From its title, you might get the impression that Cinderella (Tartan Asia Extreme) is a horror flick updating of the classic fairy tale – something like Snow White: A Tale of Terror or Neal Jordan's Red Riding Hood revision The Company of Wolves, perhaps. But writer Sohn Kwang-Soo and director Bong Man-Dae mean this as only the most general of metaphors, since the story of their horror flick turns out to be focused on a haunting and curse – with nary a glass slipper in sight.
Set in modern Korea, Cinderella concerns seventeen-year-old Hyeon Su (Shin Se-Kyung) and her plastic surgeon mother Yoonhee (Do Ji-Won). Mom is a workaholic who also comes off as more than a little controlling: she continually wants to know where her daughter is and even signs the girl up for art class over the summer, presumably to keep the girl’s idle hands busy. From what we can see, Yoonhee needn't worry, since Hyeon Su doesn't even seem to have a boyfriend and is the kind of goodhearted soul who actually gets off the bus to give an elderly street crazy money. Her friends, we learn, have all benefited from Mom’s skill with the surgeon’s scalpel – which, unfortunately for them, does not bode well for their chances of making it out of this flick alive.
For Mom, as it will surprise no one who's been paying the least bit of attention to the film's first quarter, has a deep dark secret. When one of Hyeon Su's friends, Sunkyung, gets her procedure done, the anesthetized girl sees a long-haired ghostly figure (yup, another one of them!) crawling 'neath her gurney. While recovering from said surgery (which she does much more quickly than you'll see on nip/tuck), she starts hearing a voice asking for her face back.
Soon Sunkyung's feeling the compulsion to "mess up" her pristine face. She's not the only one catching that compulsion, of course – which means we get several cringe-inducing scenes of young girls cutting themselves – but the real focus in Cinderella is on its strained mother/daughter relationship and the secret behind it (admirers of Franju's Eyes Without A Face will be way ahead of everyone else). Do Ji-Won's sleek mad surgeon matriarch is the performance to watch here: without doing anything obvious, she still manages to convey the way her past misdeeds are eating away at her.
Though grimly moody in the way we've quickly learned to expect the best Asian ghost stories to be, Cinderella is only mildly effective as a horror flick. The frights, when they come, are a bit too laxly directed (even the big scene where two of Hyeon Su’s entranced friends slowly slash each other's faces), while the film’s finale proves a complete jumble. The editing can get so confusing that more than once I thought my antique DVD player had accidentally skipped a chapter and I found myself backtracking just to make sure I hadn't missed something. I hadn't, of course, though I still can't help suspecting that somewhere on the disc is a hidden Easter egg chapter explaining why our heroine Hyeon Su doesn't remember a single significant event from her childhood or why the movie's ghost suddenly started deciding to wreak her vengeance now instead of, say, last summer.
I know — we don't watch movies like this for the logic. And, yet, Cinderella looks so nice on a scene-by-scene basis, you can't help wishing that someone had given the least bit of thought as to whether the entire package makes the least bit of sense. In the end, this flick proves to be just another vacuous pretty face.