As someone who has avidly consumed a lot of movies and shows over the years, I’ve found that for a piece of media to really make an impression and remain in my memory, it has to either be really exceptional or horrifyingly bad. For me, this spectrum runs the gamut between Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Anything in between sort of falls into a netherworld most easily summarized with this common reaction I have: “Oh! Yeah, [insert name of film or show here], I’ve seen it… I think…”
The Call, a South Korean thriller directed by Lee Chung-hyun, falls into this category. Although the movie’s initial premise is solid, it suffers from some questionable writing choices and a shaky ending that the movie’s gripping but predictable plot twists can’t really compensate for. Ultimately, I felt like the movie was carried by its second lead, Jeon Jong-seo, whose admirable performance kept me at the edge of my seat.
Set in rural Korea, The Call is a time travel thriller that explores the spiraling relationship between Kim Seo-yeon, played by Korean drama darling Park Shin-hye, and Oh Young-sook, portrayed by the relatively unknown Jeon Jong-seo. When Seo-yeon travels back to her childhood home to visit her ailing mother in 2019, she begins to receive eerie calls from Young-sook, who claims that she’s being abused by her own mother. Seo-yeon discovers that Young-sook is communicating from the past in 1999, and that Young-sook lived in her childhood home prior to their arrival. The two women begin an unlikely friendship forged from their past traumas dealt by the hands of their parents: Seo-yeon lost her father due to an accidental fire seemingly triggered by her mother’s neglect, and Young-sook suffers constantly from her superstitious adoptive mother, who is a shaman.
In a bid to change their futures that catalyzes the events of the rest of the film, Young-sook sneaks out of the house, risking her mother’s punishment, to prevent the accidental fire that kills Seo-yeon’s father. Reality is altered, and Seo-yeon tearfully reunites with her father, who has been saved and lives happily in the new timeline. Of course, there’s always a catch. To Seo-yeon’s horror, she discovers that in this new timeline, Young-sook dies by the hands of her abusive mother. Aiming to repay her for giving her a new life, Seo-yeon helps Young-sook avoid her impending death. In a terrifying twist of events, Young-sook, mentally ill and now unrestrained, becomes a serial killer. With Young-sook in charge of Seo-yeon’s future and Seo-yeon armed with the knowledge of how Young-sook is eventually caught, the two engage in a time travel battle with the ownership of each of their lives at stake.
If the movie sounds gripping up to this point, you’d be right. Outside of Seo-yeon’s weirdly calm reaction to being able to talk through time to a girl who’s clearly suffering from physical and mental abuse, and the fact that she reacts to being in a creepy house in a way that’s true to the dense-horror-protagonist trope – by basically shrugging her shoulders and staying in the creepy house – the movie has a great build-up. The roller coaster has reached its apex, and it’s threatening to hurtle back towards the Earth with frightening speed. But it’s here where the writers seemed to have failed to lay the tracks down to stick the landing successfully.
The main issue that audience members will have with this movie is the time travel mechanics. Admittedly, time travel is difficult to write, and with it being such a common plot device, I can only imagine that even introducing it in a story means embracing the risk of being subjected to intense scrutiny from viewers who want to see if the logic holds up. In my opinion, I think that writers deserve some slack for even attempting to write a time travel story, and if it’s an entertaining one that doesn’t make me quit midway through it, that’s even better. The Call does hold up to this standard. However, as the movie approaches its climax, which revolves around a modern reality so distorted that Seo-yeon finds herself in a chilling version of her childhood home that serves as the dungeon-like headquarters for a Young-sook who has evaded capture, the time travel elements get so muddled that the action is hard to appreciate. The worst offender is the final confrontation between Seo-yeon and Young-sook, which takes place in both 1999 and in 2019 with both their past and present-day selves. It makes no sense that these two simultaneous confrontations could be happening with no impact on either the past or the present. The best way I can explain it without getting confused myself is that it felt like both past and present were interdependent on each other with no set rules to govern how events could change.
When this final confrontation is over, it appears that Young-sook has finally been defeated. At this point, the film decides to show audience members a series of plot twists that felt a little unnecessary to me. Initially, we are led to believe that in the 1999 version of the final confrontation, Seo-yeon’s mother sacrifices herself to save her, leading to a net loss in the new reality for the 2019 Seo-yeon – she has now lost both her parents. This is a seemingly adequate landmark to wrap up the film. From this, we have a cohesive message whose point is driven home by the drama and tension of the film: appreciate what you have and your parents for who they are, and don’t be greedy and wish for something you can’t have. However, in a twist of good luck, the film then immediately shows us that her mother is actually alive and well, only having a scar to show for her encounter with Young-sook in 1999. Despite its happy intentions, this was disappointing to me as a viewer because it erases the lessons that Seo-yeon should have learned from this experience. Not only is her mother alive and well in this reality, but their relationship is actually better than her original reality shown in the beginning of the film – a net positive after going through an otherwise hellish experience with a serial killer. Lastly, in its penultimate, mid-credits twist, the film cuts to an older Young-sook helping the 1999 Young-sook evade defeat, and we see Seo-yeon’s mother disappear again. I’m not sure why there were so many twists bundled together at the end of the film. It would’ve saved me some disappointment if the film ended where it seemed reasonable, with Seo-yeon’s mother sacrificing herself and dying. The last two twists seemed unnecessary, especially if the conclusion and message of the film is unchanged. Neither of the twists added to the drama or tension of the film, which had resolved once the final confrontation was over. It’s a shaky ending that could’ve been easily avoided.
Frustrations aside, one part of the film that did consistently impress me was Jeon Jong-seo’s portrayal of Oh Young-sook. For only her second appearance in a film, Jeon Jong-seo’s performance was unsettling in all the best ways. Her character was convincingly unhinged, and able to seamlessly transition from friendly confidante to ruthless killer. Against Park Shin-hye’s relatively flat performance, Young-sook’s mannerisms and increasingly demonic behavior kept me invested in the film even through all of its plot holes.
All things considered, The Call was an enjoyable film that’s unfortunately riddled with plot issues that may take audience members out of immersion. It’s a beautiful looking film with a genuinely menacing antagonist, but relatively unremarkable in most other aspects. It’s not the best that South Korea or Netflix has to offer, but it’s a good Saturday night watch with friends.