Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Jung Bum-sik, 2018)

Gonjiam Haunted Asylum posterBack in 1992, all of the UK was scandalised by a strangely realistic “drama” starring three well respected TV personalities “investigating” poltergeist activity in an ordinary house. Screened as part of an ongoing anthology drama series, the show was presented as if it were live complete with a telephone number for viewers to ring in. Many were tricked into believing the events they were witnessing were “real” and that a genial children’s TV presenter they knew and loved had been dragged off by a malevolent supernatural entity. Fast forward 10 years and the nation was once again gripped by a “live” ghost hunting show presented by a dubious psychic and a (former) children’s television presenter but this time at least keeping up a pretence of “reality” even if the show’s appeal lay more in its exaggerated seriousness than it did a genuine interest in the paranormal.

The world may have been a more innocent place back in 1992, but ghost shows are still big business even in this comparatively more cynical age. Reality TV ghosthunters Horror Times decide the best way to pick up their flagging views is to go viral by going live inside a notorious disused sanatorium listed as one of CNN’s seven freakiest places on Earth. Rumour has it that Gonjiam Mental Hospital (a place all too real though here given a fictionalised history) was built by the Japanese over the top of a mass grave for resistance fighters though, according to our guides, it was also accounted one of the best psychiatric facilities in the country. Its director received numerous awards from the government of Park Chung-hee (which ought to tell you she was probably up to no good), but the hospital fell into disrepute after an incident in which all the patients mysteriously died and the director herself “disappeared”. Ever since then teenagers have been breaking in to try their luck, but anyone who’s tried to open the door to room 402 has met a sticky end.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (곤지암, Gonjiam) is a found footage horror movie in the modern mould and like most, the crime our “heroes” are about to commit is one of extreme hubris. Cynical in the extreme, the Horror Times crew have absolute certainty in the non-existence of the supernatural and actively mock it through their exploitation of engineered “scares”. In an odd way, if you really thought about it, Horror Times would be quite an exploitative show if it involved “real” ghosts – perhaps you should let malevolent spirits lie rather than bullying them to fight you for the entertainment of others. Nevertheless, the Horror Times crew are about to find out just how wrong they are. While they bicker amongst themselves, hatching plans to wind up the most “expressive” of the team members, setting up bizarre “rituals”, and faking being “scared” to get more money, the Captain keeps a firm eye on the numbers from the safety of the editing tent and the horrors of Gonjiam begin to bubble quietly below the surface.

The thing is, there is clearly horror in spades in this version of Gonjiam where we are told the directoress excelled at treating not only the “distressed” but also “political prisoners”. The lab holds its share of bizarre discoveries including some kind of weird chicken in preserving fluid while the “collective treatment room” is filled with individual confessional boxes which are completely closed save one opening at the chest level. The spectres we later see have large scars running down their torsos and we can only image the true horror of whatever it was that was done here and to whom and on what grounds, but Horror Times aren’t interested in any of that despite their rather superficial “investigations” of the directoress’ office and her many photos of that time she got a prize off a dictator. By the time everyone starts speaking in tongues and getting trapped in strange underwater realms, it becomes clear the “truth” is going to remain buried. 

Maybe the other lesson the Horror Times guys should have learned is that the traumatic past is not your playground and it’s probably fair enough if those unable to pass on begin to feel upset about their personal pain being exploited for ghoulish thrills. Perhaps there’s a mild lesson in the unhappy fates of those who’d rather poke the ghosts than cure them, revelling in the darkness of another era rather than trying to expose it, but Gonjiam isn’t so much about lessons as good old fashioned scares. The abandoned hospital itself is atmospheric, as are the distant banging and doors opening of their own accord but there’s a glibness in its unease that undercuts the sense of dread and inevitability so essential to the genre. The biggest irony of all is that Horror Times’ viewers lost interest when the “real” ghosts showed up – reality TV never really was about “reality” anyway.


Screened as a teaser for the upcoming London Korean Film Festival. The next and final teaser screening will be A Tiger in Winter on 17th September at Regent Street Cinema at which the full programme for this year’s festival will be revealed.

International trailer (English subtitles)

For the curious, a clip from Ghostwatch (1992)

Office (오피스, Hong Won-chan, 2015)

office posterThe pressure cooker society threatens to explode in Hong Won-chan’s Office (오피스). The writer of recent genre hits The Chaser and The Yellow Sea, Hong has long experience of examining those living on the edge but in his directorial debut he takes things one step further in depicting an entire society running to keep up with itself, furiously chasing its own tail with barely suppressed rage. Not so much survival of the fittest as survival of the least scrupulous, the world of Office is the one in which the mad become the most sane, escaping the constraints of corporate oppression through social revenge but taking the innocent along with them.

Salaryman Byun-guk (Bae Seong-woo) has the soulless eyes of one whose dreams have already died. Dejectedly he sits alone at a coffee shop before cramming himself into the commuter train home where he sits, silently, among his busy family. They wonder why he hasn’t changed out of his suit, shed his corporate persona for his familial one, but when Byung-guk gets up he returns brandishing a hammer which he then, as if in a trance, uses to bludgeon to death his loving wife, disabled son, and senile mother.

Byun-guk flees the scene of crime and is loose somewhere in the city. The police search his office for clues but his colleagues have already come up with their unified version of events, keeping the company out of it by claiming that they all loved Byun-guk and are shocked that he could have done something so horrifying. Meanwhile, intern Mi-rae (Go Ah-sung), who regarded Byun-guk as her only friend in the office, is upset but perhaps not quite so shocked. Excluded from the interoffice cliquery, no one has thought to brief Mi-rae on the party line leaving her a prime target for police inspector Choi (Park Sung-woong).

