I go off on justifying violence and scary content all the time in film reviews. If there is one thing I hate in horror, it's gratuitous violence. If it serves no greater narrative purpose than upsetting the audience, it's worthless. Cello, from writer/director Woo-cheol Lee, refuses to justify anything that happens in its running time. There is no plot, no character development, and no reason for anything that happens in the film to happen.
What little story there is goes as follows. Hong Mi-Ju is a music professor. She has flashes of a horrible car crash that cause her severe anxiety. A former student threatens to take revenge on her for a bad grade. Strange things begin to happen for seventy minutes. A bunch of blood is splattered for ten minutes. Then a twist ending kicks in that does nothing to illuminate or justify what happened in the rest of the film.
Cello is the kind of film that breaks my heart. The film is very well-made from every technical standpoint. There is beautiful cinematography. Hong Mi-Ju is filmed from strange angles to create a sense of unease. Objects around her fall in and out of focus as her anxiety and fear peaks. The colors just slightly off and unreal in a constant flux of filters.
The actors are doing great work, but they have nothing worthwhile to work it. Their characters do not advance beyond their initial introductions. Hong Mi-Ju teaches cello but won't play one herself anymore. Her husband is bending over backwards to help his wife through her anxiety. Their older daughter has an unspecified developmental disorder and their younger daughter is constantly seeking attention. Hong Mi-Ju's professor friend is obsessed with professional status and her former student is an entitled brat. I could go on. Once you see a character, you know everything there is to know. That's a big problem in this kind of film.
I believe with Woo-cheol Lee is trying to do here is play with the nature of dreams. Because Hong Mi-Ju constantly hallucinates, we don't know what actually happened. Did someone really shove a screwdriver into her tire? Did she really stand there for two minutes demanding the new housekeeper state her name? Or is she imagining all of these odd things that are happening in her life.
Conceptually, there is something worth playing with here. It's the impact of trauma on the perception of reality. Films like Jacob's Ladder and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? stewed in this concept for longer running times. The problem is that concept alone can't save a film that doesn't have an actual story.
I think I can best describe the impact of Cello like this. You're waiting for a bus to arrive. You are the second person on the line. The bus is late. Ten minutes pass, twenty, thirty, forty. After fifty minutes, the bus finally shows up. It stops just long enough for the one person in front of you to get on and drives off. You then decide to chase after the bus for another forty minutes, hoping the driver will see you, pull over, and let you enjoy the rest of the ride. He's stuck in bumper to bumper traffic and keeps stopping just long enough for you to reach the door. He pulls away again as if you aren't there. He guns it on the freeway after you've wasted 90 minutes trying to catch the bus. You never get to your destination. You know you've experienced something unusual, but it's not fulfilling at all.
The plot of Cello is the bus driver who shows up late and refuses to let you ride. It's just not worth the effort.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.