Sunday, October 23, 2011

13 FOR HALLOWEEN #10: R-Point

Vietnam, 1972. A South Korean army base in Nah-Trang receives a static-heavy radio transmission from a platoon pinpointing their whereabouts as R-Point, a barren tract of no-man’s-land marked by a dilapidated temple and a makeshift graveyard. Military intelligence are disconcerted: the platoon went missing, presumed dead, six months previously. The sole surviving member, his face swathed in bandages and still confined to a hospital bed, is interviewed about the occurrence. He immediately degenerates into a screaming fit.

Thus the first three or four minutes of Su-chang Kong’s ‘R-Point’, a film that blends the innocence-under-siege war movie aesthetic of ‘Platoon’ with everything you know and love about J-horror, from the insidious and unseen evil creeping inexorably into the protagonists’ lives and consciousness to the contractually obligatory appearance of a ghost girl with long black hair.

Following the interview with the survivor, a team is assembled – ostensibly under the command of Lieutenant Choi (Woo-seong Kam) – to conduct a detailed search of R-Point and either determine whether or not the missing platoon are still alive. “Ostensibly” being the operative word, since Choi and Sergeant Jin (Byung-ho Son) are at odds from the outset. The tension between them threatens to develop into an all-out power struggle, except that the rest of the team are less interested in siding with one or the other than finding a set of dogtags – just a single set – that would allow them to document their predecessors as definitively lost and go home and take advantage of some long-delayed leave.

Events are taken out of their hands, however, when they reach the temple. This is where Kong plays his hand and what started out as a fairly generic men-on-a-mission flick (with even the ghostly radio message at the start functioning more as a McGuffin than a balls-to-the-wall scare tactic) gradually being subverted into the realms of horror. “Gradually” being the operative word, with the sequence of events progressing from elliptical glimpses of the aforementioned ghost girl to a tense whittle-down-the-numbers finale reminiscent of ‘The Thing’, by way of the sucker punch revelation that Choi and Jin’s team includes a dead man.

Kong’s sleight of hand in pulling off this particular bit of narrative trickery is as confident as it is audacious. It’s certainly the high point of the film, a pièce de résistance worthy of comparison to Dario Argento giving you the killer’s identity pretty damn early on in ‘Deep Red’ and banking on his audience remaining blind to it. The brilliance of it is perhaps, ever so slightly, to the film’s detriment, since many other elements of ‘R-Point’ seem generic – arguably derivative – by comparison.

Still, there is much to enjoy in this still-underrated entry in the J-horror canon. The characters are a bunch of average joes forced into the theatre of conflict and trying to deal with as best they can, rather than the macho grunts depicted by so many American mainstream movies of this ilk. Kong practically drenches the movie in atmosphere: a shot of the temple at sunset is striking and unsettling; likewise a previously overlooked field full of crosses, suddenly illuminated by lightning, is as creepy as any of the outright supernatural scenes.

Even if it doesn’t quite hit the heights of ‘The Ring’ or ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’ (for me, the A-list of J-horror), then it misses only by a short head. ‘R-Point’ is grittily shot, energetically directed and gives you the creeps as effortlessly as it blends genres.

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