Byun-guk and Mi-rae are two of a piece – members of the upright and hardworking lower classes who have done everything right but somehow have never been accepted by their peers. Mi-rae, an ordinary girl from Gwangju who worked to lose her accent in her teens dreaming of the high life in Seoul, is shy and mousy but works hard – harder than anyone, to prove herself worthy of Seoul’s unrealistic demands. Her colleagues, privileged, confident, and also harried, do not forgive her for this. They find her earnestness “creepy”, her desire to succeed “suspicious”. Cruelly taken down a peg or two by a colleague taking out her own frustrations on the office nobody, another tries to comfort her with some advice – don’t try so hard, you make us all look bad and we wonder what your need is hiding. Mi-rae isn’t really hiding anything save her slowly fragmenting mental state and the overwhelming need to be accepted to a club that, in truth, is not open to people like her who value their integrity and still believe deep down that working hard and being honest are the only paths to true success.

Korean society, it seems, has become a giant chain of screaming. Byun-guk has been repeatedly passed over for promotion despite being the most reliable employee in the office but his ineffectual boss is overly wedded to the shouting school of business management. Faced with results he doesn’t like, Byun-guk’s boss picks someone to shout at to make them better but offers no further guidance. Railing at the police for not doing their job as if screaming will some how provoke major results even outside of the office, the boss can’t know that police also have their own chain of screaming and Choi has his own boss already taking care of that side of things, demanding results rather than truth or justice.

The meek are taking their inheritance ahead of schedule, but their revenge is born both of societal corruption and rejection. People like Byun-guk and Mi-rae, who are quiet, honest, kind but perhaps not good with people, become the bugs in a system which simultaneously holds them up as essential cogs. Those who cannot just pretend, grease the wheels with superficial social niceties, and accepted their place in the chain of screaming in order to climb further up it are condemned to wander idly around its lower levels going quietly mad until, perhaps, the system crushes them or else collapses.


International trailer (English subtitles)

The Mimic (장산범, Huh Jung, 2017)

The mimic posterFears of changeling children and their propensity to become cuckoos in the nest is a mainstay of folklore horror, but in recent times the creepy kid has crept his way in from the cold as the current monster of choice. The Mimic (장산범, Jangsanbum), though apparently completed some time earlier, has a few superficial similarities to Na’s The Wailing in its use of powerful, ancient myths and shamanic lore to conjure its particular brand of evil. If Na’s film was sometimes criticised for its obtuse ambiguity Huh has the opposite problem in failing to properly support his internal mythology with an appropriate level of consistency.

Hee-yeon (Yum Jung-ah) packs up her life including husband (Park Hyuk-kwon), mother-in-law (Heo Jin) suffering with dementia, little girl Jun-hee (Jang Liu) and a box of painful memories and moves to Mount Jang – her mother-in-law’s hometown. The move is intended to help the family put the past behind them and move on after Hee-yeon’s son disappeared without trace five years previously, but it’s not long before Hee-yeon is catching sight of small boys in ragged clothes on the streets around Mount Jang and convincing herself she’s seen her little boy despite the distance from the place where he disappeared and that he’d now be five years older than the version she has stored in her memory.

With Hee-yeon’s mental state already strained, she runs into trouble when a pair of earnest children arrive hoping one of the dogs in the kennel facility the family are running might be their missing puppy. It isn’t but their search leads them to a creepy walled up cave where they’re attacked by a malevolent entity. While her husband is helping the children and investigating the cave, Hee-yeon comes across a strange little girl (Shin Rin-ah), apparently lost, and dressed in an old fashioned velvet dress with a lace collar. The girl disappears while the Hee-yeon and her husband are busy with the police but later turns up at the couple’s home and worms her way inside, eventually claiming that her name is Jun-hee too, just like Hee-yeon’s daughter.

The central conceit is that the malevolent entity existing around Mount Jang mimics the voices of (usually dead) loved ones in order to convince its victims to surrender themselves voluntarily. Huh sets up Hee-yeon’s mental instability early on as she nervously guzzles pills to help her regain her grip on reality, but there after abandons it, never questioning the real existence of threat or Hee-yong’s relationship to the little girl whom she at times strangely believes to be her son. The little girl remains a typically creepy kid, originally mute and then mimicking Jun-hee but apparently unthreatening in and of herself. The cuts and bruises across the little girl’s back might explain her silence with her immediate adoption of a Jun-hee persona a kind of rejection of her original personality, but the film has already lost interest in rational explanations.

Hee-yeon, despite a degree of distance towards her daughter, immediately takes to the little girl, bringing her into the house with an intention to keep her despite her husband’s reservations. The desire to save this lost little girl is, of course, a kind of reaction to the loss of her son whom she seems to see in the little girl even without her supernatural gift of mimicry. Hee-yeon blames herself for the unknown fate of her little boy who disappeared after she left him with her mother-in-law (already suffering with dementia) in a busy foodcourt. Granny may have more clues, but if she has they’re irretrievably locked inside her fracturing mind. Having grown up in the surrounding area and being aware of the legends since childhood, granny is also a good person to ask about the strange goings on – only no one does because they assume she is not mentally stable. Hence when she alone knows to cover up mirrors and is suspicious of the little girl, everyone thinks it’s the dementia talking.

