It’s unclear for a while but what The Call needs more than anything else is a great villain. It’s got its villains, starting with very bad mom Lee El, but she’s not great. She’s kind of one note too, with writer and director Lee cutting away from her when she’s going to be establishing the most character. The Call tries very hard to avoid getting too much into character development because it’s eventually going to be a thriller. It doesn’t start a thriller, it starts a weird mix of comedy, drama, and sci-fi, but it’s eventually going to shave off the laughs and dramatics and just be the thrills with sci-fi trappings.
As a director, Lee can do all the film’s tones—whether it’s Park Shin-hye and new friend Jun Jong-seo bonding over music and small talk or Jun getting temporary freedom (she’s got the very bad mom in Lee El) and going off to have a fun day trip to Seoul from she and Park’s more rural town. He can also do the harrowing thrills as Park’s mom, Kim Sung-ryung tries to escape a dangerous situation she’s found herself in without knowing. The last third of The Call isn’t real time, but it often feels like it, as we’re just watching Park wait for the next bad thing to happen.
Actually, we’re waiting for Park to get the next call. The Call‘s always all about the next time the phone rings.
The film starts with Park getting home to check on mom Kim as she heads into surgery. She’s staying alone in their big house and she’s left her phone on the train. She digs out an old landline portable phone and after the bad samaritan who found her phone trying to shake her down—which seems like it’s going to be a bigger subplot than it turns out to be—she gets a wrong number call from Jun. Jun’s terrified of mom Lee El, trying to get ahold of local shop-owning pal Jo Kyung-sook but gets Park instead.
It takes a while for the friendship to develop—initially juxtaposed with Park and Kim, then Park alone in the house and discovering some mysteries—but eventually they get to be phone buddies.
And the way Lee’s script leverages some obvious discussion topics, it should’ve been clear he wasn’t going anywhere with anything like character development. Especially after the supporting cast expands to include Park Ho-san, who’s got plenty of presence, but absolutely no character. Same goes for Oh Jeong-se as the neighborhood strawberry farmer, who’s friends with Park and has the potential for an interesting relationship with Jun, but it needs to be a thriller and so Lee rushes quite a bit, racing to the third act.
The Call’s third act, which is all about its twists and turns—in fact, so’s the shrug of an epilogue—is perfectly solid thriller stuff and the characters are incredibly sympathetic, but they’re only sympathetic because of the exceptional, insurmountable dangers they face. Not to mention child in danger stuff. Big time child in danger stuff. And Lee seems to know it’s too much and visually avoids it while doing all sorts of implying.
Most of the film’s action takes place at Park’s house. For a while it seems like a budgetary constraint, but then Lee takes the action to Seoul with Jun but then opens things up more with Park getting out too. Despite it being an effective thriller, Lee’s direction is best when it’s not playing thriller. There are so many constraints on the thriller stuff, which is all very intricately plotted, Lee just figuring out how to play the audience not tell a story.
The Call’s better when it’s got a story to tell and not just a puzzle to solve.
Park’s fine; she’s very sympathetic. Jun starts better than she finishes; the movie stops asking her to do different things and instead the same thing over and over just with different clothing choices and accessories. Kim’s good. Lee El’s fine. She’s kind of one note but it’s the part.
There are some questionable music choices but they’re intentionally going for a late nineties vibe at times so it’s not inappropriate just not great. Lee’s choices all make sense, they just could be better while still making sense.
The Call’s an effective, inventive—though maybe not imaginative—thriller.
Though the epilogue is pointlessly too much. It’s kind of a cop out, showing how easy it is to manipulate expectations but without any actual payoff because the movie’s over.
But, again, The Call definitely engages as it plays.