Written by: Il-han Yoo
Directed by: Jong-hoon Jung
Starring: Eun-jin Baek, Yoon-jeong Choi, and Ho Im
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"I'm scared of that curse..."
Thanks to horror movies, it’s entirely possible that the entire calendar will eventually be fucked: at this point, you can pick just about any notable holiday and rest assured that it’s probably been blood-stained in some fashion, either by sword, by pick, or by axe. While I’m pretty sure Columbus Day has been left unsullied, I can’t imagine many others haven’t been considering we even have a horror movie dedicated exclusively to Leap Day thanks to 29 February, a Korean production that supposes true horror only arrives every four years.
As far as premises go, that’s actually not too bad, and director Jeon Jong-hoon soaks the film in a dreadful inevitability. Set on the titular date, 29 February opens with a journalist visiting a psychiatric ward that houses a particularly interesting patient: having been institutionalized for four years, Ji-yeon has been dreading Leap Day thanks to a previous, horrific experience. Under a ceiling full of harsh, florescent lights designed to keep her awake, she relays her tale to the reporter, flashing the audience back to a possibly supernatural ordeal she endured during her days as a tollbooth operator.
29 February not only dares to find the terror in fucking Leap Day, but it also transforms manning a tollbooth into a gory, mind-bending proposition. In a relatively straightforward story by K-Horror standards, Ji-yeon’s tale revolves around a mysterious rash of Leap Day slayings at her work that begins to wear on her psyche. Haunted by the grisly tale of a serial killer who may or may not have perished in a fiery prison transport accident years ago, she begins to believe her own ghastly doppelganger is stalking her, much to the confusion of the two detectives investigating the bizarre case.
While 29 February is rather straightforward, its plot is nonetheless dense and untangles itself rather deliberately. Much of the narrative involves sorting through the mythology surrounding the local lore, a development that adds an extra layer of intrigue to the proceedings. Some insist a body was never recovered from the wreckage, so numerous questions swirl about, lingering over Ji-yeon like a specter: has the serial killer simply resumed or spree, or has her spirit come back to exact a supernatural, inevitable revenge? Worse yet, is Ji-yeon simply losing her mind?
Those accustomed to the speed of K-Horror won’t be surprised to discover how carefully and leisurely the film goes about answering these questions. As it moves between Ji-yeon’s present-day interview and her past recollections, 29 February coils itself around the viewer, suffocating them within small, cluttered spaces, like the hallway of Ji-yeon’s apartment building or (obviously) her tollbooth. The usual assortment of ghost story tics—flickering lights, quick, jolting glimpses—flit about but are also accompanied by unusually bloody spurts of violence out of a slasher movie. When couched in the ghost story aesthetic, these outbursts are perhaps surprising in their gruesomeness—the two don’t always occur in concert with one another, so 29 February benefits from its odd mix of styles at works towards resolving its questions.
Unfortunately, its mush-mouthed climax is clumsy at best and gallingly inane at worst. In a sequence that abuses the notion of telling rather than showing, the script ladles out a hefty pile of leaden exposition, burying the viewer under a mound of eye-rolling twists and turns. Even worse, 29 February attempts to talk out of both sides of its mouth: as it delivers these reveals, it also continues to insist on ambiguity, practically winking at the audience, stumbling to its landing every step of the way. It’s too bad, too, since Ji-yeon is compellingly haunted, her face constantly shadowed by a melancholy pall; for much of the runtime, the film is actually invested in her plight and takes the time to observe the fallout from her ordeal. Her interplay with her bubbly co-worker, the oddball detectives, and the increasingly skittish journalist provides a nice human element that doesn’t quite survive the screenplay’s attempts at cleverness.
You’re left with a “gotcha” moment that doesn’t quite mesh with what came before. Going into 29 February, I was looking forward to taking a bit of a trip down memory lane, back to an era when these sorts of movies were flooding theaters (usually in the form of American remakes) and video store shelves. Outside of the major films from this period, I’m not sure I properly appreciated the influx of Asian horror, so I was hoping this one would be a nice little reminder of the decade’s more unheralded films; instead, it mostly reminded me of the deluge of lackluster American psychological thrillers (read: most of the ones that weren’t Frailty or Identity) from this era—which is not to say it’s the worst thing, but I’m not exactly dying to revisit those particular films.
29 February is just interesting enough that I would be interested in seeking out the other three films in this Four Horror Tales series; however, I can’t say I’d be opposed at someone taking another swipe at a Leap Day horror movie. Hell, we could always use another slasher at this point, even if it’s motivated by the most arbitrary of premises.
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