Symbolically the choice which is presented is between past and future, life and death, in the knowledge that the two are mutually exclusive. The liminal space of the cave becomes its own purgatorial courtroom in which Hee-yeon, and the other victims, must decide for themselves who or what they believe and which sort of existence they wish to embrace. For Hee-yeon her trial involves the abandonment of another child as a final goodbye to her long absent son, pulling at her fragile maternity and testing each and every aspect of it (though not, perhaps, that related to her remaining daughter who seems to have been temporarily forgotten). Huh makes fantastic use of soundscapes and intriguing use of mirrors, but even the high quality photography and committed performances can’t quite overcome the hollowness of his mythology, robbing his dark fairytale of its essential power.


Screened at London Korean Film Festival 2017. Also screening at Showroom Cinema, Sheffield, 15 November 2017, 8.30 pm

International trailer (English subtitles)

Manhole (맨홀, Shin Jae-young, 2014)

manhole posterFinding the sinister in the commonplace is the key to creating a chilling horror experience, but “finding” it is the key. Attempting to graft something untoward onto a place it can’t take hold is more likely to raise eyebrows than hair or goosebumps. The creators of Korean horror exercise Manhole (맨홀) have decided to make those ubiquitous round discs the subject of their enquiries. They are kind of worrying really aren’t they? Where do they go, what are they for? Only the municipal authorities really know. In this case they go to the lair of a weird serial killer who lives in the shadows and occasionally pulls in pretty girls from above like one of those itazura bank cats after your loose change.

Of course, it’s sort of our first victim’s fault because she’s dared to go out late at night on her own and committed the cardinal sin of shouting at her over protective father on the phone shortly before realising she’s wandered into a horror movie by mistake. The lights start flickering, everything goes wavy and then you’re being pulled down a manhole. Not cool.

Anyway, the real story is about two sisters. Yeon-seo (Jung Yu-Mi) is now the sole guardian of Soo-jeong (Kim Sae-Ron) following the death of their parents and also seems to be harbouring some kind of guilt over an accident that left Soo-jeong permanently deaf. Perhaps a little over protective as a consequence, Yeon-seo instructs Soo-jeong to stay in their apartment and wait for her to get back. Soo-jeong, however, is old enough to push the boundaries and ventures out alone to meet her sister on her way home with an umbrella. Unfortunately, she catches sight of the killer along the way and is soon trapped in the sewer like everyone else, apparently. Yeon-soo tries to call the police but they aren’t interested so she has little choice but to track her sister’s phone and journey underground herself. She’s joined (well, they’re there at the same time) by the father of the first victim (Choi Duk-Moon) who happens to be a former policeman, now in possession of a gun stolen from a friend also set to make a fateful descent at a later point.

Manhole is a very confused film. Unable to decide who its protagonist(s) is (are), it meanders freely between its disparate plot strands without ever managing to build coherent connections between them. Though the sisters are posited as the main element of the story, they take quite a long time to arrive and are then frequently sidelined in favour of other ongoing developments. Their story is undoubtedly the most interesting as it presents an unusual plot device in which they remain unable to communicate verbally during their attempts to escape from the sewers and it’s nice to see sign language used so ordinarily in a genre film, yet even their meagre backstory is painted in broad strokes and through flashbacks once again making it difficult to fully connect with them as they battle the threat in the shadows.

The role of the killer, Soo-chul (Jung Kyoung-Ho), is also a difficult one as he is neither protagonist nor generic threat but given a small amount of flashback backstory delivered in monologue to his victims which only serves to make him a frustrating presence. Manhole seems as if it has a point to make about families in that Soo-chul is a damaged child of a broken home, both trying to avenge himself and regain what he’s lost by, in a sense, “recreating” a family through his kidnappings. Frequent glances towards the prominently displayed portrait of the ideal family contrast with the other relationships in the film – Jong-ho and his hunt for his missing daughter, and the bond between the two sisters. Both of these family units are also missing elements – the sisters who’ve lost their parents and Jong-ho as a lone father. Neither of the parental figures in the film is fully able to protect their charges despite appearing controlling and over protective prior to the incident though no particular reason seems to be offered for this other than praising parental sacrifice in allowing both to fight all out to protect those closest to them.

What Manhole tries to be is a chase film, confining itself to the sewer environment as its crazed killer crawls around it like the literal beast in the shadows, cocooning victims in clingfilm and wearing bug-like bright red night vision goggles. Though exciting enough the frequent cutaways and over reliance on shaky cam disrupt the claustrophobic atmosphere as do the stereotypical jump scares and framing which feel as predictable as the final sequence of a video game in which the idea is to dodge the falling axes. Muddled and inexpertly photographed, Manhole is a disappointing genre exercise which even the generally strong performances of its cast can’t mask. Still, hardcore genre fans may find more to admire in the gore stained darkness of the oddly accessible sewer network and its lizard-like psycho killer.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Bluebeard (해빙, Lee Soo-youn, 2017)

bluebeardIf you think you might have moved in above a modern-day Sweeney Todd, what should you do? Lee Soo-youn’s follow-up to 2003’s The Uninvited, Bluebeard (해빙, Haebing), provides a few easy lessons in the wrong way to cope with such an extreme situation as its increasingly confused and incriminated hero becomes convinced that his butcher landlord’s senile father is responsible for a still unsolved spate of serial killings. Rather than move, go to the police, or pretend not to have noticed, self-absorbed doctor Seung-hoon (Cho Jin-woong) drives himself half mad with fear and worry, certain that the strange father and son duo from downstairs have begun to suspect that he suspects.

Seung-hoon has only just moved into this very modest apartment after a recent setback in his career and personal life. Once the owner of an upscale practice in Seoul’s trendy Gangnam (not usually known for its doctor’s surgeries), Seung-hoon is bankrupt, divorced, and working as a colonoscopy specialist in a local clinic which just happens to be situated in a run down industrial town that everyone knows the name of because it’s that place where all those murders happened.

Used to better things, Seung-hoon finds his new job boring and annoying. Though members of staff at the clinic including pretty nurse Mi-yeon (Lee Chung-ah) do their best to make him feel at home, Seung-hoon spends all his time alone staring into space and eating snacks in the treatment room rather than enjoying proper meals with the others in a nearby cafe. Despite being a bookish looking guy, Seung-hoon hasn’t much taste for literature but loves his mystery novels. When his landlord’s family use him as a connection to get the elderly patriarch in for a scan, it sparks a crisis in Seung-hoon’s already strained mind. Midway through the treatment, the old guy starts muttering about dumping body parts in a lake. Is he just senile and dragging something up from the news or a movie, is Seung-hoon’s overactive imagination coupled with a steady stream of grisly police procedurals playing tricks on him, or is this diminished yet creepy old duffer really responsible for a series of brutal killings?

The original Korean title means something like “ice melting” which gives a better indication of Lee’s intentions as long-buried evidence is unearthed by changing weather both mental and physical. Bluebeard, for those who don’t know, is a creepy horror story told to children in which a horrible old man imprisons and then murders all his wives. Seung-hoon’s suspicions are further aroused by the fact that all of the women associated with the guys downstairs seem to disappear. Then again, they are quite strange, so perhaps their wives really did just leave without warning.

Seung-hoon’s wife appears to have left him high and dry preferring to stay behind in the city rather than accompany him to this grim one horse murder town. The couple’s son wants to go to summer camp in Canada but Seung-hoon can’t quite afford it in his present difficulties. Now afraid to go home because of his creepy neighbours, Seung-hoon spends his nights curled up in the office where he accidentally discovers another employee’s morphine pilfering habit. Pushed to the edge, Seung-hoon’s mind starts to crack. Less concerned with the murderer than Seung-hoon’s fracturing mental state, Bluebeard neatly frames its hero whilst blithely wondering if he’s accidentally framing himself. Presented with a series of alternate histories, Seung-hoon’s memories seem increasingly unreliable and his paranoid, irrational behaviour less justifiable. When the ice melts the truth will be exposed, but it looks like it might be a long, cold winter for Seung-hoon.

Lee takes her time but builds an eerie, dread filled atmosphere where everything seems strange, suspect, and frightening. Seung-hoon has already hit rock bottom and may not have been such a great guy in the first place, but his descent into psychotic desperation and terrified paranoia is at the heart of the story which hinges on whether his suspicions are correct or if he’s simply read too many detective novels and has too much time on his hands now that he’s all alone. Anchored by a stand out performance from Cho, Bluebeard is an intricately designed, fascinatingly complex psychological thriller which carries its grimly ironic sense of the absurd right through to the cynical closing coda.


Bluebeard was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Red Shoes (분홍신, Kim Yong-gyun, 2005)

the-red-shoesWalk a mile in a man’s shoes, they say, if you really want to understand him. If Kim Yong-gyun’s The Red Shoes (분홍신, Bunhongsin, 2005) is anything to go by, you’d better make sure you ask first and return them to their rightful owner afterwards without fear or covetousness. Loosely based on the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale this Korean take replaces dancing with murder and also mixes in elements from other popular Asian horror movies of the day, most notably Dark Water in its dank and supernaturally tinged dingy apartment setting.

Late one night at a deserted train station in Seoul, a high school girl complains that she’s been waiting ages for her friend to arrive before noticing a pair of hot pink high heels resting incongruously on the platform’s edge. Strangely drawn to them, the girl puts the shoes on only for her friend to turn up and immediately become infatuated with the unexpected footwear herself, suddenly exclaiming that she saw them first. The two fight as the first girl is almost pushed onto the tracks by her friend and all over a random pair of actually quite ugly funny coloured shoes. The eventual winner will come to regret their victory as that night in an otherwise empty train station a teenage girl will loose her footing to a pair of high heels which slowly fill with blood and then disappear leaving only a pair of severed legs behind them.

After this grim opening, we meet another little girl who has definite opinions about her footwear in the form of little Tae-soo who wanted to wear her red shoes to ballet but mum Sun-jae (Kim Hye-soo) says no and they’re already late. Letting Tae-soo learn independence by telling her to make her own way but surreptitiously following her backfires when Tae-soo somehow evades the net leading Sun-jae to head home earlier than expected and discover her husband pleasuring another woman who is also wearing a pair of Sun-jae’s favourite shoes, just to add insult to injury. Next thing you know Sun-jae and Tae-soo have moved into a horrible (but presumably cheap) apartment while they wait for Sun-jae’s new optometrist’s clinic to be finished. It’s all kind of OK, until Sun-jae notices a pair of hot pink high heels all alone on the subway and in obvious need of adoption by a pair of loving feet…

Anyone with a even a passing knowledge of the genre will have figured out the central twist well ahead of time though, strangely, it seems almost irrelevant. The shoes are cursed, but they’re cursed with jealous desire as they both contain the entirety of a scorned woman’s rage and humiliation, and a lingering want for that which has been lost. Spreading like a virus, the shoes pick a host and then target those whom it infects with the need to posses them. This tension manifests itself in odd ways as mother and daughter become rivals in the tug of war over who the rightful owner of the shoes should be. A precocious child, Tae-soo has soon tried on her mother’s new shoes and there after progressed to makeup and pretty dresses. Her mother, rather than using authority or reason to regain her lost treasure, fights with her daughter like a child eventually resorting to violence but with all the force of adulthood. The shoes corrupt even this most innocent and essential of relationships as Sun-jae continues to struggle with maternity as Tae-soo’s overwhelming need to possess the shoes and eclipse her mother’s femininity arrives well ahead of schedule.

