“I swear they're all dead. I collected their dog tags, myself!”
Korean mystery-horror, R-Point, begins with a derivative, but solid-enough, premise. Set during the Vietnam War, in 1972, a Korean military base receives alarming radio distress calls from one of their units, broadcast from an area designated R-Point, stating that they are under attack and require immediate help. This news is greeted with shock and puzzlement - the unit in question has been reported as missing, presumed killed-in-action, for the past six months. The one survivor, badly burned and swathed in bandages, insists that his men were slaughtered. So, just who is sending out these anxious messages? Thus begins the formula-cycle of another squad of soldiers being sent out to investigate the area, search for the missing men, or their bodies, and resolve the mystery. Event Horizon, Predator, Dog Soldiers ... hell, even Cannibal Holocaust amongst a host of others, feature the exact same narrative pitch as this. A confirmed mystery that has claimed, or probably claimed a number of lives in a particular spot, that results in another batch of unwitting victims despatched to relive the horrors that befell their comrades. To be honest though, being a fan of this sub-genre, and of Asian horror movies in general, I expected something special from Spider Forest director Gong Su-Chian's war-torn tale of terror. Perhaps, the atmospherics of Michael Mann's The Keep combined with the intensity of, say, Old Boy? I was, however, hoping for too much because R-Point doles out little more than the miserable and turgid blandness of the risible Deathwatch, one of the worst horror movies I have ever had the misfortune to sit through.
“It's not looking good. We got a moron and a psychopath.”
Led by Lt. Choi (Gam Wu-Seong), the rescue squad take a patrol boat upriver a few clicks (sorry that was a 'Nam flashback to Apocalypse Now) and then move, none-too-tactically I might add, inland until they reach the weird, and spooky, old building that is the epicentre of R-Point. The ragtag bunch of military misfits that the top brass send out on this doomed-from-the-outset expedition, predominantly culled from the army's clap-clinic, are the most idiotic and unconvincing gaggle of over-actors I've seen in a long while. Whilst their combat kit has a pretty authentic look, the Korean grunts depicted here (they fought alongside the Americans during the conflict) have about as much battle-realism as a gang of ten year olds in the school playground. Gong Su-Chiang has done some homework - there's heaps of soldiers shown on stag (perimeter sentries) and he even depicts the mundane-ness of day-to-day soldiering with a line of squatting troopers in the long grass answering the call of nature, but the people he's got inhabiting these jungle fatigues are a crowd of unconvincing hacks. Their constant arguing and shouting whilst in the field, with potential enemies all around is just insulting. There are way too many scenes involving guards, who should be whispering - if not keeping shtum altogether - bickering and then stalking off into the dangerous gloom, to maintain any level of realism at all. Yep, I know, I know - it's only a film. But, honestly, check out the ludicrous sequence when they strut their less-than-funky stuff to a tape of The Ventures in the middle of the night and in the middle of what is regarded as a combat zone. Folks, I was a Reservist in the Royal Marines and, suspension of disbelief for filmic convention notwithstanding, this lackadaisical approach to soldering ruined any semblance of atmosphere for me, altogether. Also, the pandering to stereotype with this Dirty Dozen (well, dirty eight, I think we have here) takes in the yawn-inducing inclusion of a braggart-cum-bully, a family man with only a short time left before returning home, the tough-as-nails Sgt. Jin, the fresh-faced rookie and the jaded, cynical Lt. Choi, who even has the baseball-bouncing habits of Hilts, Steve McQueen's iconic Cooler King from The Great Escape. Cliché piled upon cliché. Full Metal Jacket gets a nod too, when an early ambush finds the squad ill-at-ease with killing a female Viet Cong who had no such qualms at all about stitching them with machine-gunfire. Even the grim warning that the troops find engraved on a stone tablet as they enter the desolate limbo-land of R-Point has that same eye-rolling familiarity of a thousand and one such movie-lore omens. Something about entering this place with blood on your hands meaning that you'll never be able to leave. The contrivance matters not if there is a true sense of unease. But, in Gong Su-Chiang's hands, it is drained away through ineptly teasing direction.
“We're here to find the missing men ... and one of us is missing!”
The disrespect of an unusual grave proves to be a terrible mistake and pretty soon, men are getting cut off from their buddies and end up following phantom patrols through the swaying long grass, or catching fleeting glimpses of, wait for it ... a creepy girl with long dark hair! Yes, even that most Asian of horror chestnuts gets shoehorned into this mess. Is it possible for a fear-flick to come out of this neck of the woods without this well-worn image, do you think? The script is a juvenile shambles, too. In an obvious attempt to mimic the style of American Vietnam movies, the cast swear a ridiculous amount of times and when you're reading this on the subtitles it becomes absolutely laughable, if not plain tedious. And, on the subject of subtitles, those on offer here suffer from many grammatical and contextual errors. Nobody ever actually says, “What the ...?” in anything other than comics, either. And the chaptering of the film's events into R-Point Day 1, R-Point Day 2 etc is waste of time (literally) if nothing gripping ever happens throughout any of them.
“We shouldn't have come here.”
So, is it all bad, then? Or can I find something of value to salvage this sorry story? Well, Gong Su-Chiang does often create some, nice eerie scenes. The brief, and portentous, arrival at R-Point of an American squad of GI's provides a vaguely unsettling hint of far worse to come. The sudden ghostly appearance of a graveyard in the middle of a chaotic thunderstorm delivers an all-too-rare moment of genuine otherworldliness and one mysterious demise does indeed offer a creepy twist to the saga. Admittedly, this too, is an old horror staple, but it is reasonably well done. And some images are pretty striking too - a bleeding radio-set covered in cobwebs, a lake of submerged corpses and a prosaic, if overwrought, final stand-off. The eerie score is a hefty wallowing in atonal discord that would have been perfectly satisfactory if it had remained as such, but occasionally it lapses into a badly-fitting dance track that ruins any atmosphere that may have been evoked. This recalls the Orbital's boom-boom score for Event Horizon in the wrong-genre stakes. But, the one element we normally associate with the more successful ghost stories - eg. Robert Wise's The Haunting - which is the less is more approach, actually undermines R-Point's effectiveness to scare. Gong Su-Chiang's deliberate tactic of keeping the menace in the realm of the psychological, and his refusal to show, in the flesh, the terrors assailing his stricken cast, doesn't pay off in the long run. This film actually needs more meat on its bones. We get lots of suspenseful build-up - people poking about old ruined temples or pursuing half-seen figures in the foliage - but these moments are disturbing only in their lack of eventual bite. The soldiers constantly see things that we aren't shown and, subsequently, turn on one another without the audience benefiting from the sight of the nightmare that has driven them over the edge. For many chillers, this works very well indeed, but here it only succeeds in alienating us from the characters. There is a palpable sense that the film is trying really hard to work up to a terrifying pitch, but when the finale comes it cannot help but come across as simply ludicrous, and badly drawn out. There is a moment of sightlessness that becomes almost as dumb as the father sending out his blind daughter through the dangerous woods in Shyamalan's deceitful trick, The Village. In all honesty, this sequence practically had me covering my own eyes in dismay.
Maybe I've been too harsh on R-Point. A friend of mine really enjoyed it and claims that it gave him nightmares. For him, it worked. And it may do for you, also. Perhaps I pinned too high a hope on this, assuming that the Asian magic would suffuse this movie with genuine tension and that cloying fear only they can produce. I really longed to enjoy it, but in the end it just rankled me. I've read it somewhere else, but I can only agree with that observer that R-Point would be better titled No-Point. Sorry, folks, this one missed by a mile.