There's no inherent reason to compare a Korean horror film and an Australian feminist parable, but throughout the entirety of 2006's Cinderella, from director Bong Man-dae and screenwriter Son Kwang-soo, I couldn't keep myself from thinking about Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty from 2011 (whether I'd have made the same connections if I'd seen the films in chronological order, I leave as an exercise for some alternate universe incarnation of this blog). Both take key stories from Western European folklore and bend them until you can only see certain vague elements left in place, which are used to explore the way that folklore and contemporary media alike construct an idea of appropriate female behavior. Sleeping Beauty is, ultimately, an academic piece, while Cinderella is, ultimately, a genre film, and this difference speaks to the enormously different way that one watches them; but it's no secret that genre films have a special privilege to act as social commentary.

Regardless, Cinderella's appropriation of dribs and drabs from Charles Perrault's fairy tale is, for a very long time, almost totally invisible. Almost all of the most interesting and distinguishing elements of the film, in fact, start to show up in the last third, and I shall do my very best to indicate them without going full-on into spoilers, but the sensitive might want to have their parachutes ready to go; I'll let you know when to jump out of the review.

First and most visible of the film's tweaks to the basic formula is that our evident Cinderella and her mother are related by blood, and have what appears to be a splendid relationship. Hyeon-su (Shin Se-kyung) is a high school student, the beloved only daughter of Joon-hee (Do Ji-won), a well-known plastic surgeon. She's also cornered a perhaps ethically dubious market: the film doesn't really clarify the point, but Joon-hee's habit of working on her daughter's school friends feels a bit fucked-up on face of it. The girls, obsessed with finding ever more incremental ways of making themselves look prettier and prettier, don't seem to find anything wrong with it, and if anything, it appears to help with Hyeon-su's popularity among her peers. And at this point, I shall allow that the "seems" and"appears" aren't my way of being coy, but the film's way of being a bit foggy in execution. Structurally - especially once we get to the twists - Cinderella is something like a slasher film, and that goes to include the rather wan characterisation of everybody outside of the innermost circle of characters. In the early going, the movie is longer on cryptic mood than on narrative clarity, and when it starts to tilt in the other direction, there's not the foundation for it. And thus, instead of an ensemble, Cinderella has "that mass of girls who are friendly with Hyeon-su in some capacity".

The cryptic mood is awfully lovely, though. Quite without forewarning or explanation, the movie dives into random paranormal activity: Hyeon-su, carving a clay bust of Su-kyoung (Yoo Da-in), her friend who has just gone under Joon-hee's knife, accidentally slices the knife across the sculpture's cheek, and within seconds, Su-kyoung is bleeding from a nasty gash in the same place that simply appeared from nowhere. We're off the races from there, as the girls are visited by an apparent ghost in the form of - you'll never believe this - a pale girl with long black hair. And horrible things start happening to any of Hyeon-su's acquaintances who've had work done.

There are quite a few individually striking moments generously scattered all throughout Cinderella: the clay sculpting scene, a sequence in which a child is not quite murdered through suffocation, a face-painting party gone severely awry. Bong's ability to marry sickening horror imagery with a gauzy, damn near fantasy-like sense of mystery is utterly admirable. Where things fall apart is, well, where things come together: though more of its component parts are effective than otherwise, the film doesn't succeed in bringing all of those components into a cohesive whole. Cinderella ends up feeling like a collection of horrifying anecdotes centered on the idea of plastic surgery, rather than a fluid movie. The story is underdeveloped, and neither the director nor his game leads - both Shin and Do are quite effective, the latter brilliantly combining unfathomably cruelty with a genuinely tragic layer of maternal tenderness - do much to compensate for it.

But eventually, the film runs out the clock on trying to be crafty, and just about halfway through, we finally learn what's going on, kind of, in the form of a huge, inelegant backstory dump. And here's where the morbidly spoilerphobic must take their leave, though I shall do my level best to speak in vagaries.

Unlike the vast majority of contemporary horror and especially contemporary ghost stories, Cinderella becomes vastly more interesting and effective when it starts to explain things. It is, for one thing, only at this point that the grotesque irony of the title announces itself in all its glory, and we understand the film's critiques of the beauty industry and the individual women who would sacrifice anything for physical attractiveness; and also, on a more elemental level, it's here that the film finally indulges in the mythic angle of familial depravity that the phrase "a horror film version of Cinderella" implied from the beginning. The shocks, even the ones that we've more more or less figured out, hit hard, revealing a depth of nastiness in the characters and the society that supports them that's hard to prepare for, and the slow scare scenes, gratifyingly replacing the more generic jumps and jolts of the film to that point, are the best kind of inexorable. Despite the potential for elaborate, frequent gore effects, Bong holds off for maximum effectiveness as a punctuation mark, instead of a gross-out twist. Everything contributes to a bafflement of sympathy and identification; the implication of the final sequence unnervingly suggests that it's possible for someone to be so broken by emotional malnourishment that suicide in order to become a restless ghost could seem like a great bargain, since it allows for the paranormal toolkit to get revenge on everyone who has wronged you. This is not a film in which being wronged makes one victim, but just a different kind of aggressor.

As intriguing as Cinderella turns out to be in the end, I can't claim that even in its absolute best moments, it's an especially terrific example of Asian horror. The flip-side is that there's nothing that it does which makes it worse than the average of its genre; it's solid horror filmmaking that's not particularly inspired and could easily be trimmed into something that gets through its middle a little faster. It's very much the kind of movie that's best appreciated by people who've already liked things very similar to it, and I would not like to think of it as anybody's first experience with K-horror; but it's definitely got more than a little to recommend it to genre habitués.