Shoes aside, Sun-jae does not seem to be a well woman. Problems with her eyes do not quite explain the flashbacks she’s been experiencing to an apparently traumatic episode in the 1940s in which the shoes seem to feature. She’s also begun having strange waking dreams which involve blood, lots of blood – far more blood than any one body could realistically contain, and bad things happening to Tae-soo. Eventually Sun-jae figures out that the shoes were a bad idea and that there may be other stuff going on in her life that she isn’t exactly aware of, but the extent to which cursed footwear is influencing her behaviour may be open to debate given later (though extremely obvious) revelations.

It just goes to show that misplaced desire can leave you footless and fancy free. Kim does his best to make modern day Seoul a supernaturally scary place, overlaying eerily empty shots of intersections and train stations with gothic infused musical cues whilst having Sun-jae move into the kind of place which only someone trying to disappear would consider. Adding in touches of surrealism from the aesthetically beautiful fantasy sequences to snowing blood, Kim creates the atmosphere of fairy tale whilst allowing for an imbalance of perception in the possibly fracturing mind of his heroine. Despite the often impressive cinematography and strong leading performance from Kim Hye-soo, The Red Shoes never manages to transcend its lack of originality and frequent callbacks to similarly themed genre efforts but nevertheless offers its share of elegantly composed scares even if its internal integrity fails to convince.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Go Yeong-nam, 1981)

suddenly-in-the-darkEverybody ought to have a maid, goes the old adage, but finding one you can trust can be a tall order. Kim Ki-young’s The Housemaid clearly sounds a warning call to husbands everywhere not to be tempted by the enticements of pretty young girls or conniving social climbers with designs on upending the domestic order by supplanting the legitimate wife from within her own home. The Housemaid is melodrama rewritten as horror in which a parasitical force colonises the domestic environment hell bent on taking it over through a subversion of its binding yet taboo foundation – sexual desire. Twenty years later, Suddenly in the Dark (깊은밤 갑자기, Gipeun Bam, Gapjagi) returns to the same theme but from a different angle. A once harmonious household is suddenly turned upside down following the introduction of a second female, provoking a series of crises within the already strained mind of its wife and mother.

Lepidopterist Kang Yu-jin (Yoon Il-bong) returns home after three weeks away chasing butterflies and is warmly greeted by his faithful wife, Seon-hee (Kim Young-ae), and their loving daughter. Seon-hee looks on while her husband shows off some slides of his latest finds to his colleagues but is disturbed by the incongruous presence of a shamanic statue, somehow mixed in with the shots of rare butterflies. The creepy doll-like figure continues to haunt Seon-hee who finds herself in a state of agitation regarding her husband’s frequent absences.

She is then, fairly non-plussed when Yu-jin returns from another trip with a strange young girl in tow. Essentially kind but also absent minded and a little insensitive, Yu-jin has picked up a waif and stray, recently orphaned and alone, with the idea of killing two birds with one stone by taking her into his house as a maid. On hearing Yu-jin’s explanation, Seon-hee reconsiders and is excited to get both some much needed domestic help and a degree of companionship in her otherwise lonely life. The girl, Mi-ok (Lee Ki-seon), is a little strange but seems grateful to have found a place to belong. Seon-hee, however, gradually becomes alarmed firstly by Mi-ok’s youth and beauty, and later by the presence of the same shamanic statue that’s been haunting her all this time among Mi-ok’s few belongings. Increasingly unhinged and paranoid, Seon-hee becomes convinced that her new maid has seduced her husband and means to kill her by any means possible.

Like The Housemaid, Suddenly in the Dark turns on the parasitical threat of an outsider within the family unit. Focussing on the women rather than the temptation and fall of the man of the house, the narrative shifts away from a crisis of male desire and responsibility to the fear and insecurity of the neglected, lonely housewife intentionally isolated from society at large yet under appreciated and often bored at home. By all appearances, the Kangs have made a fairly nice life for themselves with a spacious, if remote, country villa filled with nicknacks and elegant furniture, and seem to have a happy and fulfilled marriage. However, Yu-jin is often away for long stretches of time and even when home is often too occupied with work to appreciate his wife and daughter.

Seon-hee appears to have only one real “friend” who seems to be the sort of woman who likes to talk people down and undermine the happiness of others to make herself feel better. Consequently, she’s filled Seon-hee’s mind with lots of imagined troubles. Women over thirty might as well be sixty when it comes to male attention, she says. Suddenly throwing Seon-hee into a morass of uncertainty regarding her husband’s growing indifference towards her as he retreats to the spare room to finish writing his book, Eun-yeong is then quick to disregard Seon-hee’s distress over the threat posed by her new maid, refusing her help at the very time it’s most needed.

Mi-ok moves between an innocent young girl clutching the talisman left to her by her mother like a child her doll, and a predatory sex fiend corrupting and possessing Seon-hee’s husband aiming to displace her from her rightful position in this ordinary middle-class world. Aside from Seon-hee’s subjective perception, Yu-jin seems mostly indifferent or genially paternal in his dealings with Mi-ok, and even her caustic friend Eun-young remarks that she doesn’t think Mi-ok is all that pretty after all. In fact, the only person to be struck by Mi-ok’s physical beauty is Seon-hee who finds herself personally bathing her new maid, caressing her lithe and youthful body and remarking on the beauty of her skin. Insecure of her own ageing appearance, Seon-hee is, in one way or another, desirous of Mi-ok’s youthful figure, either jealously wishing to possess and wear it for herself, or possess it in a more obvious, externalised way.

