with a failed relationship and decide whether love is indeed forever, or whether it dissipates as so much smoke. The performances keep the story buoyant and the CGI provides some excellent eye-candy. Overall, the film is a great experience and should not be missed.
The Korean Spectrum DVD is excellent. The letterboxed picture transfer is very high quality, something that seems the rule for releases by that company. The Korean soundtrack is superb, with no drops, degradation, or hiss in the quiet parts. The English subtitles are bright and readable and although the translation had some minor problems, it was much above average. The disc is also choke-full of extras: a trailer, TV spot, CGI clips, outtakes, Making Of featurette, cast info, and a music video. Although everything is in Korean only, the material is still usable to monoglots with the exception of the Making Of and the cast info (what a pity). Definitely worth the $20, the disc is a welcome addition to any drama/fantasy/korean film shelf.

October 1, 2001.