Showing posts with label k-horror. Show all posts
Showing posts with label k-horror. Show all posts

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Top 40 Korean Horror Films

By Pierce Conran

Korean horror isn't what it used to be. But it was never any one thing to begin with.

For many years it was unfairly seen as the poor cousin of J-horror in neighbouring Japan, but K-horror, as it has come to be known, has roots stretching back 60 years. Influenced by local folklore and urban legends and shaped by a society that teeters along sharp divides between tradition and modernity, and shamanism and christianity, it has continually evolved during that time.

Filmmakers like Lee Man-hee and Lee Yong-min were jolting audiences all the way back in the early 1960s and local folklore gave us the templates for the Korean horror films of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, whether through mythical creatures like the Gumiho (aka 'Nine-Tailed Fox') or folk tales like 'A Tale of Two Sisters'. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review: THE MIMIC, A Slick and Spirited Addition to K-Horror

By Pierce Conran

Four years after his strong debut Hide and Seek, director Huh Jung returns to a mid-August release date with his follow-up The Mimic. With better-than-average casting, this chilling and polished countryside take on a local urban legend may be the best Korean horror film in several years yet due to a problematic script it falls short of the genre’s heyday over a decade ago.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Busan 2014 Review: LIVE TV Showcases Misogyny And Bad Filmmaking

Part of MKC's coverage of the 19th Busan International Film Festival

By Pierce Conran

Found footage horror and digital age social themes combine to disastrous effect in the lamentable and stunningly offensive Live TV, a midnight film at Busan that'll make you wish you'd turned in early.

Monday, August 11, 2014

PiFan 2014 Review: Horror Comedy MOURNING GRAVE Aims Low But Hits Its Mark

By Pierce Conran

Korean horror has been in the midst of a rough streak for the past half decade. Relying on worn out themes, new works been have trotted out regularly every summer but even with lowered expectations, each year has put forth an increasingly lackluster and listless lineup of new films. Trying his best to buck the trend is the experienced short filmmaker Oh In-chun, who steps up to the feature-length plate with his horror-comedy debut Mourning Grave.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: HORROR STORIES 2 Slightly Improves Upon Its Predecessor

By Patryk Czekaj

At first glance, Horror Stories 2 looks like a more mature and self-conscious version of the original film. Though the chapters are still uneven and often come close to being simply absurd, the directors seem aware of the predecessors’ mistakes and ultimately create a gripping and penetrating atmosphere of terror, grounding their visions both in dreams and in a three-dimensional reality. This clarifies the structure of all the segments and gives them a much-needed touch of intrigue. Less cheap thrills based on jumps scares and nonsensical gore material makes Horror Stories 2 a serviceable allegory for the soul and its journey towards redemption.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: K-Horror TWO MOONS Scrapes the Bottom of the Barrel

By Pierce Conran

I’m glad that I’m not a particularly big horror buff, because if I was, Korean cinema would seem like a real letdown these days. The last few years have done little to convince anyone of the quality, and frankly necessity, of K-horror. Once a strong niche revenue driver for the industry, with a number of interesting if not always stellar entries finding their way to theaters and DVD, of late about three increasingly lackluster productions get dropped on the marketplace per annum. It’s a story of diminishing returns, as the genre seems to be on the way out. At least until something or someone can come along to save it…

2012’s third K-horror Two Moons, following the soporific Don’t Click and the frustrating Horror Stories, is definitely not the messiah that will save the struggling genre. Director Kim Dong-bin previously made the horrors Ring Virus (1999) and Red Eye (2005), both of which were warmly received by audiences or critics. With pretty much nothing going for it, his latest is one of the worst K-horrors to be released in years.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Revenge Week: Webcomics Harbor Old Grudges in Killer Toon

Part of MKC's Revenge Week (July 8-14, 2013).

