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Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater
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by Jay Seaver

"All old movie theaters have their ghosts."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: In an odd quirk of festival programming, I somehow wound up seeing four musicals at Fantasia this year (or, at least, four films with multiple musical numbers), which under normal circumstances is roughly what I would see in five years. One of them ("Memories of Matsuko") was possibly the best film of the festival; most of the others, including "Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater", are hit-and-miss (generally more hit than miss), though in the case of 'Ghost Theater" it's got little to do with the film being a musical.

The premise is promising enough, and might strike a chord with many moviegoers: Late one evening, Seong So-dan's grandmother goes out, saying she has to see a movie at the Sam Geo Ri theater, but doesn't return. So-dan (Kim Kkot-bi), already without her parents, first has to find the theater - like many old single screen theaters the world over, it's on its last legs, and even though it's not far from home, So-dan has never heard of it. They haven't seen her grandmother, but have an opening at the box office, which So-dan takes - after all, if Grandmother says she is coming here, then she'll probably make it eventually.

Of course, this is no ordinary theater - when So-dan stays late one night to close up, she sees the ancient, listless staff literally transformed, like some sort of ghosts: The overweight woman at the candy counter is Elisa (Park Joon-myeon), a lost princess; the custodian is Hiroshi (Jo Hee-bong), a Japanese soldier from WWII; the projectionist is Mosquito (Park Yeong-soo), an acrobatic clown; and the usher is Wanda (Han Ae-ri), a sexy goth girl. All, like So-dan, once came to Sam Geo Ri and never left. Then there's the owner (Cheon Ho-jin), whom So-dan finds out once made a movie, now believed lost, starring her grandmother. Maybe finding that movie can fix everything!

Some movies have trouble getting started, and others sputter at the end, but that's not the case with Ghost Theater. The opening sucks the audience in: So-dan loses the only family she has and wanders the threatening world of the city and moribund theater until it springs to life. Similarly, the grand finale with the theater once again crowded and everything seeming to come together is a lovably chaotic. The trouble is, director Jeon Gye-su struggles to connect them. At times, it feels like he's taking the scenic route from point A to point B, but there's not a whole lot of interesting scenery. We learn what we need to, but it's just the acucmulation of facts, a necessary evil to bring us from the hook to the climax.

Which is kind of a shame, since Jeon is doing some neat stuff visually. There's a lot of Tim Burton influence here, from the miniature city in the opening to intricate decrepitude of the theater itself. Night and shadows are where amazing things can hide, and the night-time versions of the theater staff have a genuine beauty to their grotesquery. He loves his old theater, too, although he doesn't over-glamorize it: The Sam Geo Ri is a little smaller than the ornate palaces we remember from old movies; the lobby isn't opulent, the projection booth is a tight fit, etc. The sadness of theaters like Sam Geo Ri disappearing isn't just that they were bigger and more beautiful than the multiplexes that have replaced them, but that they were more individual than the chains that have by and large replaced them. The film within a film, a take on Theseus and the Minotaur, is like an art-house Hercules film, black and white, cheap-looking and yet somehow intriguing.

Maybe the movie would be a little better if there was a bit more to Elisha, Wanda, Hiroshi, and Mosquito. I don't necessarily think they each need a story arc or anything, but imagine if, in The Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion were just sort of generic sidekicks. The ghosts in Ghost Theater don't get that "you had it all along moment"; they're just sort of there, even if they are kind of amusing and not bad with the song and dance. Fortunately, Kim Kkot-bi is pretty good as So-dan; she hits just the right mix of teen aloofness, curiosity, and fear from her abandonment. Cheon Ho-jin's character is necessarily a bit of an enigma, but Cheon gets across how the world has beat him down.

"Midnight Ballad of Ghost Theater" is a great idea, and has some pretty nice parts. It's just a bit of a pity that Jeon Gye-su isn't quite able to connect them as well as I might like.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=16297&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/11/07 10:02:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2007 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jeon Gye-su

Written by
  Jeon Gye-su

Cast
  Cheon Ho-Jin
  Kim Kkot-bi
  Park Jun-myeon
  Han Ae-ri
  Park Young-su



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