Once there was a man who loved a woman in a red kimono. For this woman, he created a doll in her likeness, but was unaware of something important. The fact that the doll could also love him. The one day the woman was found dead. The man was accused of killing her, & he was attacked by a group of vigilantes. On his way to death he saw one last thing – it was the doll’s face looking at him. The doll hung around his grave, & stayed with him forever. Sixty years later, a group of strangers arrive at a museum deep in the woods, where they have been summoned to be the models for a doll maker. But is there more to their presence than that, what secret unites them, & who is the strange girl in a red dress walking around the place?
I have to confess that I was a little wary approaching “The Doll Master” since horror films revolving around dolls are usually poor at best – look at how many attempts it’s taken to make a half-decent “Child’s Play” film, whilst I’ve been trying to wipe the memory of “Dolly Dearest” from my mind for over a decade. If “The Doll Master” doesn’t quite reverse the trend, it can at least claim to being the scariest & most interesting possessed doll movie yet made – but as noted, the competition ain’t too hot. Most previous doll movies make the mistake of having 1 foot tall dolls running around with knives, which winds up looking nothing but extremely funny. “The Doll Master” comes at it from a different angle, revolving around life-size dolls, whose black hair covering the eyes appearance sticks to the proven Ringu formula of looking really freaky. Particularly unnerving are the half-dolls that loom out of the wall holding a mirror, or down from the ceiling as an implausibly scary light fitting.
Another factor in favour of “The Doll Master” is that instead of having possessed dolls running around, the plot actually revolves around dolls gaining souls, & then possessing the living. In a bit of plotting bizarrely reminiscent of “Toy Story 2”, toys with souls (which they acquire through being loved intensely) are discarded, but instead of sitting around feeling sorry for themselves they get very bitter & twisted, & come for revenge upon those who have abandoned them. This adds a welcome layer of complexity & even a touch of melancholy to the otherwise mundane proceedings.
Whilst “The Doll Master” looks really beautiful (in the making of, it is noted that some of the imported crew had worked on “Three Colours Blue” & “The Pianist”), it’s ultimately let down by a lack of mood & atmosphere. The film really needed the same kind of off-kilter Lynchian atmosphere as “Tale of Two Sisters” to fully work, but there’s too much humour, broad acting & reliance upon jump cuts to affect sudden shocks. Despite that, when it does get going it delivers a few of those horribly creeping “Aargh! Don’t turn around because there’s something really nasty there!” scenes of tension of the type that we only seem to get nowadays in Asian movies about women with long black hair. There are even a couple of nice little gore moments that I certainly appreciated. On the downside, it takes a long time (at least 40 minutes) to get going, & it’s beset by plotting that is by turns predictable or absurdly illogical.
Whilst the performances are generally pretty decent, the actors are somewhat undercut by a routine script that gives us routine clichéd types (the quiet, odd woman; the bubbly schoolgirl etc) rather than genuine characters. Not too different from many slasher movies, you can pretty much guess what’s going to happen to them from the outset, & the only character twist is pretty illogical & adds little to proceedings. The one standout performance in the film comes from Lim Eun-kyeong as the odd young girl Mina, who manages to be both extremely creepy & oddly sympathetic as the plot progresses.
Overall, the whole doll angle makes for sufficient of a distinction from the recent glut of Asian horror movies for “The Doll Master” to stand on it’s own distinct from the crowd. Whilst it’s not good enough to be a “must see” if you’re a fan of this style of films, like “Phone” & “One Missed Call” it offers enough to be worth checking out. If it had had better developed plotting, well-drawn characters & a more pervasive atmosphere it would have been essential. But then it would also be a different film.
“The Doll Master” comes to UK courtesy of those fine folks at Optimum Asia with a decent anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, which is nice & colourful if occasionally prone to minor touches of artefacting. The Korean Dolby 5.1 audio is good stuff, whilst English subs are optional.
A nice selection of extras commences with a “Making of” which runs over 46mins & contains some great on-set footage & interesting interviews, even if the over-literal female voice-over is intrusive. Next, there’s a selection of deleted scenes with (not optional) director’s commentary. Interestingly, he notes that often these scenes were cut for spelling things out too much, preferring the slight ambiguity of the final cut. Next, there are two interview segments, one with the effects & make-up director, & one with the film’s doll maker. The package is rounded out with trailer for this, & a selection of other Optimum Asia titles, including the much anticipated (well, by me anyway!) “Azumi 2”.