So I have taken it upon myself to watch every film in Terracotta’s back catalogue. How will I be a UK leading expert in South East Asian Cinema if I’m not totally up to date with what’s being released by the main distributor in the country. I want to nice and up to date for the start of my studies in September 2013.
Next up is Death Bell
Now this is another film I saw when I was living in South Korea and my god is it one of the best films I have ever seen. Now Death Bell struck a chord with me (no pun intended) because I was working as an English teacher and some of my students were the same age as the students in Death Bell. I also knew a lot more about the South Korean education system when I saw the film then most people who haven’t lived out there have. South Korean students have the same demands and pressures put on them as Japanese students when it comes to their education. Students go to school at 8am and then by the time they get to 14years of old the extra classes in subjects such as English and maths keeps them in class till 11pm. South Korean school days are on average 8am to 11pm 6 days a week to compete in the global job market. There is a lot of pressure on them to be the best in their class and if not beatings by parents for poor results and requests to teachers for extra homework are common. Now this broke my heart a little and I have to admit I would go easier on my older students because so much life, energy and passion is gone from them and they are just study zombies with no free time or time to relax and enjoying being a child. South Korea is another of these school systems that when the exam results are released they are put up on boards for all to see each child ranked according to academic achievement and exam results. This is a harsh way for children to find out how they are ranked within their school and who is top of the class and who are not achieving as well as the others. Competition and pressure on these students is so very high and South Korea has the highest suicide rate amongst 14-16 years olds in the world. I’ve seen how depressed these students get and they work themselves to the bone to make their families proud and not feel like a disappointment.
So when a film came out that was South Korea’s commentary on social pressures on youth culture I was in film buff heaven. This is South Korea’s answer to Japans Battle Royale. This time the film uses the genre of horror and thriller to show the pressures on Korean youth and exam stress as well as their psychological breakdown. Death bell concentrates on a special class made up of the elites in the school that are kept at school during the school break for extra lessons to make sure the school looks great when students from their sister school come to visit. The principle wants his school to be the best and wants to use his elite pupils to show off how well they are doing. We are introduced to the harsh school systems and the pressure of exams. Students pop caffeine pills, desperately write there exams and eagerly stare at the ranking board to see where they place. The film manages to expertly in one seen show just how much pressure is on these students and how hard they work for top results. One student the pressure gets too much and he is convinced he is seeing a ghost. So is there really a haunting or has the student cracked under all the stress. He suffers a complete mental break and we are left wondering if this is because of supernatural pressure or exam pressure.
But before we can go any further into this possible haunting we are then faced with a very much real and horrific series of events. The PA system is hacked and shows a female student locked in a glass tank with a math problem written on it. The student watch in horror as a girl from the class slowly drowns and a voice tells them to solve these tests or more will die. It doesn’t take long to realise that someone is playing a very serious and deadly game. Think Saw but with students, these young people are scared they are too young to be faced with such unyielding violence. These students have been groomed for top careers, to be the educational elite and not to deal with the realities of life they are for a higher purpose. So the students freak out unable to pull themselves together to solve the problems. The class want to escape but unfortunately leaving the school results in death as they find out early on.
Luckily a few teachers with them take on the roles of leaders to help settle the students and get them to solve the tests to save their colleges. So the bodies start to pile up, students disappear and find themselves in some of the mostly grisly tortures and terrifying situations. Questions are carved into their flesh and the pressure is mounting to not only answer the questions and save their colleges but also try and work out who the mastermind is behind this game. Just when you are so sucked into the mystery you are also reminded that there isn’t just a human horror but a possible haunting as other students sees the ghost of a girl. Just who is she and how is she related to the hideous test these students are participating in.
It is very hard not to spoil too much and write about all the wonderful twists and revelations on this film. The grisly deaths get more intense as does the desperation of the students. You have two horror films here that of the Saw like torture death game and that of a haunted school and a ghost out for revenge. It’s double the threat and the outlook doesn’t look good. I adore a social commentary film and this one make good use of the society it is judging. Liking the tests and pressure of everyday school life to a game of death makes us really see the pressure on these students. It successfully exposes just how intensely Korean students work, the sense of desperation, the force at which they push themselves and the concerning dedication to further education above all else. When this is turned on them and they have to use this to save the lives of those close to them how will they deal, how do they cope with increased pressure and the threat of death, at what point will these student crack, how much can they take.
The film is brilliant not only for the plot and the message but because of the filming and scoring. The music is amazing really building up the tension and the desperation. Its true scene building scoring and add the wonderful cinematography and use of colours. The film uses lots of earth tones and very vibrant prime colours. There are the deep reds and evergreens, browns and blacks for the insides of the school and the torture rooms but outside is the clear blue skies and a whiter purer world. Flash back scenes and scenes up on the roof in the day light showing our characters as happy and care free are bright to match the brightness of a world not trapped in a classroom.
The film takes something that is an issue in Korean society and youth culture and that is teen suicide because of exam pressure. We find out more about our students and how they cope with their exams and expectations as well as question what the focus for students should be. Does giving up everything in pursuit of good grades and exam excellence really set you up for the real world? Can you still be smart and creative, does taking the time to enjoy life outside of study make you a failure or give you more strength to face problems not found in test papers. Are good exam results and social statues amongst parents worth your life and sanity? Who is at fault, the parents or the teachers? Who deserves the punishment and is this school system actually failing its students because like later in life corruption will always be found and even results can be fixed.
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