How do you stop a killing in the past? That’s the central challenge of The Call, Netflix’s latest Korean film acquisition. Featuring leading starlet Park Shin-hye and rising actress Jeon Jong-seo, this thriller depicts two women who become connected across time periods through a mysterious landline telephone. When the woman of the past starts on a serial killing spree, the woman of the present must take action before it’s too late.
Even if it doesn’t aspire to push filmmaking boundaries or provide philosophical musings, the movie is a solid piece of entertainment that doesn’t feel trite, even with the preponderance of time travel murder mysteries. Through effective world-building and acting, The Call creates a distinctively chilling and suspenseful vibe that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats until its very last moments.
Telephone Time Travel
The Call begins with a young woman named Kim Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) getting dropped off at an ornate countryside house with creepy gothic vibes. After getting situated, Seo-yeon hears the rings of a clunky landline telephone. She picks it up, and hears the pleading cries of another young woman named Oh Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), who insists that her shaman mother is trying to kill her. Seo-yeon soon realizes that Oh Young-sook lived in the same house two decades ago, and the landline somehow allows the two women to connect across time.
In spite of Young-sook’s abusive shaman mother, Seo-yeon and Young-sook begin to form a bond. However, when a warning from Seo-yeon leads Young-sook to kill her mother and embark on a murder spree, Seo-yeon realizes that she may have opened a time-traversing Pandora’s Box with bloody—and personal—consequences.
Gothic Shamanistic Vibes
Time-travel murder mysteries aren’t exactly novel. The Call is actually adapted from a Puerto Rican-British film named The Caller; Hollywood makes many instances of the subgenre. Superfans of Korean media might also feel that The Call evokes hit K-drama Signal, which featured a walkie talkie that allowed a detective in 1985 to communicate with a criminal profiler in 2015.
Despite this, The Call avoids feeling formulaic—especially for global audiences—by building a chilling world that blends reliable horror elements with Korean tradition. The house that much of the film takes place in looks a lot like your classic Western haunted house, with gothic architectural elements like hood moulds and a creepy basement to boot. As expected for a horror-tinged thriller, dark colors dominate the movie’s palette, and much of the action takes place using artificial lighting or in low light.
However, The Call goes beyond those standard horror expectations by bringing in a distinctive Korean flair. For example, one scene has Young-sook stuff a clump of tendrily seaweed into her mouth and gnaw like a deranged cthulhu. This chilling use of Korean cuisine certainly wouldn’t occur in a Hollywood horror film. Furthermore, Young-sook’s mother performs exorcisms that draw from traditional Korean shamanism—which has been enjoying a renaissance in the 21st century and influenced numerous Korean movies. Reminiscent of Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden, The Call blends “Western” visuals with distinctive Korean context to create a distinctively foreboding vibe.
Acting and Suspense
Beyond worldbuilding, The Call also features an outstanding performance from Jeon Jong-seo. This is particularly notable given Jeon’s only prior acting role was as Hae-mi, the female lead of Lee Chang-dong’s critically acclaimed film Burning.
Jeon plays Young-sook with a degree of intense unhingedness that not only contributes to The Call’s chilling vibes, but keeps audiences guessing about what she might do next. Young-sook toggles seamlessly between victim and manipulator, crying to Seo-yeon on the phone in one moment and incapacitating victims with fire extinguisher blasts in the next. The fact that Young-sook is such a contrast from the rather carefree Hae-mi of Burning speaks positively to Jeon’s range as an actress. Coupled with a well-crafted narrative that incorporates ample twists, Jeon’s acting gives The Call a constant current of electrifying suspense that lasts even into its post-credit scenes.
While The Call may not have the same philosophical aura as other Korean thrillers like I Saw the Devil, that probably wasn’t the film’s intent. When judged as a blockbuster, The Call is a solid piece of work. Its chilling visuals, suspenseful plot, and compelling acting should please anybody with a thirst for thrilling murder mysteries.
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The Call (Korean: 콜)– South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Lee Chung-hyun. Running time 1hr 52min. First released November 27, 2020. Starring Park Shin-hye, Jeon Jong-seo.
The Call is available for streaming on Netflix worldwide.