Bestseller (2010)

Bestseller is the story of Baek Hee-So, played by the impossibly forty-something Jeong-hwa Eom. Baek is a successful writer whose latest work comes under fire for apparently being plagiarized from a book she read while judging a writing competition. Two years later she absconds with her young daughter to a rural village where she expects to be able to write a new book to save her reputation. The locals are thrilled to have a big-name author staying in their town, and they do their best, in their (stereotypically bumpkin-ish) way, to make her feel welcome. But Baek’s daughter starts having conversations with an unseen “friend,” who ultimately tells the girl a story that becomes the plot for Baek’s next novel. That’s when things begin to get weird.

When Baek’s comeback novel–which is, indeed, a huge success–is again accused of being a ripoff, she starts to lose it. We learn that everything is off in a fundamental way (a pretty transparent twist, really) at about the film’s midpoint. We know that she didn’t plagiarize the second book; we watched her writing it. This precipitates some understandable emotional stress, and Baek’s breakdown in her psychiatrist’s office is fairly convincing. Eom does a good job of portraying a broken woman.

"There's no way I'm forty-four!"

There’s no way I’m a day over thirty.

The issue of plagiarism is central. Not only does Baek suffer from the accusations; her estranged husband, a professor at a university in Seoul, is in danger of losing his job because the administration evidently feels it’s not good for their faculty to be married to a known ripoff artist. I don’t know how realistic this reaction is, but it’s certainly a bad situation for all concerned.

I understand how Baek feels, on a certain level. As an academic I’m constantly afraid of accidentally plagiarizing. To this day I worry that I didn’t cite my sources thoroughly enough in my undergrad thesis, which was supposed to be a creative work but ended up like a bad Wikipedia entry. The point is, it’s something that causes everybody who writes for a living a certain amount of anxiety.

Of course, at first blush, structuring a horror film around this anxiety seems strange–is the monster a demonic MLA stylebook? (It is not.) But it actually raises some interesting metaphysical questions. If two people are receiving the same message from supernatural sources, then of course the story they tell to others will be the same. How can a contemporary society that generally rejects the supernatural deal with a situation like that? How can the people receiving the message communicate it at all without being written off as crazy?

Baek returns to the village where she wrote her book to find answers. Ultimately, as is so often the case, it comes down to belief. The empirical, “rational,” scientific world, represented by Baek’s shrink, rejects her claims about ghostly interlocutors out of hand. They will not be convinced, no matter what she discovers. She even begins to doubt her own belief–though of course that doesn’t last long. I can’t say much more than that without ruining the plot, but suffice to say the accustomed Weird Stuff happens that convinces all dems whats needs convincin’.

There’s a great deal to commend this film, though again, it’s not exceptionally original. There’s some excellent camera work, beautiful scenery, and good performances by the entire cast. On the topic of borrowing material, there are a lot of similarities between Bestseller and another South Korean Gothic thriller, the inimitable A Tale of Two Sisters. (In fact, I’m half convinced that they were shot in the same rural villa, though I wasn’t able to learn anything about the filming location of either one.) It’s not as good as Sisters–few things are–but I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have Bestseller on the same shelf. 

Really, South Korean horror seems to have inherited the Gothic torch. Bestseller stands with Sisters and several entries in the hit-or-miss Whispering Corridors series as decidedly atmospheric, focused heavily on details of place and more concerned with fostering a sense of dread than in striking jarring chords and having things leap out of the dark.

The meta-aspect of the narrative–a spooky story about a writer who writes spooky stories–is actually downplayed here. Baek’s writing is not nearly as formative as it is in films like Twixt or In the Mouth of Madnesss. There is a similar muddying of the narrative waters, though, and at the end it’s not entirely clear what has really happened and what was a part of the fiction within the fiction.

There are some bad points, many in the form of unanswered questions. What’s the deal with the original book that was accused of plagiarism? (Baek ultimately changes her story on it, but I don’t know if what she says is true or if it’s just calculated to resuscitate her career.) And who was the author of the second book, the one Baek’s comeback novel was supposedly ripped off from? And alas, the ending, so crucial to horror and supernatural thrillers, is a really weak point (I’m no gun expert, but I’m pretty sure revolvers don’t fire underwater).

Despite some flaws, Bestseller is a smart and reasonably well-made film, slow but with sufficiently good acting and writing to make it worth hanging on until the end.

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