Even if Seon-hee describes Mi-ok’s beauty as striking enough to attract even a woman, any latent desire on her own part is left on the level of psycho-sexual subtext rather than directly addressed even if each of the lingering shots of Mi-ok’s naked body are from Seon-hee’s POV and her (perhaps fantastical) observations of Mi-ok and her husband making love are entirely focussed on the younger woman.

Where Suddenly in the Dark diverges from its closer genre relatives is in its shamanistic themes as Seon-hee finds herself haunted by the creepy talisman and its later personification as Mi-ok before finally perhaps becoming the image herself. Shamanism had been aggressively suppressed in recent history, often viewed distastefully as a remnant of a backwards, superstitious age. Though Yu-jin insists that the doll is just a doll and holds no power, forcing Seon-hee to stay in the same room with it to overcome her irrational fear of a bit of old wood, the ancient ways work their magic on her, adding to her madness and ultimately provoking the final, psychedelic rampage.

Through the disorientating, kaleidoscopic butterfly vision which fractures Seon-hee’s fragile world view, Go creates a strange and eerie atmosphere of uncertainty as perception and reality diverge into opposing poles. Taking advantage of the recently relaxed censorship codes to further enhance the film’s erotic quality, Suddenly in the Dark is a psychedelic tour de force with its glass bottom view, green tinted shamanistic visions, taxidermy filled creepy mansion, and constantly shifting uncertainty born of spiritual and mental battling inside its heroine’s soul. A fantastic example of esoteric Korean horror, Suddenly in the Dark is an important rediscovery for the genre’s history but also a fascinating zeitgeisty character study which refuses definitive interpretation.


Recently released on blu-ray by Mondo Macabro with English subtitles (currently sold out, second pressing released 2017)

Mondo Macabro trailer (dialogue free, NSFW, quite creepy)

The Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Lee Hae-Young, 2015)

the-silencedThe Silenced (경성학교: 사라진 소녀들, Gyeongseonghakyoo: Sarajin Sonyeodeul) has all the classic genre aspects of the boarding school horror story familiar to fans of gothic literature everywhere, but this is no Victorian tale of repressed sexuality and hallucinatory psychosis. What The Silence does is take all of these essential elements and remix them as a metaphor for the horror of colonialism. Surrounded by quislings and forced into submission in order to survive, how does the essential soul of an oppressed people survive? The Silence would seem to argue that perhaps it can’t, but can evolve and learn to resist its colonisers even if it has to bend to do so.

Korea, 1938. Teenage girl Ju-ran (Park Bo-Young) is dropped off by her rather cool step-mother at a hospital school before her parents relocate to Tokyo. On arrival, Ju-ran switches to her Japanese name of Shizuko which raises a stir among her new schoolmates because another girl with the same name previously occupied her new bed before disappearing suddenly without a word of goodbye. Her physical resemblance to the previous Shizuko, coupled with her ill-health, provokes mistrust among the other girls, especially top girl Yuka and her minions. Shizuko is now expected to get used to all of the school’s arcane rules and regulations as soon as possible or risk harsh punishment. This includes “treatment” for her illness which involves frequent distribution of pills, injections, and other experimental courses. Before long Shizuko begins to notice odd behaviour among the girls, some of whom begin to disappear.

After a lengthy series of diplomatic manoeuvres beginning in the Meiji era, Japan annexed Korea in 1910 beginning a period of direct rule which would continue until the end of the Second World War. During this period, Japanese became the dominant, official language and mainland Japanese culture sought to displace that of the indigenous Korean society. The school, as an official institution, is careful to follow these regulations to the letter. Each of the pupils has a Japanese name which becomes their “official” designation, the Korean identity is “buried” with Korean birth names used only with close friends whose trust is certain.

Similarly, the school’s official language is Japanese with lessons and official business always conducted in the appropriate language. Linguistic shifts suddenly become an interesting phenomenon as the girls continue to talk to each other in their native Korean in the school room and out (even if sticking to Japanese names) but maintain order by obeying commands in the language of authority. The headmistress generally sticks to Japanese, at least when she’s at the lectern, but notably switches to Korean when addressing a girl personally or when she wishes to appear kind and non-threatening rather than authoritarian. This point is further brought home when one girl descends into a fit of rage and attacks another, ranting and raving in Japanese whilst gripping the other girl’s throat. Korean is both the language of kindness and friendship as opposed to the coldness and violence of the official Japanese, and a tool to be manipulated in order to create a false sense of camaraderie between colonised and coloniser.

The school is staffed by collaborators working with the Japanese authorities and training these young women to be model Japanese citizens. Part of their classwork involves a large embroidery project sewing beautiful pink cherry blossoms onto a map of Korea – a motif which is later chillingly repeated by sewing those same flowers onto the body the body of a collaborator. Tokyo has become a kind of magical wonderland paradise and the school even offers the girls hope of advancement there through winning a competition based on physical ability in which the school will select the two most promising candidates and dispatch them to the capital. The headmistress, once the final mystery has been exposed, begs the Japanese military forces to put their faith in her because she is determined to become a loyal Japanese citizen and leave this backward Korea behind forever.

The main thrust of the narrative centres around the interplay between these teenage girls who stand in for a subjugated people, ruled over by their collaborating teachers. Shizuko (Ju-ran) strikes up a friendship with Kazue (or Yeong-duk to restore her Korean name), previously the best friend of her predecessor. The two girls become closer though the the disappearance of the previous Shizuko always stands between them. Beginning to solve the mystery, the two girls are the only opposition to the ruling regime as they accept the various “benefits” of their treatment and education, and return to use them against their oppressors. The girls’ innocence has been corrupted by their experiences, but this same corruption is the very thing which allows them to take a stand for their independence.

