The era of hero priests might be well and truly behind us but at least when it comes to the exorcism movie, the warrior monk resurfaces as the valiant men of God face off against pure evil itself risking both body and soul in an attempt to free the unfortunate victim of a possession from their torment. To many, the very idea sounds as if it belongs in the medieval era – what need have we for demons now that we posses such certain, scientific knowledge? There are, however, things far more ancient than man which are far more terrifying than our ordinary villainy.
The Priests (검은 사제들, geom-eun sa-je-deul) begins with two Italian clerics in the Vatican discussing the somewhat taboo subject of exorcism and demonic possession. They have been made aware of a serious case in Korea and, as they can’t get in touch with the Korean exorcism department, head out there themselves for a little pest control of their own. However, the enemy they were facing proves too strong for them as they become involved in a multi-car pileup allowing the demon they’ve trapped inside a small dog to escape and migrate to a better humanoid host.
Now we turn to the Korean church authorities who are also worried about a young girl who appears to be displaying the symptoms of demonic possession. Their leader repeatedly tells them he will not “officially” sanction any kind of action whilst making it clear he wants them to go ahead and deal with it. No one knows much about exorcism so they reluctantly turn to the maverick preacher Father Kim who, as it also turns out, is a friend of the girl, Young-sin. Matters have reached an impasse as the demon inside Young-sin tries to make her commit suicide by jumping from her hospital room window in order to migrate to a more robust host, leaving her in a comatose state.
Anyone with any basic knowledge of exorcism in the movies knows that you need a young priest and an old priest so Kim gets a sidekick in the form of the equally unusual Deacon, Choi, who is not exactly a model student at the seminary. Choi is initially quite excited to be assisting in such an arcane ritual even if his chief job title is “pig sitter” and his new “boss” is a gruff and world weary man who he has also been asked to spy on just in case this is all down to Kim acting “inappropriately” with an underage girl rather than a visitation from an even more ancient evil. Needlessly to say, Choi quickly discovers Father Kim has been speaking nothing but the truth and he is in way over his head.
Though this is a Catholic crisis bound up with Christian cosmology and centuries old rites, this is still Korea and so Eastern concerns seep into the Western religiosity. The night Kim has chosen for his final assault coincides with the Buddhist feast of the Hungry Ghost when the dead return to visit the living and one of the criteria that made Choi a prime choice for the role of the assistant is that he was born in the year of the Tiger and therefore supposedly more spiritually sensitive. In a quest to help the girl, all avenues are being explored so shamanistic rites are also performed (though with little success) and Kim seems to have a kind of professional respect for his shamanic counterpart even if the two obviously disagree on some quite fundamental things.
Thanks to its double layer of exoticised mysticism, The Priests quickly works up a supernaturally charged atmosphere though its eyes are strictly on entertainment rather than exposing any deep seated social concerns.The possessed girl calls forth animals, speaks in tongues offering bizarre and disturbing prophesies, and eventually projectile vomits blood and snakes all over a painting of the Virgin Mary yet the film never aims for the shock factor that defined Friedkin’s The Exorcist. Though tagged as horror, The Priests is not particularly frightening (jump scares aside) but does manage to evoke a kind of ever present dread in the face of this unfaceable threat.
Despite the heavy atmosphere, Jang is careful to allow the occasional comic episode providing a welcome break from the seriousness of the war against ancient evil. Impressive action sequences including the early serial car crash and later chase sequence add to the urgency of the situation whilst also alleviating some of the ever increasing tension. Though he visits some dark places, Jang’s world view is not as bleak as Friedkin’s as we’re left with a feeling of restitution, once the original threat removed, though we obviously know that other such threats remain. The heroic ending allows us to forget this for a moment as we enjoy the right and proper victory of good over evil, neglecting that this is but one of many battles in an eternal, celestial war.
Reviewed at a Teaser Screening for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival to take place in November 2016.
US trailer with English subs: