Saturday, April 17, 2010

In short: The Doll Master (2004)

A group of people without any obvious connections is invited to a weekend at the doll museum of doll maker Mrs. Im somewhere out in the South Korean countryside. They are supposed to model for some new dolls for the artist, it seems, and are allowed to have a leisurely time in the her creepy, doll-infested mansion. Who wouldn't want to be on vacation in a house that has life-sized dolls in proper strangling position behind the toilet seats?

The strangers are sculptor Hae-mi (Kim Yu-mi), Yeong-ha (Ok Ji-young), a novelist bringing her own (living and talking, she says) doll, sophomore student Seon-yeong (Lee Ka-yeong), professional photographer Jeong-ki (Lim Hyeong-jun) and a certain Tae-seong (Shin Hyeong-tak), who wasn't invited and just showed up anyhow. Tae-seong says he is a model, but will later turn out to be the most ineffectual undercover cop imaginable. A bit later, the disparate characters learn that they do have something in common - their families all initially come from a village in the area around the museum/mansion. I'm sure this has no important on the motivation for anything that will happen later at all.

To nobody's surprise but the characters', very soon mysterious things start to happen in Mrs. Im's homestead. Hae-mi encounters a weird girl named Min-na (Lim Eun-kyeong) who seems to know her from somewhere, someone kills Yeong-ha's doll and so on and so on.

A bit further down the line, doll's aren't the only ones getting killed anymore.

And what does the guy chained up in the wine cellar have to do with everything?

At first The Doll Master promises to be a doll-enriched variation of tropes and mood of the Italian gothic, or perhaps a supernatural update of the Old Dark House genre, but the film never seems to be too sure itself what it wants to be.

There's certainly talent before and behind the camera. The set design, especially the way some of the life-sized dolls are integrated into the interior design, is at times something to behold. The dolls are creepy and uncanny, as dolls are supposed to be, and when they are moving, they really have the feel of things being alive that shouldn't be.

The actors are all at least solid, Kim Yu-mi is a likeable enough lead, and everyone takes even the more preposterous plot points with the stride of an actor willing to convince the audience of even the more silly things in cinematic life.

Still, these elements never truly come together in The Doll Master. Although the film's ideas are creepy on paper, they don't coalesce enough to form the kind of creepy continuum that would make a deeper impression on a viewer. The plot is highly foreseeable, and not in a way that would cause dread or disorientation, but only to make one sigh and shrug and forget about the movie the next day.

As I said, all elements that should make for a satisfying horror film are there, but somehow, director Jeong Yong-ki doesn't seem to have the control over his material needed to make them work together. Jeong's timing in the film's build-up phase is off, never really managing to suck me in enough to feel something about the film. This emotional disconnect killed the movie's final third for me - there's a lot (too much) happening, all supposed to be very dramatic, it does however never feel that way. Instead, it's people going through the motions of a big horror movie finale.


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