Every summer, Korea pumps out a handful of horror films for people looking to catch a few scares and respite from the hot and humid summer. Unfortunately, the industry’s yields over the past few years have left much to be desired. So poor have recent offerings been that some are ready to write off K-horror altogether. This summer we have four new entries to sample and they were all released in the month of June. Among them, Killer Toon, the first one I’ve had a chance to see, seemed to hold the most promise.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

PiFan 2012: Horror Stories (무서운 이야기, Nooseowoon Iyagi) 2012

Part of MKC's coverage of the 16th Puchon International Film Festival.

Omnibus horrors seem to be all the rage at this year's PiFan, with the inclusion of the much-ballyhooed V/H/S and the Indonesian ghost offering Hi5teria (not to be confused with period British vibrator comedy Histeria, which is also in competition). But the one with the highest profile this year was the Korean Horror Stories, which served as the event's opening film.

A group of talented filmmakers, most of whom are prominent genre filmmakers, were assembled for this production which many hoped would breath some life back into Korean horror cinema. Of late, K-horrors have been increasingly disappointing and the consensus is that there hasn't been a good example since the excellent Possessed (2009). Hopes were high for last year's trio of summer Korean horror offerings (the traditional season for the genre) but White: the Melody of the Curse, The Cat and Ghastly all failed to impress despite their potential.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Ghastly (Gi-saeng-ryeong) 2011

The summer of 2011 produced three major K-horrors.  I’ve already had a chance to see and review the interesting but butchered White: The Curse of the Melody from the indie cineastes behind Anti Gas Skin (2010) and the limp and lethargic The Cat.  Both of those films had a powerful and mercurial factor going for them, potential.  White, with its mix of cult pedigree filmmakers, strong production values, and K-pop setting, was not the sum of its promising parts.  I learnt after writing about it that a first cut was thrown out by the studio and Kim Gok and Kim Sun were forced to reshoot the film, likely lobotomizing it in the process.  I would love to get my hands on that first cut, perhaps it delivered on that potential?  The Cat was a return to supernatural felines for Korean cinema, which have long been a source of great horror.  The buzz was there but the product was severely lacking as the actors and filmmakers seemed to sleepwalk their way through it.

Aftermath of the opening bloodbath
Ghastly, which I’m glad I was able to get my hands on just before Halloween, was the final big K-horror release of the summer.  However, at least in my eyes, it was not saddled with any special expectations.  It seemed pretty by the book but, judging by the trailer and the shower scene that was made available online ahead of its release, it seemed to have a little panache in the production department.  The film has a great opening, a disturbing, macabre sequence that leaves you with a lot of questions.  Sadly, any cautious optimism I had was dashed as the narrative presented itself as a prosaic variation on common horror themes and tropes.

All the usual tricks are out in force in this one: the haunted house; the freaky kid; the terrorised in bed dreams; the crawling, decayed ghost hands on protagonist’s faces; the weird middle-aged neighbour who is hiding something; and the creepy shaman grandmother in a mental institute who knows the truth about the demon.  And that’s pretty much all this is, an excuse to go through the motions but with some very attractive leads and fancy locations.

Sleepy dream scenes
The film begins with a young boy waking up in the middle of the night to find his father’s corpse at the bottom of the stairs and his mother hacking her own feet off with a kitchen knife.  The father’s brother-in-law is given custody of the child.  He, along with his wife and sister-in-law, move into the enormous house.  The child is prone to some bizarre behavior and soon the sisters start having terrible nightmares. Meanwhile, a young detective goes looking for the boy’s grandmother, who disappeared before the murders.

The most tedious problem with the film is that there are no less than seven instances of the sisters dreaming about the child, with a bloodied demon face, doing horrible things to them, including cutting off their feet and stabbing out their eyes, which mostly take place in bed.  Isn’t it obvious to the filmmakers that, aside from how silly and bad for the narrative this repetitious device is, each new version on the theme will dilute the potency of the scares?  My eyeballs were doing loop-the-loops by the third or fourth of these sequences.  Such unimaginative filmmaking, surely they could figure out another way to insert scares and violent imagery.

