Release Date: 30th July 2004 (South Korea)
Running Time: 90 mins.
Director: Lee Myung-se
Writer: Lee Myung-se, Lee Hae-jyung
Starring: Ha Ji-won, Gang Dong-won, Ahn Sung-ki, Song Young-chang, Yun Ju-sang, Do Yong-gu
Writing a review for The Doll Master has been frustrating because I was so uninspired by the film. Despite the great looking DVD cover and poster and the fact that dolls are creepy (as seen in Three Crowns of the Sailor¹) I found it to be a dull experience.
A woman is travelling to a doll gallery deep in a forest. She is a sculptor named Park Hae-Mi (Kim Yu-Mi) and she finds herself among a group of people including Hong Jung-Ki (Lim Hyung-Joon) a photographer, and Jeong Yung-Ha (Ok Ji-Young) a novelist, who have been summoned by Choi Jin-Wann (Cheon Ho-Jin), director of the gallery and Im Jae–Won (Kim Bo-Young), the doll maker. Park Hae-Mi and the others are there for two days of photography which will be used as the basis to make new dolls. As they make themselves at home and wander the halls, they notice that there are dolls everywhere and they seem to be watching them. When Park Hae-Mi encounters a mysterious girl named Mi-Na (Lim Eun-Kyeong) who claims to have known her all her life, Park Hae-Mi finds herself embarking on a night of terror.
Or she would be embarking on a night of terror if the film was capable of finding an even tone.
The film is a mix of horror and mystery. As is becoming quite noticeable with K-horror, there is a mix of drama in every Korean horror film I have watched thus far. The weakest films tend to have the worst drama as is proven here. The Doll Master starts off confidently enough with a brief historical sequence in 1940’s Korea with a tragic love story between a doll maker and a woman in a kimono. It is here that we get an interesting bit of Asian folklore which shows how an inanimate object can get a soul if people show love and dedication and become attached to it. The inanimate object in this case is a life-size doll. The film then fast-forwards to the future where a diverse group of characters are invited to a cathedral-like doll museum which is where the mayhem involving murderous dolls takes place.
The idea is great. Shame the script is rather poor.
The script is, at best, functional. Events are shunted by and not built upon. Revelations are thrown at the viewer, the characters barely reacting to them. No, that is a lie. They react to them in ridiculously incoherent ways. People make inappropriate (and perverse) jokes in deadly situations, they jump to the wrong conclusions especially when evidence points elsewhere (or nowhere at all) and the subplots barely (just barely) meet up. Little time is spent developing the characters in any meaningful way and this is all exacerbated by direction which mixes disruptive doses of inappropriate humour and melodrama through awkward crosscutting. It is not uncommon to find incongruous sequences of mystery and comedy crashing together. The biggest offender was the photographer. Apart from being the character who provides handy moments of information dumps that explain what is happening, he is also a bit of a pervert and a coward, taking pictures of people at the worst possible moments and running in terror when the script demands that another character be bumped off.
Apart from the goofball photographer the characters develop in exactly the way you expect them to but they also occasionally do silly things which eventually lead to their downfall. The human characters are all a bit shallow partly because they are played that way and partly because they are written that way. All a bit disappointing really, and so when the characters were killed off one by one horror style, I was expecting a spectacle, a bit more grue and horrific situations that removed characters we had no attachment to but, alas, not here.
Even with the presence of creepy dolls all over the place (holding mirror and light fixtures!) the deaths are boring and centre around asphyxiation. There is one great (quite surprisingly) scare but for the most part the creepiness comes from standard Asian horror imagery – glimpsed spectres popping up here and there, phantom hands, long hair. There is no imagination to the deaths or the scares. There is no tension in the script. There is no sympathy for the characters. The mystery is garbled. Why should I care?
By the end of the film I found that the only decent characters were the murderous dolls’. They had the best motivations, they were the characters with the best actors and even when they turned into killers I felt for them more than I did any for the human characters who are, as I said before, shallow. I shed tears for the dolls not for the humans.
It ends in a silly knock-down wrestling match between two middle-aged guys while the set blows up. By this point in the film I was not expecting anything coherent so I just watched passively, waiting for the end. When the end did come I was disappointed to find myself feeling rather indifferent.
The one saving grace is looks to have had a decent budget spend on the set because it is good but wasted thanks to the direction. The location is a mix of modern and old with a large hall and a selection of rooms (and a public toilet) filled with creepy dolls in rather surreal poses, all staring at the visitors. Speaking as someone who works in an environment where an old building has been converted for modern purposes I found this place rather unnerving.
I feel like I am being harsh but I did not care for the film much as I found it unmemorable thanks to a hackneyed script with no obligation given to atmosphere. Maybe I am too cynical and have watched too many films but I felt the semantics of horror were garbled in a script that is poorly constructed with bad characters. This has led to, in my opinion, a timorous and insipid film that lacks nerve and imagination. Though well made on a basic level, I found The Doll Master is less a scream and more of a whimper and it failed to engage me. I think I may bump up Wishing Stairs a point because that showed more backbone.