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Where EAST meets the Northwest

From The Asian Reporter, V16, #9 (February 28, 2006), page 16.

Forensic science meets the supernatural

Face

Directed by Yoo Sang-gon
Produced by Yong Han and Tae-won Jeong
Distributed by Tartan Video, 2005
Korean with English and Spanish subtitles
DVD, 88 minutes, $24.99

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

One feature distinguishing Asian horror films from their Hollywood counterparts is the search for hidden meanings — every ghost has a reason for haunting, and every killer has a motive for his hideous acts. Hollywood likes to give motives to its killers as a way for authorities to find them, but Asian horror movies will often focus on the elaboration of these motives, making the films feel more psychological than simply violent, as they seek to explain the deepest fears and desires of the human heart. Face, the feature film debut of Korean director Yoo Sang-gon, turns neatly around the haunting of a mysterious specter and the message it’s trying so desperately to convey.

Hyun-min Lee (played by Shin Hyeon-jun) is a forensic sculptor who specializes in reconstructing victims’ faces from their skulls. He’s among the best in his field, but problems at home draw him from his work, leading to his resignation. A widower, Hyun-min is trying to care for his daughter Jin (Seung-wook Kim), who suffers from a rare malady called "beta allergy," requiring fully compatible organs for transplant. Since receiving a new heart, Jin has suffered many complications, but her doctor (Dr. Yoon, played by An Seok-hwan), an expert in the area of beta allergies, reassures Hyun-min that the heart Jin received is not to blame, though he refuses to disclose the donor.

Along with her physical complications, Jin also glimpses a pale, red-eyed ghost from time to time, terrifying her and possibly causing her symptoms. Hyun-min begins to see the specter, too, and wonders what its message could be. In the meantime, the police have been investigating a serial killer who disposes of his victims by dissolving them in acid, leaving only their bones. But Hyun-min, the perfect scientist to help them reconstruct the victims and find the killer, is too deeply involved with his daughter’s medical problems. Then a beautiful young forensic scientist (Seon-yeong Jeong, played by Song Yun-ah) appears on his doorstep with the fourth victim’s skull, and she persuades Hyun-min to perform the reconstruction, keeping the specter at bay — for the moment.

As the movie progresses and Hyun-min and Seon-yeong grow closer together, the storylines of Jin’s medical condition, the haunting, and the hunt for the serial killer slowly converge. The twisting plot of Face, artfully constructed and full of surprises, leads to a dramatic showdown and a satisfying conclusion, revealing the specter’s unexpected identity. Yoo Sang-gon showcases his promising talent in this debut, with dramatic cinematography and some truly terrifying sequences of the haunting specter. Both Song and Shin provide nuanced performances as scientists and potential lovers with demons of their own to hide, providing a level of acting a notch above the sometimes mechanical performances of the horror genre.

Viewers expecting a Hollywood-style bloodbath or even a full-scale haunting will be disappointed — though it is relatively tame by horror film standards, the opening sequence of the film offers more blood and gore than the rest of the film. And the ghost, frightening when it does appear, remains largely absent from most of the film, relying on brief sequences to establish its presence and emotional impact. What is left is an exploration of the motives and characters of Seon-yeong and Hyun-min, as well as the gifted but secretive Dr. Yoon. The police investigation remains mostly on the sidelines, leaving the facial reconstruction to provide the main drama of the hunt for the killer. Though viewers of "CSI" and similar shows will be familiar with the reconstruction techniques, Face is not an intimate exploration of the minutiae of the crime scene, as in these forensic-crime television shows. If Hyun-min cannot correctly reconstruct the victim’s face, we are led to understand, the case will come to a dead end.

But for all the things that it is not, Face is still a gripping example of this genre, delving into the deep and mysterious recesses of the human psyche and its reverberations in the natural and supernatural realms. Finicky viewers might quibble with the fictional beta-allergy plot device, or wonder why an important investigation must rely solely on such reconstructions and not other evidence. But any aficionado of horror films (Asian or otherwise) knows not to dwell on such plot elements. Capable, exciting, and refreshing enough to maintain tension and interest throughout its brief 88 minutes, Face bodes well for the future of director Yoo and the ever-growing (and ever-improving) library of films from Tartan Asia Extreme.

Face is now available on DVD. To learn more about Tartan’s Asian film offerings, visit <www.tartanfilmsusa.com>.