Freaky kid, yawn
I can never quite understand in these films which feature freaky children, how after so many ominous dreams and examples of plainly demonic behaviour, they are treated like perfectly normal children.  It’s always far too late when the protagonists realise that something is wrong.  I suppose this is how the formula works but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few smart characters going up against these antagonists every once in a while.

For the most part the film is well shot and the production design and locations look great but the real problem seems to be the editing.  A lot is badly or not explained and this could be the result of scenes that didn’t work that were cut out, or it could have been that it did not occur to the filmmakers that certain things needed explanation.  This is why you have reshoots!  Maybe they didn’t have the money, or worse they didn’t care.  The little splices of violent imagery, another staple of the genre, were poorly executed as well.  It’s all about timing and Ghastly is very uneven.

Homicide detective my foot
While things start off okay and continue in a rather innocuous fashion thereafter, the moment new elements start to appear the script begins to unravel.  Why is the husband such an asshole?  How come everyone is acting so normal after such horrific events?  What is the point of the depravity of the school scenes, how does it fit in?  How the hell is this lithe 25-year-old model a homicide detective?

For a film that takes pains in its aesthetics and goes so far as to reference revered horror classics such as Psycho (1960) and The Shining (1980), Ghastly has nothing original to say or show us.  Blood is spilt, some skin is flashed, shamanism is thrown in, even pedophilia is alluded to for good measure, but all we’re left with is a series of discordant elements and disconnected scenes, though at 77 minutes, at least it’s mercifully short.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Cat (Go-hyang-i: Jook-eum-eul Bo-neun Doo Gae-eui Noon) 2011

To be honest, it's not very difficult for a film to give me a scare, or rather a bit of a jolt. However, unlike yesteryear's films like The Shining (1980) and Don't Look Now (1975), which truly inspired terror, the current breed of horror cinema more often than not relies on the juxtaposition of judicious editing and loud noises. It's an effective technique, because it works on me, but it is not honestly earned and therefore results in just a fleeting sensation which leaves no lasting effect. Also, once the string section has made its impact and we see the ghost/killer/weapon, all the tension disappears, therefore any subsequent action leaves no impression until the next build-up of tension. I may not be a huge horror buff but it really bothers me that so few horror films even attempt to do more than repeat this technique throughout a feature’s running time.

The pet store
Sadly The Cat falls into this category of frankly lazy filmmaking, worse it displays no panache with the scares it attempts to conjure. The moments of tension are very brief and don't amount to much. The problem is that they are so clearly foreshadowed that you can nearly anticipate the exact moment that every reveal occurs. I don't think I flinched once during the film, which is both a surprise and a victory for me.

The story is extremely simple, So-hee (Park Min-yeong) works in a pet store, one of whose clients dies in an elevator, leaving behind only a cat, which So-hee takes care of. With this new addition comes visions of a scary little girl with cat-like eyes and a rotted face. Since she is already in therapy, she thinks she is just seeing things but soon it becomes clear that this cat is linked to the deaths of the people around her.

As Tom Giammarco remarked in his review, The Cat successfully held its big reveal until the end, which for baffling reasons many films don't seem to do. Theoretically, this should keep the suspense level up during the film's running time. Unfortunately, in this case there is no real suspense to begin with. There are a number of reasons why this film didn't work and I think that they are readily identifiable.

The animal pound
First and foremost, the story was quite dull. It was very easy to follow but felt very stretched over the 105 minute running time. The world that the plot inhabited felt very limited and was not populated with interesting characters. Secondly, the mise-en-scene was uninspired, especially given the technical skill demonstrated by its Korean contemporaries. The cinematography was functional and coupled with the banal and nearly monochromatic production design, costumes, and color schemes, the whole affair was quite drab. Lastly, I was left cold by Park Min-yeong’s performance, she is very pretty to be sure but I could not care one ounce for her character. I was particularly nonplussed by her ridiculous facial expressions.