Though the supernatural is posited as the ultimate enemy, the solution of the mystery leads straight back into the political realm rather than any less Earthly kind of evil. Director Lee Hae-young generates a supremely creepy atmosphere from the opening sequence onwards which empahises the gothic aesthetic and inescapable presence of something dark lurking in the shadows. Though using minimal instances of jump scares, supernatural episodes, and hallucinatory images, the film pushes its horrors into the real world even if the solution it ultimately offers is more akin to a superhero origin story than a revolutionary uprising. Beautifully photographed, The Silenced is the story of those denied a voice realising they have the right to rebel but like any gothic horror story paints its central battle as an ongoing, unwinnable fight against the darkness.


Original trailer (select English subs from settings menu)

The Wailing (곡성, Na Hong-Jin, 2016)

wailingFor the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand – the residents of Goksung, the setting for Na Hong-jin’s nihilistic horror movie The Wailing (곡성, Goksung), might be inclined to agree with Yeats if only because the name of their town is also a homonym for the “sound of weeping”. There is plenty to weep over, and in places Na’s film begins to feel like one long plaintive cry reaching far back to the dawn of time but the main wounds are comparatively more recent – colonisation, not only of a landscape but of a soul. When it comes to gods, should you trust one over another simply because of its country of origin or is your faith to  be bestowed in something with more universal application?

Goksung is a sleepy little rural town way up in the mountains. This is the kind of place where nothing much ever happens but today all of that is about to change as a local man has committed a series of bloody murders and is now in a dissociative state. Bumbling policeman Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) arrives late to the crime scene but quickly finds himself pulled in to the ongoing investigations as bodies begin piling up in the previously quiet town.

The rational explanation for the spate of violent killings is blamed on a tonic containing some funny mushrooms but others have another idea. All of this started happening after a Japanese guy (Jun Kunimura) moved to the town. Some say he’s a professor, some say he’s a Buddhist monk, but there also those who hold him responsible for the rape of a local woman, and there are even reports of him running about the forest dressed only in a loincloth and feasting on the remains of fallen animals.

Eventually, Jung-goo’s young daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) falls under the curse, giving him an unavoidable impetus to find the truth. As well as the “suspicious” Japanese visitor, Jung-goo also comes into contact with a mysterious young woman dressed in white (Chun Woo-hee) who may be either friend or foe, whilst shamans and the Catholic Church are each approached for their advice on this singularly supernatural phenomenon.

This being quite a sleepy town, Jung-goo’s days most likely involved a lot of napping, eating, and card playing, broken up with chatting to old ladies. So unaccustomed to crime are they, they didn’t quite remember to put their gloves on before investigating a crime scene. Jung-goo and his partner are constantly branded “morons” by their boss and if the night they end up guarding the police station during a thunderstorm is anything to go by, they aren’t exactly the bravest of souls either. Not the best pair to be investigating a complex, supernatural mystery they decide to heed the rumours and pay a visit to the Japanese guy living way out in the woods.

Known only by the derogatory term “the Jap”, the new addition to the village quickly falls under suspicion thanks to the old fashioned crime of not being from around here. Whether out of resentment for historical crimes or simply because of being an outsider, everyone decides the Japanese visitor must, in some way, be responsible. Suspicions are compounded when Jung-goo, his partner, and his partner’s nephew who happens to be a Catholic priest in training with a solid command of Japanese, discover some very odd things whilst snooping around the man’s home. Is the mysterious visitor really, literally, a “Japanese devil” or just the victim of an ongoing campaign of intense xenophobia and the supernatural elements attributed to him a manifestation of that extremely offensive term?

Na keeps us guessing. Meanwhile, ancient remedies are sought when ancient ones are awakened, hence Jung-goo’s mother-in-law turns to shamanism to try and cure her granddaughter of her increasingly serious illness. The shaman (Hwang Jung-Min) arrives more like a TV evangelist than a witch doctor – smart suit and turtleneck, topped of with long hair tied into a bun. The exorcism scene itself is a furious battle between light and darkness (or so we presume) as the shaman dances wildly to the pulsating drum beats of his orchestra, sacrificing a chicken here and a goat there, all while Hyo-jin writhes in agony in the next room and his enemy performs a counter ritual from his recently refurbished lair.

“Believe in me and you shall be saved” is a message Jung-goo receives from just about everyone during the course of the film. The Catholic Church, however, is resolutely opposed to the idea of this demonic threat and informs Jung-goo that this is not a religious matter – he ought to take his daughter back to the hospital and instil his “faith” in modern medicine. Faith appears to be the central question, in what or whom should one believe? Can Jung-goo trust his shaman, is the Japanese guy an ally, threat, or just a neutral, ordinary man, and what of the oddly intense woman dressed in white? In the end, Jung-goo’s faith is questioned but he pays dearly for his final decision. Had he placed more faith in the old gods, his fate might have been very different but Jung-goo chose real world logic (not his strongest suit) over spiritual intuition and failed to heed the warnings.

Jung-goo, though presented as a broadly sympathetic presence, is partly responsible for his own downfall through his willingness to embrace the baser elements of his nature. In contrast to his otherwise laid-back character which sees him late to work because of family meals, Jung-goo has a violent streak first seen when he takes defending himself from an angry dog far further than he needed to. Later he rounds a group of friends to help him take out the Japanese man in a worrying stab at mob justice. Neither quality is very endearing but Jung-goo’s position as a slightly dim bruiser who mistakenly thinks he can smash his way out of a spiritual conundrum makes him an unlikely choice of saviour.

