The Phone (2015) Korean Movie Review
Hello. This is Prof. Nehal with the new Son Hyun-Joo starring thriller called “The Phone / 더 폰” (2015) that is really heavy on the Samsung Smartphone product placement.
Actor Son Hyun-Joo is having a good year as this is his second movie this year to do decently at the Korean box office. The first was the lacklustre-in-my-opinion thriller called “The Chronicles of Evil” (2015). I have a review for that movie if you want to give it a look.
While I do not totally dislike Son Hyun-Joo as an actor, his main mode of acting is to start out as a man who “looks put-together from the outside but has issues” and then turn into a bumbling mess of a pathetic character at the end. Then the movie somehow rewards his character for being a mess. This seems to sell here in Korea.
Do you like Son Hyun-Joo?
I just want to say I do not know why he has become the new “Korean” Liam Neeson. He isn’t even Dennis Quaid nor Harrison Ford nor Ethan Hawke. Why am I listing the name of now-old-timey Hollywood male leading actors who have played fathers in Hollywood movies? “The Phone / 더 폰” (2015) is a mashup of movies these Hollywood actors played fathers in. That is why!
Let’s go over the plot.
“Wife” played by Uhm Ji-Won
You have a “Husband” played by Son Hyun-Joo who is a lawyer transitioning from the DA’s office to private practice. He has a “Wife” played by Uhm Ji-Won and a preteen daughter. While the couple has issues normal couples have like he is somewhat of a workaholic, in general, the family is in a good state.
So, a typical family for this type of movie.
However, this is a thriller movie. Something tragic needs to happen.
It is his last day at the DA’s office. The “Husband” is boxing his stuff up and going out on a “fair-well” bender with his soon to be former coworkers. It is an uneventful day except for the fact that cell phone services are being intermittently interrupted by sunspot activities.
So, the movie is going for the “magical” sunspot device.
This all changes when the wife is murdered by a home intruder before the husband comes home from drinking heavily.
Flash-forward a year and the case had gone cold. The husband is not handling the situation well. At the point when he decides to try to get his life together for his daughter’s sake, he receives a cell phone call from his deceased wife.
Here comes the central hook of the movie.
What do you do when you get a phone call from the past?
Oh and the newscaster is kind enough to state that the daily sunspot activity that day is quite similar to the conditions of the fateful day a year ago. It must be a coincidence.
It is a time cross wire or something like it. I’ll just call it the “Time” thing. The husband can now communicate with the past via his Samsung Smartphone. But, he can only receive phone calls from that tragic day and not call them. On the other end of that Samsung phone call, it is the past and his wife is a few hours before the time she is intended to die.
In the movie, time seems to flow at the same speed in both timelines. So, we have a ticking clock even though this is a wacky time movie. It seems that the husband is the present only has a few hours to save his wife in the past solely via phone calls. Can he change the past? This…
The Correct Frequency
Have you seen or heard of the movie “Frequency” (2000) starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel? It was about a son being able to talk to his deceased father in the past over a HAM radio for some sci-fi fantasy reason. Think it was also sunspots or something like that. It is a decent enough science fiction thriller type of movie about a father and son. It is very evident that “The Phone / 더 폰” (2015) is using the basic structure of “Frequency” (2000) as a template.
Borrowing heavily from more than a decade old Hollywood movies has been a trend in Korean cinema for some time now. Usually, these attempts end up awkwardly as, on one hand, the Korean filmmakers do not really understand the source material and, on the other hand, the Korean filmmakers try to adapt the source material to be more palatable for the Korean audience. “The Phone” (2015) falls into this category.
It is clunky!
Going into this movie, I had heard negative things about it. So, I was surprised initially by the fact that I didn’t have such a negative reaction to what I was seeing on screen. Yes, there was nothing particularly special about the movie’s concept and objectives. It was not going to even look into the father and son relationship like in “Frequency” (2000). It was just going to be a thriller about saving one’s wife. But, I was okay with this movie just being what it is.
Besides, one should at minimum appreciate textbook like an execution. The directing, the editing, the cinematography, and the acting are textbook. By which I mean they are competent for what is required of them. Even the cast was at least mostly likeable and competent. No one seemed to be obviously bumbling around.
Well… Hwang Bo-Ra was not great in a small supporting role. I did not like the kid actress No Jung-Ui playing the lead couple’s daughter. But, the role is written like most movie preteens are written.
It was nice to see Uhm Ji-Won / 엄지원 on screen though. I rather missed her in Korean Dramas for the last few years. She was fine for the role she was given here.
In regards to Son Hyun-Joo, he is basically doing the character he seems to mostly play. As I mentioned before He plays a man who “looks put-together from the outside but has issues” and then turn into a bumbling mess of a pathetic character at the end. And yes the movie rewords his character for it. However, I would have to say that the way his character was written is worse than how he played it.
So, I was settling in to watch a totally adequate movie. But I ended up getting something very different.
I should have bought some popcorn!
Well, the cheap kind.
Not the fancy coated ones.
The only problem I had early on with the movie is that the time constraint the movie puts on itself seemed rather tight. There were only a few hours to go before the wife is killed and the movie didn’t even properly get the characters acclimated to the whole “time” thing yet. In the case of “Frequency” (2000), it spent a decent amount of time getting the characters used to the time…time…the thing before the whole thriller aspect of the movie kicked in. I thought that this may become a storytelling problem for “The Phone” (2015).
