Quite frankly, I’ve grown a bit tired of meta horror and meta film in general...
...What was once a novel and daring innovation has now become a pretentious vanity exercise. Of course, there are several exceptions, but it takes a lot to impress me when it comes to filmmakers who rejoice in how clever they think they are and mask their self-flattery by claiming it’s their way of paying respect to the filmmaking experience. However, not all filmmakers set out to flex their intellect muscles. South Korean writer/director Kim Jin-Won has conjured his talents to tell a compelling meta horror tale in Warning: Do Not Play. Thankfully, the film manages to escape most of the ego driven pitfalls of self-reflexive fiction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t falter in other areas.
Mi-Jung (Seo Ye-Ji) is a passionate, uncompromising young filmmaker who has been laboring over her horror film project for eight years. Mi-Jung’s best friend, Joon-Seo (Yoon-Ho Ji) tells her about a strange case, where a student film festival screened a film that caused the audience to flee from the theater. One viewer was so disturbed that he had a heart attack. The filmmaker later stated that a ghost filmed the entire production. Mi-Jung, being a curious and tenacious filmmaker, decides to embark on her own investigation into the case. As you might suspect, she finds herself descending into a dark rabbit hole of mystery and dark discoveries. As Mi-Jung uncovers the truth behind the doomed film, her own sanity begins to slip.
The first 15 minutes of the film are fantastic. Kim-Jin Won knows how to set up a good story and settle the audience in with locked engagement. No time is wasted, as Mi-Jung travels from one place to the next with rapid pacing and tight, focused bits of exposition. The film gives us everything we need to know in a lean opening. The problem is, after the gears are set in motion and the pace picks up, Warning: Do Not Play doesn’t know where to take us. What was initially a relatively straightforward premise, becomes a murky, incoherent mess of badly delivered story information. The story is rather interesting and so is the eventual reveal, but it’s the way in which it’s told that is the main offender here. To give credit, mysteries are, by design, hard to effectively construct. You have to deal out information in such a balanced way and at the right times that striking that balance is very difficult. I do think Kim-Jin Won tries to find that balance, but ultimately the film never connects with its audience in a way that flows naturally. I found myself confused during parts when the film wants us to be informed, but because we’re lost, we can’t experience the emotional beats as intended.
The fact that Warning is decidedly more of a mystery than a horror film is certainly subjective, but I find it troubling. Of course, mystery and horror can coexist, but it doesn’t do either particularly well. The film contains many horror aesthetics but never fully commits to them, leaving us with a film that might look and sound like a horror film at times, but without the impact. There are a few scenes of note, however. About halfway through the film, Mi-Jung comes face to face with an entity (not a spoiler) and the noises that the apparition gives off are truly terrifying. It’s a chattering, smacking sound that’s reminiscent of ASMR, if it had been recorded in Hell. Had the film had more moments like this, I think I would be more likely to forgive the muddling plot.
Performances are top notch all the way around in the film. Seo Ye-Ji is a highlight as Mi-Jung. At first, she comes off as a blank slate, but you soon realize that her cold, somewhat aloof presence is simply a byproduct of her interests. Not to say that all filmmakers are silent, awkward introverts, but her character is so absorbed in her work and passions that I totally buy it. Rarely do I ever comment on the sincerity of a character and their believability, but that’s only because I don’t see it often. Seo’s performance is excellent and I have since been seeking out her work. A role that I actually wish was more fleshed out was the character of Joon-Seo. Yoon-Ho Ji does a great job at playing the concerned best friend, but that can be a thankless, inconsequential role. I feel that due to his fine acting abilities, he could have been utilized more in the plot. Perhaps, when Mi-Jung is investigating the old theater, he could have been her backup. Or maybe, he could have gotten hurt, making Mi-Jung question her somewhat selfish quest and now harnesses guilt. Of course, these are just ideas, and it’s not my film, but I do think more could have been done with him. I felt a connection between the two and that’s not always an easy thing to capture.
Unlike so many other meta horror films, Warning: Do Not Play does not constantly call attention to itself and its cleverness. It’s not concerned with being some big ego driven homage to horror or the filmmaking process. I respect it for that. While it isn’t told particularly well, the story is more important than the meta vehicle this could have been. The story doesn’t serve its meta sensibilities, the meta sensibilities serve the story. If the script had been worked a bit more and horror was a primary focus, I think this could have been something very special. As it stands though, Warning is an unremarkable affair, with some remarkable things lining it. The performances and character subtleties make the film worth a watch. However, if its scares you’re after, this probably won’t satisfy your horror hunger.
By Jeffrey W. Hollingsworth