While the rom-com (romantic comedy) genre has been a staple formula within general cinema for quite some time now, the South Korean film industry, within the last decade or so, has shown considerable favoritism towards the genre as whole. With one of the most prominent entertainment industries throughout Eastern Asia, the genre of rom-com has permeated throughout popular South Korean films, with such examples as My Sassy Girl (2001), My Little Bride (2004), and 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) being some of the country’s biggest box office showings. What’s there not to like—with a formula that subscribes to two relatively cute leads that eventually fall in love, the recipe couldn’t be simpler. But for every smash hit, there is a plethora of disappointing and shamelessly uncreative films that have plague the genre as well, with the overly exploitative nature of the genre being used simply to garner a quick return profit for film studios. So how does Hwang In-Ho’s Spellbound fare considering its connotations as a film subscribing to the relatively stale rom-com genre?
Surprisingly, Spellbound provides a refreshing albeit familiar take on a genre that is more miss-than-hit these days. Known more for his work as a screenwriter for such films as Sisily 2km (2004) and Love Phobia (2006), Spellbound is Hwang In-Ho’s directorial debut, and given his shared responsibility of both screenwriter and director for the film, shows considerable promise in the latter and continued expertise in the former. The film’s unique premise is as a great example of transcending the tired tropes of the rom-com genre while still retaining elements that have made the genre as accessible—and successful—as it is today. Horror and comedy often exhibit a sense of ambivalence within film, but Hwang handles the two with careful attention as to not have one take precedence over the other, even though the aspect of horror may appear as gimmicky as first. He elicits the elements of horror within Spellbound in a reasonable fashion, effectively bringing about a frightful take on the character’s predicaments but also inserting elements of humor and romance at just the right moments to ease and reassert the film’s genre-specific attributes.
Where the film really shines is the chemistry between Yeo-Ri and Jo-Goo, played here by Son Ye-Jin and Lee Min-Ki respectively. The film humorously builds upon their relationship as co-workers and subsequent budding romance, with Jo-Goo comically attempting to understand the terrifying world in which Yeo-Ri experiences on a daily basis. Son Ye-Jin is fantastic as her role of the loner Yeo-Ri, always attempting to avoid personal contact with individuals and simply accepting her fate as a medium of ghastly supernatural entities. On the other hand, Lee Min-Ki is also great in his role as the rather suave magician J-Goo, who slowly gets absorbed into the world of Yeo-Ri as he takes a liking to her—even if he gets easily frightened at the mere sight of a ghostly figure. Hwang uses the idea of horror in a creative fashion though—we slowly begin to see the aspects of horror within the film as an allegory towards the anxiety stemming from new relationships, in which going out on a limb to date someone that you like is just as scary as experiencing a paranormal encounter. While not as philosophical as one might hope, it complements the film’s creative narrative and removes it from simply following the superficial offerings that the genre widely offers.
Spellbound is rather uncommon in that it successfully combines romance, comedy, and horror within a framework that is supported through its strong cast. Hwang balances these elements in a way that doesn’t produce Spellbound as simply another addition in the long list of unforgettable and substandard rom-com fares, but rather creates a welcoming experience for even the most jaded of film viewers. While the film does become slightly formulaic towards the end—with an elongated conclusion that is just a tad too long for its own good—it certainly provides quite a promising future for director Hwang In-Ho as Spellbound is simply one of the better experiences to come about from one of the most overcrowded genres within contemporary South Korean cinema, reinvigorating it as one still worthy of being innovative, engaging, and just playing fun.