Warning: Do Not Play (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
Please play because Kim Jin-won’s “Warning: Do Not Play” is a solid exercise in mood and paranoia. It can be criticized for the more clichéd aspects of the story, like the protagonist always ending up in places where she shouldn’t be then having to fight for her life, but that is not the point. The goal is to provide a creepy time and it works. Unlike most modern horror movies that mire themselves in busyness, noise, and jumps scares, this one often chooses stillness, silence, a growing sense of unease.
The desperate Mi-jung (Neo Ye-ji) has two weeks left to submit a workable film or else she’s out of a job. She is so stressed, she has started to have nightmares of being stuck in a movie theater with a ghost. A friend and possible romantic interest, Joon-Seo (Ji Yoon-ho), tells her about a film, submitted by a university student as his final project some time ago, that was so scary, audiences left the auditorium in the middle of the showing because they couldn’t handle the images on screen. At the time the director of that feature, Jae-hyun (Jin Seon-kyu), claimed it had been shot by a ghost. No one has heard of him since. Wishing to know more about the movie and the filmmaker, Mi-jung decides to investigate and, if possible, get her hands on a copy of the urban legend.
One of the strongest elements in this gem is the writer-director’s ability to get us into the headspace of our heroine. She is often alone in her apartment. She finds herself lost in her notes, movies, her own thoughts. We see glimpses of her past when she tried to commit suicide in a bathtub. Was she bullied? We are not provided precise reasons why she felt she needed to end her life. And when she is outdoors conversing with another person, it is as though she isn’t fully there. We feel this dark cloud hovering right behind her, the blinding need to make a horror movie—it just has to be horror—even though she lacks compelling inspiration or original vision. Because we are given time to appreciate her motivations and circumstances, we understand why she feels she must gamble her life constantly to have a taste of recognition.
This is a story, I think, about social approval. The ghost—which looks rather scary not when it moves but when it stands still with those bulging eyes staring deep into your soul—works as a metaphor for that voice in our heads that tells us we must constantly deliver, move forward, and accomplish in order to be regarded as a productive and/or successful member of society. It is the pressure that we put upon themselves and how we mistaken that at times for purpose.
Does Mi-jung want fame? I think she does, more than she herself knows or cares to admit. At least more than the need to exorcise the sadness and tragedy of her past. This is the aspect of the screenplay I felt could have used further development. I enjoyed that for this particular character, it is important that she be lauded or celebrated or else she does not feel complete. I don’t think she really cares whether her work is an original or a forgery so long as someone else elevates her with congratulatory words and handshakes.
The final act might have been more effective had the more overt horror elements, like characters being dragged across the room by an invisible presence and dying in gruesome ways, been more subtle and the tragedy of human foibles been amplified. The former gets repetitive after a while. Still, “Warning: Do Not Play” is worth seeing because it is not just a horror movie offering cheap scares. It has something to say about human nature.