Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Sim Deok-geun, 2021)

A collection of lost souls find themselves trapped between this world and the next in Sim Deok-geun’s eerie haunted house horror, Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Guimoon). On a literal quest to exorcise his demons, the hero traverses an impossible and elliptical passage attempting to atone for his sins while freeing others from a similar burden yet finally finds himself becoming his quarry as kind of jailor or perhaps guardian spirit making sure that doors which should never be opened remain forever closed not least to the morbidly curious. 

Do-jin’s (Kim Kang-woo) troubles begin when he casts off his destiny as a shaman leaving his ageing mother to battle a powerful spirit said to belong to a mass killer who suddenly snapped one day and murdered all the guests at small community centre. When the building is torn down, workers discover a body bricked up in the walls which seems almost untouched. Do-jin’s mother is brought in to exorcise the evil spirits but is finally overpowered, a dark presence causing her to stab herself in the neck. Overcome with guilt and apparently “harassed” by his mother’s ghost, Do-jin resolves to atone by releasing each of the spirits killed by the murderous custodian and solving the mystery of the body in the walls in the hope of releasing his mother’s soul so that she can move on to the afterlife and stop nagging him from beyond the grave. 

The “Guimoon” is a kind of portal open on the turn of the year by the lunar calendar. Dojin intends to venture through it assuming it will be easy enough to nix a few ghosts and then come home but soon finds himself lost in a world of uncertain time and forever looping corridors. He meant to travel to the afterlife of 1990, but his world is soon disrupted by the arrival of three university students from 1996 who really shouldn’t be here. Armed with a video camera, they are dead set on crafting their own found footage horror in the hope of winning a competition so one of them won’t have to drop out of school. For the students, this world is “real”. They entered it voluntarily and as far as they are concerned are wandering round a derelict building, not really believing it to be “cursed” or haunted in any way. But for Do-jin it’s a liminal and unreal space he has entered for a specific purpose and from which he hopes to expel those who should have left long before. 

Yet even in trying to solve the mystery, Do-jin concentrates his efforts on Seok-ho (Jang Jae-ho), the shovel-wielding custodian, taking a kind of register of the other guests while knowing little about them. He soon discovers that Seok-ho may not quite be the boogeyman he first thought him to be, realising that his sudden descent into homicidal mania may not have been of his own volition. The solution he edges towards hints at the ironically named community centre as a nexus of trauma, a nightmare world created by an entity trying to escape its suffering and finding empowerment in taking control of its oppressors. 

“I was always here” one of the lonely souls proclaims, while Do-jin and the students find themselves locked in, prevented from leaving by a literal absence of exits. While the students eventually turn against each other, seeking escape by submitting themselves the malicious evil of the entity haunting the centre, Do-jin does his best to complete his quest of vanquishing the ghosts with his shaman’s dagger but is eventually brought to a cruel realisation in a maddening series of loops and repetitions which only lead towards a door which should never be opened. In some ways frustratingly oblique, Sim Deok-geun’s eerie meta horror is an exercise in found footage psychology in which the lost wander lonely corridors while searching for an elusive truth they may already know but have perhaps forgotten. On a night between two worlds lit by a blood red moon, Do-jin ventures into a labyrinth to save his mother’s soul but comes to realise that if you walk through the door between life and death you may discover that there is no exit from existential torment.


Guimoon: The Lightless Door screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Kim Mi-young, 2021)

A dejected artist finds himself reconsidering his life’s choices when his teenage daughter drops out of education to become a Buddhist nun and he falls in love with a forthright professor in Kim Mi-young’s contemplative drama, A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea (절해고도, Jeolhaegodo). Though the title could easily enough refer to the hero himself, it echoes the sense of impossible longing symbolised by an island he could see but did not travel to though there was no real reason preventing him save his own feelings. In any case, the island and the day on which he saw it have become lodged in his memory as a nostalgic image of irresolvable desire. 

Now in early middle-age, Yun-cheol (Park Jong-hwan) is an unsuccessful sculptor who feels he has failed to live up to the promise of his youth and mainly earns his keep through commercial work such as crafting replicas of the solar system for a local museum. Divorced from his workaholic wife, he’s called in by his daughter Gina’s (Lee Yeon) school when they object to some admittedly disturbing artwork she had drawn on a series of roller blinds without permission. Yun-cheol is less concerned with the fact the paintings suggest that Gina is experiencing some kind of mental anguish than the school’s reaction to them, her teacher admitting that they took the blinds out and burned them. His anger is directed towards their wilful destruction of a work of art because it seemed to them more akin to vandalism or destruction of their property. Describing Gina as “mean”, they imply that they will ask her to leave suggesting that she would benefit from a different environment. In many ways that’s how Gina feels too, eventually revealing that she has decided to leave education altogether and later giving up her art to practice Buddhism. 

It’s the idea of abandoning her obvious talent that Yun-cheol struggles to understand. As a young man, he’d also considered becoming a monk or even a Catholic priest as, as he describes it, “safe paths for lost souls” if he failed to realise his ambitions of becoming an artist. Discovering that his daughter had had the same dilemma, even if she took a different path, shakes his sense of self in realising that his internal conflict was not unique. While trying to understand Gina’s desire to renounce the world, he begins to fall in love with a free spirited professor and cancer survivor but Ji-young (Kang Kyung-heon) is not prepared to wait around for him to sort himself out on his own and is quickly tired of his tendency to retreat into isolation rather than face his problems. Having learned only half a lesson, he later moves into Gina’s retreat where he is eventually asked to leave by the head nun bluntly who tells him that he is not suited for the monastic life. 

