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Roommates (D-Day)
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by Jay Seaver

"Not as scary as actually studying for one's college boards."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2007 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: There's a difference between having a good idea and a good story. "D-Day"/"Roommates" (both titles appear on-screen) has a basic idea that should resonate with teenagers the world over, but has no clear direction to go with it. The filmmakers try several approaches, but it seems like maybe they should have chosen one and run with it.

The film opens with a commercial for an intensive test-prep school, where girls who did not pass their college entrance exams on their first try can receive nearly a full year of comprehensive, distraction-free lessons with regular practice tests. We meet four who are assigned to the same dorm room. Our narrator, Bo-ram, is shy and self-effacing. Da-young is a sweet, friendly girl who has somehow snuck her hamster "Happy" in despite it being against the all-important rules. Eun-su actually passed her exams, but not with scores good enough for top-rates Seoul National University, and her family has high standards. Yoo-jin is, well, a bitch, who wastes no time holding Happy over Da-young's head or defying the staff by sleeping late, smoking, and having a liberal interpretation of the dress code. The staff comes down hard on her, soo when she's the first to hear strange noises and see dead girls littering the hallway, it's fair to ask whether they're real or the stress and a story about a fire at the school several years earlier getting to her.

For all that horror movies are frequently targeted to and feature people in their teens, few touch on academic pressures. This despite them being something every teen can relate to and a topic ripe for satire. The MCAS is a subject of constant controversy for how it distorts school curricula here in Massachusetts, students in Japan routinely attend "cram schools" after their regular classes, and if this film is to be believed, and all across America high school students run themselves ragged by choosing classes taking part in extracurricular activities out of a desire to make their transcripts look better during the competitive college application process. At its best moments, Roommates taps into this - students are informed by the dean on entry that they are losers since they didn't make it into college, and the school's methods involve the worst aspects of making a competition out of learning. Eun-su's storyline features her breaking down as she loses her #1 place and sinks into depression, popping pills, chewing her lip raw, and finally seeing things that aren't there, all while the Dean seems unable to recognize that Eun-su needs something other than prodding to do better.

Sadly, outside of that, it's mostly just basic horror - something bad happened at this place and certain people there now can see echoes of it, or staff members abuse their position of power over the students entrusted to them, with the parents uninterested in helping their kids out. All fine concepts for horror movies, true, and they are frequently used to make good ones, but the filmmakers here try all of them, and only barely manage to tie them together. There's great big gaps of logic: Just how did Da-young get that hamster cage in? Two students saw why Yoo-jin leaves the school for good, but word apparently doesn't get around to her roommates at all. The disaster that befell the school in the past was a fire, but the bodies Yoo-sin sees are bloody rather than burnt. The idea that these girls have a life beyond studying is almost never brought up aside from them lining up to use a pay phone; I could never tell whether the idea of sending one's kids off to a year of SAT prep with what looks like no visits or holidays was meant to be satiric or something that is not unusual in Korea.

The cast isn't bad. To a certain extent, the schoolgirls are what you get in inexpensive horror films the world over - basically competent young actresses who scream well and generally feel like could quite possibly become good with time. They seem to be playing types rather than individuals in this movie goes. The actress playing the dean is makes things a little interesting, in that there are occasional moments when she does seem to remember what it's like to be a teacher rather than a drill sergeant, both in terms of getting a sadistic pleasure from giving girls like Yoo-jin what she feels they deserve and the barest of hints around the corners of her mouth that she knows she should be doing something else to help Eun-su later on.

(My apologies for not using names; at the time I write this, it seems impossible to find a site that connects actress and character names for those of us who don't read Korean)

Writing this, I'm starting to wonder whether director Kim Eun-kyeong might be more suited to black comedy than horror. The satiric bits of this movie show potential; it's the horror parts that feel by-the numbers and sloppy.

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originally posted: 07/11/07 16:20:50
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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
  Kim Eun-kyeong

Written by
  Yoo Il-han

  Heo Jin-yong
  Kim Joo-Ryeong
  Kim Ri-na
  Sin Yeong-jin

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