And boy I was right.
When creating a story, it is easy to make creative decisions early on that leads the story into a brick wall down the line. When you hit the wall, the prudent thing to do is overhaul the whole thing at a higher vantage point rather than trying to fix it by doing minor adjustments. However, the writer of this movie took the other route which is to force the story through. Considering that THE problem with “The Phone” (2015) is the story, this was not a good decision to make.
Oh, and did I mention that this was directed and written by the same person?
That person is the first time director and screenplay writer Kim Bong-Joo. Another check on the “Korean Writer/directors Suck!” column. This is getting bad. It seems that most Korean Writer/directors just suck at the writing part. Watching “The Phone” (2015), Kim Bong-Joo comes off as a far better director than writer.
The time limit thing I mention just a moment ago is a bad creative decision that has serious storey ramifications. Another one of those decisions is to make the core or focus of the story the Husband who is in the present. In “Frequency” (2000), there was almost equal focus on past and present. This fosters interaction between the two time periods which is quite useful in storytelling.
In contrast, the past is essentially there just to set up the husband’s story in “The Phone” (2015). In fact, thinking about it, you could replace the wife and past plot point with the wife being kidnapped with a cellphone plot point and you could rewrite this movie with not much hustle.
Once the first act is over, the past timeline is absent through huge chunks of the middle section of the movie.
I guess watching a man is more interesting in watching a woman …
Well, I cannot totally blame Korea for this. Hollywood would have done the same thing.
This leads to the question of what story this movie is trying to tell. This is where things get interesting.
Rather than being one consistent movie, “The Phone” (2015) feels like 3 different movies from 3 different genres. In addition to tonal contrasts, some plot points and character motivations don’t even carry over from one part to another. This makes the story feel more fractured than necessary.
The first part of the movie is a sci-fi-fantasy thriller like “Frequency” (2000). The second part is so obviously “The Fugitive” (1993) starring Harrison Ford. It is all about the chase and evades.
There is a lot of running too.
The movie even has its own figurative Tommy Lee Jones and “The one-armed man” characters. There is actually one scene that so reminiscent of a scene between Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones that I laughed at the movie.
Not with the movie!
At the movie!
The third part of the movie turns into more of a home invasion slasher movie although still with one foot in the thriller traditions. There are overlaps between the genres somewhat.
I’ve seen this type of fracturing of genres in Korean movies recently. It seems to be an attempt to experiment with imported entertainment concepts. However, in almost all cases, it just comes off as sloppy. With “The Phone” (2015), the movie essentially has to dumb down the characters and the logic of their action so that all the pieces fit together. It is essentially hammering the wrong puzzle piece in a gap trying to force it.
You know people who would do that!
This is one of those movies in which you want to shout at the screen how dumb the characters are. I cannot say that there wasn’t some weird enjoyment to the act of heckling the characters on screen. Isn’t that the main attraction of reality television? However, I don’t think that the creators intended the audience to make fun of the movie.
I really needed to toss popcorn at the movie. But, one, this is Korea and tossing popcorn is fawned upon here. Second, I went cheap and didn’t get any popcorn. What? I’m not getting paid to watch this movie! As a side note, if anyone wants to donate to my Review Korean movie fund, please donate what you could spare. LOL
As this movie is time travel adjacent, I will have to talk about the depiction of the “time” thing. The movie does not do anything special in terms of the visual presentation of the effects of time manipulation. Think the movie “Looper” (2012) starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and you’ll get how it looks. When things happen to influence the present in the past, the present is instantly corrected although, in this movie, the changes are only visible to the husband and us, the audience.
Time Logic wise, while “The Phone” (2015) may think it is clever, it has serious consistency issues. The “time” thing seems to work on the logic that, while the two-time lines are cross-connected via a magic Samsung Smartphone and run in parallel with each other at the same speed, the present is still the result of the past. This is why changes made in the past gets immediately reflected in changes in the present.
Then, logic dictates that the only real way the past can be altered and thus also influence the present is via the conversation conducted by the magic Samsung Smartphone. What I am saying is that the husband can alter the present by talking to his wife or giving the information that would cause her to act differently from what she would have done without that conversation. And the ripple effect is somewhat instantaneous once the conversation is finished.
The problem with the movie is that, if it sticks to its “time” rules, the last 40 minutes of this movie shouldn’t have happened as there were no more interaction with the past that would have changed the present. I see this as a casualty of focusing too much on the present with Son Hyun-Joo doing his best impression of Harrison Ford. The fact that the past really does not really become relevant to the story really once the first act is over really hinders that storytelling.
At the End
If I think about it now, “The Phone / 더 폰” (2015) is essentially a thriller like “The Fugitive” (1993) starring Harrison Ford but with sci-fi fantasy trapping of the movie “Frequency” (2000) graphed on to spice up a tired old movie setup. This attempt is a failure since the script is not really coherent and the characters act so stupid that you want this movie’s “one-armed man” to just kill them already.
The wife seems to be written with the brain of a Friday the 13th slutty girl.
Just go sit in front of a public building!
I shouldn’t blame the characters for the poor writing on the part of the writer/director. This is a shame because, in many ways, “The Phone / 더 폰” (2015) is very adequate except for the story. The writer/director is a far more competent director than he is a writer and he knows how to direct for this genre.
Overall, I would give “The Phone / 더 폰” (2015) a C grade.
Score: C or 4.5/10