Since its commodification, Asia has capitalized on the horror genre perhaps more fiercely than any other continent. From early Japanese tales of feudal terrors like Ugetsu (雨月物語), Kwaidan (怪談), and Kuroneko (藪の中の黒猫), to more modern tales of turmoil like Ringu (リング), Ju-on: The Grudge (呪怨じゅおん), as well as South Korean horror like A Tale of Two Sisters (장화, 홍련), all having been subjected to American remakes during the mid-aughts boom of Asian horror remakes. In comparison to Japan, South Korea doesn’t tend to export as many of their horror films, and their products feel much less deliberate as a result. Rather than going full-on into throwing every scare in the book at you, films like The Wailing (곡성) or even Parasite (기생충), take much slower and quieter approaches to the horror at hand, opting not to show the monster at any given point, but to rather taunt you with the threat of what said monster could do before the final showdown. Shudder’s Warning: Do Not Play (암전) plays out more like an American horror film released in March than it does its revered counterparts, and that is both the film’s blessing and curse.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a ton of style indicative of Korean filmmaking methods in Warning: Do Not Play that are unmistakable, but the film opts for action, not atmosphere, to build the terror of the entire production. What this leads to is a film that is ambitiously self-aware and quite meta in how it sees itself, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite run with its clever approach long enough before being taken down a few pegs by its cheap payoffs.
Warning: Do Not Play follows young filmmaker Mi-jung (Seo Ye-ji), who is working on directing her first feature horror film after working on it for eight years. Investigating local urban legends and rumors for inspiration, she comes across an old rumor of a student film made a decade ago so scary that one viewer died of a heart attack at its first screening and it hasn’t been shown since. Needing to know what went into crafting a horror film of that intensity, Mi-jung goes on a mission to seek out any information and contacts she can find on the film, but soon finds herself in over her head upon discovering more than just frightening footage in the film, but a far more sinister energy.
On paper, Warning: Do Not Play sounds like another cheap rip-off of Ringu or One Missed Call (着信アリ) with a focal character being “marked” by a possessed inanimate object with a sinister spirit controlling it, but it positions itself, at least initially, as a satirical riff off of those types of films, even dipping into critique of modern internet film culture and the effects that it has on the legacies of any film it sees fit to ingrain into the culture. These are the moments of the film that really shine, especially with Seo’s grounded performance as Mi-jung, giving the film a legitimate weight that a similar film might suffer for a lack of.
The issues begin to poke through the cracks when the film loses all sense of subtlety about the type of horror film it’s looking to be. It begins to take itself both way too literally and far too seriously to become a sustainably scary horror film, even at a lean 86 minutes. Asian horror has never been known for being subtle, but that genuinely has no bearing on how scary a film can be with the right intentions and mindset behind the camera. Something new and exciting doesn’t necessarily have to be subtle and artsy, but, unfortunately for Warning: Do Not Play, there isn’t all that much new material to work with, both in things seen in eastern and western horror.
That doesn’t mean the film is completely hopeless, at least not on a technical front, as Warning: Do Not Play at least doesn’t look cheap. South Korea, especially, has a wonderful beauty just about its architectural structure that lends itself to some truly wonderful production design all around, and this film is no different. Director Kim Jin-won finds some wonderful locations to set the film around. Despite itself, the film does stage a genuinely tense sequence in the second act revolving around an abandoned theatre that, had the film ran with that same initial energy and vigor, could’ve made it work as a whole.
I’m finding myself comparing Warning: Do Not Play with a host of other Asian horror films that it reminds me of because, despite its best efforts, it does nothing particularly new or spectacular enough to stand on its own two feet. Still, disposable horror has its place everywhere, and there’s sometimes nothing like turning your mind off for a night to watch some people get spooked. It’s just a bit of a shame that we as an audience can’t be as spooked as the characters in the film. That would’ve really gotten the party going. Alas, what’s left is fodder; shiny, commendable fodder, but fodder nonetheless.
Available for streaming on Shudder beginning June 11th, 2020.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.