Possessed (also known as Living Death or Disbelief Hell) is the first feature from former architect Lee Yong-ju. It is a supernatural horror that, while well shot and ambitious, manages to be low-key and extremely chilling. The majority of this film takes place inside a decaying apartment block which seems to be exclusively populated by women.
A lot of Possessed revolves around a clash between Christianity and shamanism and does so in very interesting ways. The film seems to disdain shamanistic rituals and it also highlights the blind ignorance of fervent Christians. However this cynicism is a little confusing as we are lead to believe that there is something supernatural taking place. I’m reminded of an amusing scene in the extraordinary Memories of Murder (Salinui Chueok, 2003), when the detective portrayed by Song Kang-ho hits a dead end in his quasi-investigation and resorts to using a talisman from a local shaman at the scene of a crime. The director Bong Joon-ho mercilessly ridicules him in what is a very funny scene. Similarly, the detective in Possessed suggests to his wife that they use a talisman to cure their hospitalized daughter, she is mortified at the idea and chastises him for it. Despite a similar reasoning, there’s nothing funny about this scene, it is dark and bleak. On a side note, the director of this film was an assistant to Bong Joon-ho on Memories, and clearly he picked up a lot from his time with the Auteur.
People in extreme circumstances are often driven to do desperate things and here we have a number of characters who are dealing with daily struggles as well as more personal troubles (a dying daughter, cancer etc.). Lee seems to be examining the reality that people who have been abandoned by society often turn to religion as an escape. Events are exaggerated in this film and yet the desperation of these characters, the acts that they are willing to commit never seem that far-fetched.
The absolute destruction of Hee-jin's family reflects another common trait in Korean cinema. The father is gone and the mother has gone crazy and these negative traits have just been passed on to their children in the form of some kind of demon. Hee-jin had tried to escape by going to college but as she persevered through an illness to get her education she was forced to come home and by the end of the narrative it is unclear whether she will return to her studies.
In the final scene, the detective’s daughter is cured of her life-threatening illness, just as So-jin was cured and while in her mother’s embrace she menacingly stares out of the window. She is looking at the crane, that looks white in the daylight, who is standing on a rooftop across the road staring back at her with one eye. The immortal crane is a guardian of sorts, a benevolent force keeping an eye on evil.