Review by Sean Boelman
Although those who are less attuned to the sensibilities of Asian horror may not connect with it as well, Kim Jin-won’s meta horror Warning: Do Not Play is absolutely terrifying. Featuring plenty of excellently-crafted dread-inducing suspense in addition to some powerful imagery, it’s a slower burn than most genre flicks, but it works amazingly well.
The film follows a young filmmaker in pre-production on a horror movie when she becomes obsessed with an elusive and notorious student film from a decade ago that was rumored to be the scariest movie ever made and that may have supernatural connections. It’s like a combination of Ringu and The Blair Witch Project, combining the best of the two classics with few of their weaknesses.
The way in which Kim structures the movie is very involved and demands a lot from the audience’s attention, which may keep general audiences from enjoying the film as much. However, those who are willing to follow the different layers of self-awareness that Kim continues to build throughout the narrative will enjoy the nuanced exploration of the art of filmmaking.
A significant part of the narrative explores the protagonist’s quest to find her own original voice in crafting her movie. Anyone interested in film knows that this is particularly difficult in the horror genre which is so rooted in formula and tradition. Luckily, Kim has found his own voice here with a movie that feels entirely authentic and honest.
The film does a surprisingly good job of developing its protagonist, avoiding a lot of the cliches and archetypes associated with horror movie characters and giving her a substantial and compelling arc. Actress Seo Ye-ji is great in the role, bringing a grounded and emotional feel to a character involved in some unbelievable circumstances.
That said, as is the case with any movie of the genre, the primary purpose here is to scare, and Kim does an excellent job of creeping under viewers’ skin. For much of the film, the audience is immersed in its world, with a particular focus on the movie-within-a-movie. There are a few jump scares, but most of the tension comes from the effective use of atmosphere.
Kim’s abilities behind the camera are very obvious here, as the film shows a great command of not only the conventions of the horror genre, but also the ways to subvert the audience’s expectations about them. The use of gore in the movie is sparing, but when it is used, it is highly impactful and disturbing.
Warning: Do Not Play proves that foreign horror is often more creative than its American counterparts. This is only Kim Kin-won’s second feature, and it took twelve years for him to release another film after his debut. Hopefully we won’t have to wait that long to see his next one.
Warning: Do Not Play streams on Shudder beginning June 11.