HARPY promo poster
(2000,South Korea)

1 star  
directed by: Ra Hobum
starring: Lee Jung-hyun, Kim Rae-won, Kim Kkot-ji, Cho Hyungjin, Lee Un, Cho Deokhyeon

choice dialogue:

“I’m going to die here!”

- of confusion?

slash with panache?

[review by JA Kerswell]

  Lee Jung-hyun - who plays a mysterious high school in student HARPY - was a popular singer in South Korea and was reportedly horrified when she first saw the finished film.

HARPY is a largely incomprehensible SCREAM 2 (1997) influenced teen slasher movie from South Korea. Filmed in a unique style - that proves unique does not always mean better - a school film class are harassed and then hunted and killed by someone hiding behind the screen name ‘Harpy’ from a popular internet message board. Decently budgeted, competently filmed but edited seemingly by a madman - it is a small wonder this mess got released to cinemas. However, it is largely unknown today and has allegedly been buried in its homeland by its stars.

A love triangle explodes at a High School when demure rich girl Su-yeon (Lee Jung-hyun, who had a successful music career and who sings the song that plays over the end credits) falls for class bad boy Hyeon-su (Kim Rae-won). The only problem is that he is going out with the class bitch and secret poor girl Yae-Rim (Ggoch-ji Kim). This leads to fallouts and recriminations; especially after a heavy-breathing mystery figure takes photos of Su-yeon and Hyeon-su together and leaks them to the class.

Meanwhile, everyone is preparing for the class project - which is to be a slasher movie shot at a remote villa with a killer in a balaclava who uses martial arts and a grappling hook (to mirror the claws of the mythical Harpy) to kill his prey. The film class discuss the best ways to kill people on screen. When Yae-Rim attacks Su-yeon in a classroom and leaves her for dead (only for someone else to seemingly appear and attack her with a knife to finish the job), it seems that violence has spilled over from reel-life to real-life. But, to Yae-Rim’s surprise, Su-yeon appears in class the next day as if nothing has happened. However, before the class expedition, their cameraman is attacked and hospitalised and is replaced at the last minute by a creepy new student Kyeong-jae (Kim Jae-dong).

  HARPY was one of a number of South Korean slasher movies that took their inspiration from North American hit SCREAM and the films that followed in its wake.

On arrival at the remote villa, the group begin to shoot their movie only to find someone has swapped the prop weapons for real ones - which leads to one of the students being injured with an axe and having to go back to the mainland with their teacher. Later, someone dons the student film’s killer’s disguise and starts to off the class of one-by-one for real …

If that plot synopsis sounds coherent don’t be fooled. HARPY has the bones of a decent teen thriller to be sure. It looks great and some money has obviously been thrown at it, but it feels like someone with a bong and an itchy finger hovering over a soundboard was locked in an editing studio for a month. When the smoke cleared this is what appeared. Where to start? There are a number of inexplicable creative choices. Perhaps the most overused is the freezeframe - which must have been used a hundred times or more during the running time. The clever use of a freeze frame can amplify a moment for dramatic effect, but it is used so much in HARPY that you’d be forgiven for checking to see if there’s lint on your disc. Then there are the sound effects thrown around with abandon like annoying confetti: from the teacher pointing his fingers accompanied by laser sounds to a couple kissing with comedy sucking noises. The whole thing is littered with these zingers. It is quite literally insane. Then there are the bizarre voiceovers by a random woman when a freezeframe stops on a character’s face (which is often) with such offerings as: “The back of the man’s head is hot” as a couple are kissing or: “Hyeon-su doesn’t like porn. Even if he watches it over and over again.” The film has one potentially interesting aspect where we see a murder; which is revealed to actually being shot by the film class. It even seeks to break the fourth wall during what turns out to be a real murder (within the actual movie), when the ubiquitous voiceover tells the audience: “This chain is plastic. Pregnant women and old people don’t need to be shocked, but they don’t need to imitate her acting either.“

  The film features a killer with a unique murder weapon. Sadly, the slasher action is mostly relegated to the closing third of the movie.

HARPY has a sense of anarchic whimsy akin to a substance-induced 1960s pop-art film. The comic book feel seems purposefully to recall Manga (or the South Korean version Manhwa - which is largely influenced by the Japanese comic art form). The voiceovers, it has been suggested, are also parodying a popular Manga series. The film’s even stranger denouement feels even more like Japanese-influenced weirdness than typical South Korean - even if, at the same time, it more-or-less borrows a plot twist from THE INITIATION (1983). The problem is that all these quirks only serve to disjoint the movie into a largely incomprehensible mess. Worse, the class trip to the log cabins doesn’t even start until the 51-minute mark and so the slasher action is largely relegated to the last third of the movie. And even worse the movie features a nasty and inexcusable bit of animal cruelty featuring a bird.

The film was reportedly a troubled production. The use of the name Alan Smithee on the chatroom suggests as much. Despite pre-release hype that called the film 'High Techno High School Horror’, HARPY bombed hard at the South Korean box office when it was released in July 2000. Audiences were confused by the film and were unsure if the movie was meant to be a slasher or a comedy. Legend has it that some of the cast - who must have thought they were filming a straight-ahead slasher - fled an advance screening in horror and embarrassment. Some reports also suggest that Lee Jung-hyun and Kim Rae-won - both of whom went on to highly successful acting careers - sought to bury the movie (which only received a VHS release in its home country, although it was released to disc overseas). The film’s director Ho-beom Ra was one and definitely done.

For those interested in post-SCREAM (1996) South Korean slashers would be better served seeking out the cheap but cheesily effective THE RECORD and the supernaturally-tinged NIGHTMARE (both 2001). And BLOODY BEACH, which came out the same year as HARPY.


BODYCOUNT  bodycount!   female: 3 / male: 5

1) Female hits her head and then stabbed (off screen)
      2) Male hit with grappling hook on a chain
      3) Male strangled with a chain
      4) Male khit in the back with a blade
      5) Female stabbed in the chest with a blade
      6) Male stabbed in the neck with a knife (off screen)
      7) Male stabbed to death
      8) Male stabbed in the back and strangled with a chain



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