Hong Mi-ju (Hyeon-a Seong]) is a part time music teacher who works at an academy for the arts, and when she's not doing that she looks after her two children, the older one autistic and never speaking. Today she has a talk with her superior who would like to see her returning to performing, but because of an incident in her past, Mi-ju is reluctant. On leaving the office, she is confronted by a student who tells her she holds her responsible for her substandard grades after she marked her poorly during an examination, and for this the student will do her level best to make life difficult for her. Sure enough, when Mi-ju goes to her car in the underground car park, one of her tyres has been slashed. Driving home, she puts a cassette in the car's player, but the music has sinister effects on her demeanour, causing her to almost crash. Almost?
Cello, or Chello Hongmijoo Ilga Salinsagan to give the film its South Korean title, at first sight could be any one of a multitude of Asian horror movies with its encroaching atmosphere of doom and mysterious happenings afflicting its female protagonist. Unfortunately, that's what it looks like on second sight too, as even though it manages to hold off the regular clichés for quite some period of its running time it eventually tips over the top into full blown melodrama. Scripted by director Woo-cheol Lee, this was his debut effort and he presents his story with a confident hand without really bringing much that is new to the table.
Still, for addicts of this kind of thing it should be just the job for some familiar chills, although it doesn't seem that way at first. In fact, it comes across as remote and disjointed in the first half, as the revelations of what is actually going on are kept at a distance. After Mi-ju's near accident (but if she didn't crash why do we see her in hospital in a terrible conditon before the opening titles?) she arrives home, greets the dog and goes inside, but the place is in darkness. She tentatively wanders around the rooms calling for her family until she ventures upstairs and... has a surprise birthday party held for her by her husband, sister-in-law and two kids. Ah, you see what they did there, we thought there was something scary going on!
Of course, there is something scary going on, but the mystery is carried along nicely in a notably low key fashion, with the dreaded computer effects only making occasional interruptions, such as when Mi-ju is sleeping in bed and a pitch black fog enters her bedroom and moves towards her, only to disappear when she wakes up with a start. The autistic daughter seems to have some connection with whatever entity is filling Mi-ju's life with dread, and when she learns the cello, she is keen on a particular piece of music that her mother is most aversed to hearing. Yes, that secret in Mi-ju's past is coming back to haunt her, literally, and while we think she is the victim, a twist later on casts doubt on that assumption. The way the ghost exacts revenge is a little too all-encompassing to be satisfying, and the final development too hackneyed, but as far as mood goes, Lee obviously has talent.