Most of my film viewing predilections fall somewhere between terrifying and downright gory. But, this week I’m taking a break from the hard-to-find grotesque and instead covering a horror musical. Back in 2006, South Korea released Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater. It was created with the intentions of being South Korea’s answer to Repo! The Genetic Opera or even The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film was released in South Korea and became an instant cult hit, but then… nothing. The film played a small number of American film fests, and while some of us loved it and were already figuring Midnight Ballad would be the next line of Hot Topic cult-wear, nothing ever came of it. This title has never been released stateside, and there are still no plans to let Midnight Ballad sing overseas.
I know musicals aren’t everyone’s favorite genre, especially among horror fans, but hang on one sec because this is a good one. Sodan is a teenager who is taking care of her ailing grandmother. One night her Grandmother tells Sodan that she wants to see a movie one last time before she dies. Grandma then disappears into the town’s run-down and dilapidated movie theater. Determined that the theater has something to do with her Grandmother’s disappearance, Sodan takes a job working there. She soon discovers that the building is haunted by several ghosts who used to work in the film industry. They assist Sodan in her quest to find her grandmother, all the while telling her stories of past movie-making.
Midnight Ballad feels like an effortless blending of a number of sources. The adult musical aspect chants of the aforementioned Rocky Horror and Repo. The director also demonstrates a huge appreciation of Tim Burton, not only in the evil merriment and music, but also in the use of miniature towns, costuming and set design. There is also this reminiscent praising for movie palaces echoing tones of Cinema Paradiso, Hugo, and Taiwanese Goodbye Dragon Inn about historic Tapei cinema. Midnight Ballad discusses war and how it changed the face of film. It looks at the power of film (especially horror) and how it can change psyches, lives, and reflect society at its best and worst. The film is also a commentary on the death of movie palaces, grandiose and lavish single-screen theatres that are now fading out in exchange for at home viewing. This trend of course is not limited to Korea. Most towns in America have an old movie palace that is either struggling to stay afloat or has long since closed. Ghost Theater examines Korean film history presented through a “film nerd”-style character, and the “film nerd” element truly does transcend any language or cultural barriers.
I will mention there are a few choice elements of the film that may not translate well for American audiences, and I wonder if these are not part of the reason it has yet to see a release outside of its native soil. Comedy is something that is so sacred and individualized to each culture, and this is a fine example: bulimia. One of the ghosts is bulimic and has a tendency to vomit on her victims. This eating disorder which is taken rather seriously in the states is used as a source of humor during moments of the film. There is also a song where one of the ghosts repeatedly refers to our young protagonist as “sexy.” Though it is used as an ego-booster to bring the teenage character out of her shell, that kind of behavior can get you arrested in America.
Midnight Ballad is a tad tent-poled. The beginning is amazing, and the end is brilliant, but the mid section can drag a little at times. But please do not take that as a reason not to watch Midnight Ballad. Just think of it more as a warning that though the movie may seem a little dull around the one hour mark, stick with it because the ending is superb.
Last year I was on a panel for horror filmmakers, and an audience member asked us, “If you could remake one film, what would you choose?” I answered with Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater. At the time, I would have loved to see this one get a rehash. But now I question if this rare gem shouldn’t stay as it is- a flawed yet beautiful flick that not everyone is going to “get”, but a unique few are going to absolutely love.
Again, this one is not available stateside or much else in the world for that matter. You can purchase DVDs from Amazon and eBay but you will need a region-less player. Luckily, even though it is not an international release, the South Korean DVD comes with well-translated English-subtitles.