Wednesday, May 8, 2013

UDINE 2013: Korean Horror Comedies and Ghost Sweepers (점쟁이들, 2012)

Korean cinema has proven on many occasions that it can be quite brazen when it comes to generic codes. It can sometimes seem like a kid has been let loose in a well-stocked kitchen as he begins to mix and match the most incongruous ingredients in an oversized pot. While many concoctions have succeeded in offending viewer’s delicate palates, just as many bizarre recipes cooked up in the studios have delighted and surprised film lovers around the world.

Ever since the landmark Korean cult film Save the Green Planet was released a decade ago, I’ve been particularly interested by the rather volatile but highly potent mélange of horror and comedy. Given how ridiculous horror premises often are, it may seem like a great combination but most horror-comedy efforts in the past have been laughed at rather than with. Genuinely funny efforts, such as Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974), have been few and far between. However, since the beginning of the millennium, a few more seem to have appeared, perhaps due to a post-modern malaise that sees filmmakers recycle what has come before with a cynical (albeit often creative) touch. Shaun of the Dead (2004), Zombieland (2009), Troll Hunter (2010) and Cabin in the Woods (2012) have turned the combination into a popular sub-genre.

As is well known, Korea is no stranger to generic alchemy and after Save the Green Planetmore horror-comedies (plus other genres) have cropped up over the years. Among the most successful have been 2010’s Hello Ghost and the horror romcom Spellbound (2011), both of which managed to cross the three million admissions mark. 2012 featured one and a quarter new entries into the genre, the shaman comedy Ghost Sweepers with the quarter being the strong first segment in the omnibus Horror Stories.

Suffering from a confusing marketing campaign, Ghost Sweepers never stood a chance as it was released in a very crowded field, and subsequently failed to strike a chord with spectators. It’s a shame really, as it was actually one of the better comic offerings of the year. While not wildly original, its premise was zany enough to warrant a number of sight gags and some interesting situations.

A small seaside village plagued with curses becomes the site of a massive shaman gathering, as the nation’s top fortune tellers seeks to expel the dark spirits. But before long, only a resilient young journalist and a motley crew of five odd shamans remain. Dealing with each other and the negative vibes of the village, the group must work together to accomplish the task at hand.

Though still very young and fresh to the scene, the most recognizable face here is likely Lee Je-hoon, who broke out to great acclaim in 2011 with the indie Bleak Night and the big-budget war picture The Front Line before finding an even bigger audience in last spring’s Architecture 101. Here he stretches out once more into new territory. Lee is joined by a number of veteran performers, such as Kim Su-ro, Kwak Do-won and Kang Ye-won and each of them have a lot of fun with their roles. Punctuated with over-the-top and camp mannerisms, the caricatures they have been given come to life in suitably entertaining fashion.

Director Shin Jung-won succeeds in keeping everything ticking along at a steady clip, however, much like his previous offering Chaw (2008), also a horror-comedy, he doesn’t seem to have a magic bag of tricks to draw on. That said, his latest is a stronger feature that is careful not to overstrain itself. His previous work may have been a bit more popular in Korea but Ghost Sweepers is a more cohesive work that is both relaxed and confident in its style.

Shamanism, featured prominently throughout, has had a fascinating relationship with Korean cinema. I won’t go into it in any great detail here but through the ages, from films such as Kim Ki-young’s Iodo (1977) and Im Kwon-taek’s The Divine Bow (1979) all the way to Park Chan-wook and Park Chan-kyong’s Night Fishing (2011), it has always been a great source of inspiration for local filmmakers. Even today it still features prominently on marquees. January alone saw the release of the immensely popular gangster shaman comedy Man on the Edge while the mysterious, moody and darkly alluring indie film A Fish (2011) also found its way to a limited release. While Ghost Sweepers doesn’t explore shamanism in any significant way, it nonetheless benefits from its premise, from which it easily mines mystery and atmosphere.

An entertaining feature with an amiable cast and enough intrigue to keep gently purring along to the finish, Ghost Sweepers is a worthwhile, if unchallenging horror-comedy. Though as far as the horror portion goes, be warned, there’s not a single scare in this broadly humorous undertaking.


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