It may be that Yun-cheol exists outside of regular society because of his unusual upbringing in a mountain shack with his similarly isolated father, yet he struggles with himself and his relationship to art while seemingly unable to build lasting relationships with people as if they too were islands in a distant sea he could only gaze at from afar. He tells his daughter he would never abandon her in the way his mother had him but in a sense he might have done so in having lost the will to live amid his intense loneliness and lack of artistic fulfilment. Nevertheless, his growth comes in a kind of acceptance in acknowledging Gina’s choice to become a nun along with Ji-young’s declining heath and desire for isolation. 

When he had first met her, Yun-cheol had responded to Ji-young’s lecture about a would-be-revolutionary who did not go through with his cause by asking her why he would seek to implode the world in which he lived though this is the same thing Yun-cheol eventually does in his own mini-revolution choosing new paths in middle age whether in fear and regret or in search of possibility. A mystical meeting with a maternal wild boar helps to give him clarity though it seems he is forever destined to be a lonely island looking out at a distant sea filled with an unanswerable longing.


A Lonely Island in the Distant Sea screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Cheon Myeong-kwan, 2022)

A dejected gangster decides to take the chance on a different kind of life but is soon pulled back into internecine underworld conflict where humanity is weakness and the only prize is a lonely hegemony in Cheon Myeong-kwan’s ‘90s-set thriller, Hot Blooded (뜨거운 피, Ddeugeoun Pi). As much about fathers and sons as it is about uneasy brotherhood, Choi’s adaptation of the novel by Kim Un-su harks back to the classic gangster picture in which the hero proves too noble for his surroundings and finds a single act of compassion provoking nothing more than chaos and misery. 

In the small enclave of Kuam, Busan, Hee-su (Jung Woo) is a petty foot soldier on the cusp of turning 40 who is becoming tired of this way of life. Loyal to his boss, Son (Kim Kap-soo), Hee-su is also aware that times are changing and the boss’ tried and tested approach may no longer meet them. When a vicious gangster, Yong-kang (Choi Moo-sung), returns from exile abroad after fleeing to escape a murder charge, gangland equilibrium is suddenly unbalanced not least by his shift into drug dealing that eventually places him at odds with Hee-su’s gang. After defusing a potential turf war, Hee-su decides he wants out and takes up with booze smuggler Yang-dong in the electric slot machine trade hoping to make enough money to open a small hotel on a nearby island with his longterm girlfriend and her adult son Ami (Lee Hong-nae) who has just been released from prison after falling in with a thuggish gang. 

As he eventually realises, Hee-su has merely ended up as a pawn stuck between Son and Nam, the head of a rival outfit trying to muscle in on their territory. His first problem is that his childhood friend, Chul-jin (Ji Seung-hyun), is a liaison for Nam’s gang. Son explains that only by taking out someone like Chul-jin can they start a negotiation with Nam to nix a gang war before it escalates, but Hee-su cannot bring himself to kill his friend while sufficiently unbalanced by his suggestion that he’s being played by Son as to doubt the old man’s advice. We’re given constant reminders that Chul-jin is a father of young children, while Hee-su has no children of his own but is a surrogate father figure to Ami. Effectively brothers, the two men met as orphans at a government facility and it’s clear that Hee-su sees Son as a man to whom he owes a fatherly debt while Chul-jin may not have any loyalty to anyone besides himself even as he claims that all he wants is to live peacefully with his children just as all Hee-su wants is to open his hotel and live with In-sook (Yoon Ji-hye) and Ami in a less violent environment. 

Hee-su’s decision to leave is a kind a of betrayal in itself, born of a desire to break free of the restrictive codes of gangsterdom and be his own man charting his own future but little realising that his life is still ruled by the laws of the underworld. Later someone asks him what it is he wanted to protect. All he can say is that there was something once, but he’s forgotten what it was. In leaving his gangster family he unwittingly destroys his dreams of forging his own, robbed of the more peaceful life he dreamed of by the chaos and violence of the underworld. The irony is that everyone describes Kuam as a “shithole”, a moribund small-town where even the casino hotel craze which is the centre of the gangster economy may be on its way out. Hee-su can’t really understand why they’re having a turf war over a place no one wants, only to realise it’s just a smokescreen to disguise what it is that’s really worth having and why. 

A late existential speech makes plain Hee-su’s predicament in Yang-kang’s logic that men like him fall to the depths of hell or become kings of all they survey. Yet for Hee-su it’s all much the same, rendered lonely by everything he’s lost while achieving the success craved by so many that is the opposite of what he wanted. It turns out Son may have had a point, the reason he survived so long was his ability to keep calm and play the long game. Hot-headed revenge is a luxury a gangster can’t afford as Hee-su finds out to his cost. “Fathers are all powerless” Chul-jin tries to tell him, though there’s something left of the old Hee-su in his final act of letting a man who betrayed him go because he’s the last in the boss’ bloodline potentially sealing his own fate in some far off act of vengeance. Very much a classic gangster drama in which a noble foot soldier finds himself torn by conflicting loyalties, Hot Blooded proceeds with a weary fatalism leaving its hero a coldblooded ghost which might be a fitting end for a man who once tried to make his fortune selling fake hot peppers.


Hot Blooded screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)