Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Review: SEIRE, Ace Horror Debut Plunges Us into Korean Superstition

By Pierce Conran

Superstition and fatherhood collide in Park Kang's crisply staged and chilling indie horror debut Seire, which had its world premiere in the New Currents competition at the Busan International Film Festival. Channeling Rosemary's Baby and The Wailing, this low-budget gem is one of the standouts from last year's edition of the festival.

The film draws its title from the Korean 'seire' custom, a 21-day period during which newborns are kept home and away from strangers and potentially harmful influences. Seo Hyun-woo plays Woo-jin, father to a newborn child who follows along with the custom, which his superstitious wife and mother-in-law insist on.

What should be a special period as a new father becomes a stressful one for him as he bends to opaque customs he himself does not believe. He also begins to suffer from ominous nightmares filled with rotting fruit and a pregnant woman who is not his wife. That woman turns out to be Seo-yeong, a college classmate and his longtime ex-girlfriend. But the morning after he dreams about her, he wakes up to a notice for her funeral.

Woo-jin must go to the funeral, but his wife, not knowing whose funeral it is, doesn't want him to attend, as it would be bad for the baby. In the end he goes, and meets Seo-yeong's twin sister. As the three-day funeral ritual proceeds, odd things begin to happen at home as their baby develops a fever, his wife's pregnant sister, living next door, also begins to experience problems, and Woo-jin's dreams become more sinister and intense.

Steeped in old customs and tensely pitched between the extremes of birth and death, Seire unfolds as an absorbing mystery. The story is dark and filled with a sense of dread that grows and grows the deeper Woo-jin's journey takes us into these old beliefs and rituals. With its sharp and formal design, the film exists on a knife-edge between tradition and modernity, with a hesitant Woo-jin acting as our entry point.

When we first meet Woo-jin he is haggard, exhausted by the seire process but dutifully going through the motions for his wife's sake. The dreams unsettle him but he remains skeptical as he stoically allows his wife to pelt him with rice, among other customs he must endure.

The film's exploration of tradition is sombre and very local but while many viewers will not be familiar with the rules and rituals on display, this lack of understanding puts us squarely in Woo-jin's shoes, so when unexplained things do begin to happen around him, a fear of the unknown emerges. Much like Na Hong-jin's The Wailing, this a film that seeks to get under your skin and challenge your expectations rather than jolt you with jump scars.

First time director Park Kang has a firm command of the tone of his tightly paced story, making the most of a limited budget through striking compositions and shrewd sound design. Park assiduously raises the stakes for Woo-jin and his child but no matter how perceptive you think you may be as a viewer, the film's gleeful climax will be a welcome and wicked surprise.

Leading the cast is the eminently talented character actor Seo Hyun-woo, who has toiled away for years in supporting roles in major films such as The Man Standing Next, and is now finally starting to get bigger roles. As the somewhat schlubby Woo-jin, Seo expertly veers us between sympathy and distaste throughout the story.

Seire, which is produced by the Korea National University of Arts (K'Arts), was first revealed at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BiFan), where it participated in the Network of Asian Fantastic Films (NAFF) project market.

★★★★★★★★☆☆


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