Na offers nothing in the way of hope, the forces of darkness are set to conquer the world helped only by humanity’s propensity towards doubt, its selfishness, and its fear. The dark humour fades as the pace increases until the film approaches its bleaker than bleak finale. This is a land of ghosts, both fleshy and otherwise but in order to bid them goodbye you must first accept their presence. In the end it’s all a question of faith but those most worthy of it may be among the most difficult to believe.


Reviewed at 2016 BFI London Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Train to Busan (부산행, Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

Train to BusanMany people all over the world find themselves on the zombie express each day, ready for arrival at drone central, but at least their fellow passengers are of the slack jawed and sleep deprived kind, soon be revived at their chosen destination with the magic elixir known as coffee. The unfortunate passengers on an early morning train to Busan have something much more serious to deal with. The live action debut from one of the leading lights of Korean animation Yeon Sang-ho, Train to Busan (부산행, Busanhaeng) pays homage to the best of the zombie genre providing both high octane action from its fast zombie monsters and subtle political commentary as a humanity’s best and worst qualities battle it out for survival in the most extreme of situations.

Workaholic fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is having a series of very bad days. His wife has left him and for unclear reasons, also left their young daughter, Soo-an (Kim Soo-ahn), in her father’s care though apparently wants custody in the ugly divorce battle that now seems inevitable. It’s Soo-an’s birthday but all she wants is to catch a train to Busan to see her mum and if she has to she’ll even go by herself. After his attempt at a birthday present spectacularly backfires, Seok-woo gives in and agrees to take Soo-an to her mother’s before catching the next train back after dropping her off. Unfortunately, they have picked a very bad day to take the train.

Yeon Sang-ho takes his time to build to the central train based set piece but is is careful to create an atmosphere which makes it plain that there is something very wrong with this seemingly everyday set up. After a brief dig about pig farmers losing out to government policy on foot and mouth disease and irresponsible hit and run drivers leaving deer corpses behind them for someone else to deal with, he has a parade of emergency vehicles racing past Seok-Woo and Soo-an on their trip to the station while ash rains down on their car. Seok-woo is still focussed on work though sleepy on the train so he misses Soo-an’s shocked reaction to a station guard being rugby tackled just as the train is leaving while a mass of improbable early morning revellers are trying to break through the line of staff holding them back at the platform steps.

Patient zero bounds onto the train just as the doors close though one wonders why no one is paying much attention to this obviously distressed young woman as she stumbles and writhes around in the train carriage before the virus fully takes hold. Just as we think someone is about to come to her aid, it turns out to be a case of a snooty passenger taking offence at the presence of an “odd person” on the train. The “odd person” turns out to be a homeless guy whose mutterings of “dead, all dead” take on a prophetic air rather than the ramblings of a mad man that the train guards assume them to be.

This kind of stereotypical othering and the selfish refusal to help fellow humans in need is at the very heart of the film. Seok-woo admonishes his goodhearted daughter when she repeatedly makes an effort to be a kind and decent person by giving up her seat for an old lady or wanting to stop and help others escape the zombie onslaught. However, Soo-an’s goodness wins through as she in turn chastises her father and explains that his selfishness and lack of regard for the feelings of other people is the very reason her mother left the family. Even if he begins by cruelly closing the door on the film’s most heroic character and his pregnant wife, Seok-woo gradually begins to develop a sense of social responsibility whether out of simple pragmatism or genuine fellow feeling.

Workaholic fathers with minimal connections to their offspring may be something of a genre trope but, as father-to-be Sang-hwa says, fathers often get a bad rap – making all of the sacrifices and enjoying none of the rewards. In an attempt to show solidarity with Seok-Woo, Sang-hwa assures him that his daughter will understand why he worked so hard all the time when she grows up and reiterates that true fatherhood is about self-sacrifice. This is one sense plays into the earlier themes of Seok-Woo’s self-centred viewpoint in asking if he really is working hard for his family or only wants to been as such, maintaining his own social status and upperclass lifestyle and completing it with a perfectly posed family photo. A father is supposed to protect his daughter and now Soo-an has only him to rely on, if Seok-woo is going ensure her survival he will have to decide what kind of sacrifices he’s prepared to make on her behalf.

If the film has a villain it isn’t the rabid zombie hordes who, after all, are only obeying their programming, it’s personal, corporate, and political greed. The clearest embodiment of this is in the panicked businessman who frequently tries to issue orders to the train staff and insists the train take him to his preferred destination. After trying to get the homeless man thrown off the train early on, the fascistic businessman picks up a lackey in the form of a steward and begins trying to exclude all the “suspicious” people from his general vicinity. Cruel and cowardly, the businessman’s selfish actions only cause more problems for everyone else whilst whipping up unhelpful paranoia among those who will need to work together to survive. Literally feeding even his most loyal comrades to zombies to buy himself time to escape, this egotistical CEO is the perfect metaphor for cannibalistic nature of the capitalist system which is, as Sang-hwa said, content to let the “useless” fall behind.

That’s not to forget the actual undead threat. Yeon Sang-ho’s walking dead take inspiration from his animated work and move quickly with jerky, uncanny movements more like Butoh dancers than the usual stupefied shufflers. The set pieces are expertly choreographed and well shot, maintaining the tension throughout though the increase in scale towards the final stretch is at odds with the leaner, meaner approach of the early scenes. Despite eventually giving in to melodrama in a heavily signposted script, Yeon Sang-ho’s live action debut is an impressive effort making room for his standard social concerns whilst also providing innovative zombie thrills. Yeon Sang-ho’s message is clear, when disaster strikes no one can survive alone, the only chance for salvation lies in altruistic compassion. In the end the best weapon against the darkness is a children’s song as innocence finally triumphs over fear.


UK release trailer: