South Korea. 2004.
Director/Screenplay – Jeong Yong-ki, Producer – Woo-seong Shin, Photography – Cheol-ho Jo, Music – Ji-woong Park. Production Company – Ma-in Entertainment/Pilma Pictures.
Kim Yu-mi (Hae-mi), Shin Hyeong-Tak (Tae-song), Ho-jin Chun (Choi), Eun Kyeong-lim (Mi-na), Hyeong-jun Lim (Jeong-ki), Ka-yeong Lee (Seon-yeong), Ji-young Ok (Yeong-ha), Kim Do-young (Im Jae-won), Nam Myung-rul (Chained Man)
A group of people are invited to a doll museum in the countryside. These include a sculptor, a photographer, a student and a strange introverted woman who believes the doll she carries is alive, as well as a man who says he invited himself because he is a model but is really a detective. The curator Choi introduces them to the lifelike dolls that populate the museum and are all modelled on living people. They meet Im, the strange wheelchair-ridden woman who makes the dolls. As the group explore the museum, the dolls appear to come to life and start killing them.
The South Korean horror film has taken off as a film genre during the 2000s/10s. This was inspired by the major revival of the Japanese ghost story in the late 1990s with hits like Ring (1998) and Ju-on: The Grudge (2003), a phenomenon that spread right around much of Asia. The Koreans readily jumped aboard the bandwagon and produced their own remake of Ring with The Ring Virus (1999), as well as other efforts such as Nightmare (2000), Phone (2003), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Dead Friend/The Ghost (2004),, Cello (2005), The Red Shoes (2005), Muoi (2007) and White (2011) to name the most famous.
The Doll Master is essentially a 1980s Charles Band film like Dolls (1987) or Puppetmaster (1989), or perhaps even Tourist Trap (1979), having been reinvented as a Korean ghost story. It is a film where director Jeong Yong-ki accrues quite a degree of spookiness and uncanny atmosphere. First of all, there are the guest rooms at the museum that have freakish life-size dolls attached to walls holding mirrors or suspended from the ceiling, even looming over the backs of toilet cubicles.
There are some undeniably strange and creepy characters – the introverted and withdrawn Yeong-ha and her very peculiar relationship with her doll that she insists is alive; the wheelchair-ridden dollmaker Mrs Im and the creations she makes; the man mysteriously chained up in the cellar of the building; and the mysterious figure of the girlish Mi-na who insists that heroine Hae-ni knows her.
The film creates some decidedly uncanny goings-on around the museum. There is something undeniably spooky to scenes like the one as the detective hides in the cupboard to avoid discovery only for the doll standing beside him to slowly turn its eyes to look at him and then raise its hand to touch his shoulder. Or of Ka-yeong Lee trapped in a bathroom cubicle being strangled by a doll come to life.
The film creates a reasonable atmosphere even if you feel that that Jeong Yong-ki pulls his punches in some of the shocks that are piled on towards the end. The film arrives at a very strange left field ending that goes sideways in all manner of directions and proves undeniably interesting.
Jeong Yong-ki has gone on to make several other films in the action, comedy and caper genres, although no other genre works.
Full film available here