Korea’s film history is known, principally, for its effective melodrama. Consequently this means that as a national cinema it is predisposed to the production of horror films, especially the kind that features past trauma that comes back to haunt people. Just like more typical melodramatic fare, Korean horror films tend to visit protagonists’ and antagonists’ traumatic backstories as a means to explain the supernatural and/or violent happenings in the diegetic present of their narratives.

Park Min-yeong as So-hee
The Cat explores both the principal character’s scarred past, which manifests itself in claustrophobia and psychiatry sessions, and the antagonists’ agonizing backstory. Although each is kept secret right until the end, neither are worth the payoff, and though they are somewhat logical, they aren’t very interesting or original. What is more unfortunate is that the film doesn’t really explore its concept. Cats have always had supernatural connotations and as Tom Giammarco articulately pointed out in his article on the history of supernatural cats in Korean cinema, they have been very prominent but of late they seem to have disappeared as a source for K-horror, until this film. Although there are many haunted and possessed cats in The Cat, I felt that they weren’t used as much more than a prop, since the haunted presence in this film is another of the oh-so prevalent little girl ghosts.

For the most part I was very bored when I watched this film, the story was beyond lacklustre, the characters rigid and one-note, and the horror was soporific. I can excuse a good idea that isn’t successfully brought to screen or a talented group of filmmakers who lack a good story, but I cannot abide a film which takes the easy way out at every turn and makes no effort with its mise-en-scene. I felt let down by The Cat and worse, that I wasted my time. I expected a lot more from director Byeon Seung-wook, who previously worked as the assistant director on Lee Chang-dong's sublime Peppermint Candy (1999).

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

White: The Melody of the Curse (Hwa-i-teu: Jeo-woo-eui Mel-lo-di) 2011

I don’t frequently get excited about horror films but White: The Melody of the Curse was somewhat of an exception. I had consistently heard good things about its directors, Kim Gok and Kim Sun, a pair who have been churning out low-budget indie horrors since 2003. Sadly, I have not had a chance to see any of them yet. White is their first big budget, commercial film, and it is also fairly ambitious, especially from a technical standpoint despite employing a number of done-to-death (excuse the pun) clichés. The other reason I was curious to see this film was its subject matter, as the narratives takes place within the fiercely competitive K-Pop milieu. While I do not know very much about this global Hallyu phenomenon it does fascinate me and upon hearing about this project, I felt the topic particularly conducive to horror.

K-Pop idols
The story gets underway very succinctly and involves a pop band which has fallen from grace. One of them, Eun-joo (Ham Eun-jeong), a former back-up dancer, serves as the team leader and is ostracized due to her background. Her benefactor arranges for them to record in a new studio, which is fancy and high tech but harbors a mysterious past. Eun-joo discovers a secret compartment behind a mirror in the dance hall and within it an old videocassette featuring an old K-Pop routine. This becomes the group’s new song, which, as the title suggests, is indeed cursed. One by one, each girl who is given the coveted center position is subjected to awful accidents and a bit of haunting for good measure. Eun-joo seeks to uncover the secret of the tape with a little help from her friend before it’s too late.

One thing about horror films is that everyone who watches them is looking for something different: some want a good story; others a few good scares; and others still are in it for the blood and guts. White delivers on all three of these but probably not to an ultimately satisfying degree for any. I appreciated the K-Pop setting with its fan obsession and competition between performers but the story that is set within it features a too-good to be true haunted location, a cursed video, and a long-haired and decomposed ghost seeking revenge. This is very unoriginal stuff and a little disappointing. Next, while there are some good scares, some of the set pieces are borderline ridiculous and have the potential of eliciting an undesired reaction. Finally, there is some slightly gruesome violence but these moments are infrequent and lack cinematic flair, which is odd considering how well made the film is.

Strong use of colours and production design
For me some of the strongest sequences were those in between the scares which were either investigatory, expository, or relationship-based. One reason they worked quite well is that they are so well shot. It is not often with this kind of film that the production values prove a real asset, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) comes to mind, but that was always designed as a ‘prestige film’. The colors, framing, and especially the use of the locations were at times beautiful, foreboding, and menacing. The set pieces themselves also display strong mise-en-scène but I found it less convincing than the other scenes. This may have been because there was a tendency to overdo it, mostly on the editing side. Rarely, in my opinion, does fancy, hyperkinetic editing add something genuine to a film. As much as I can appreciate its value for horror, which is so often low-budget, quick cuts all too often rob a scene of tension, which needs to be earned.

There isn’t too much to say about the performances, which mostly veer into caricature, but everyone seems to handles themselves relatively well here. A couple of the starlets are also K-Pop singers, I wonder if this added anything to their performances. Arguably, not a great deal is required for these kinds of performances.

Generic staple,  à la ring
Despite the reliance on very generic staples, especially of local Asian horror cinema, in my eyes White was a cut above recent K-Horror entries, a lot of which have been disappointing, save for a a few gems like Possessed (2009) and the brilliant Bedevilled (2010), although the latter probably lends itself more to the revenge thriller categorization. However, given people's very different tastes when it comes to horror, I would suggest that you would do best to approach this one with caution. I enjoyed myself and am looking forward to the next Kim gok and Kim Sun film, hopefully they will give us something a little more ambitious. Perhaps that is why there is something lacking with White, at times it feels like a test run.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Death Bell (Gosa) 2008

As I have previously examined with Whispering Corridors (1998), the schoolgirl ghost horror film is a prevalent and perhaps necessary form of Korean horror which contrary to the typical depiction of young woman in the horror genre, presents a vehicle for the representation of Sonyeo, that is to say the ‘sensitivity’ of young girls. What we expect from schoolgirls in horror films, in Hollywood and also in Japan (where the schoolgirl look is a particularly exportable fetish), is precociousness and promiscuity. K-horror dabbles in sexuality but often in more oblique ways, like Memento Mori (1999), which explores the ghostly ramifications of homosexual relationship between two teenage girls and the social alienation that precedes it.

Schoolgirl horror
Not two minutes into Death Bell there is a close-up shot of a young girl’s white panties as her period quickly stains them with blood. Despite all the horrific imagery that follows in the film, this is probably the most shocking of all. Upon viewing this my initial thought was that this film would be more sexual than it’s predecessors and may explore new ground. But ultimately, aside from the high concept generic mash-up of ghostly horror, murder mystery, and torture porn, Death Bell does follow the same beaten path as the Whispering Corridors series and others have before.

The plot is simple, an elite high school class of 20 pupils are tormented by a vicious Saw-like killer who poses them questions and riddles, which if left unanswered or not solved in a timely manner, will result in the gory death of one of their classmates. After a while it becomes evident that the reason behind this carnage stems from the unsolved death of a girl in the school two years prior. During it’s brief and well-paced 85 minute running time, there is no need for much more plot than this and besides the expository first act and denouement the film contents itself with moving on from one horrific set piece to the next.

Lee Beom-su as Teacher Kim
This may sound like a snub but director Yoon Hong-seun, who was also the writer, exhibits a deft handling of the fairly straightforward proceedings. The film is a potent cocktail of memorable horror staples and is edited in a breathless, visceral, and exuberant style which does it many favors. It may be fair to say that the brief and flighty nature of the film allows it to succeed in glossing over a few mistakes or low points that occur here and there although the strong production values and good performances, especially Lee Beom-su (Mr. Gam’s Victory; Au Revoir UFO, both 2004) as the affable and friendly teacher Chang-wook, make up for this.

The film touches on a couple of themes including Korea’s obsession with good academic results but it does not serve as a comprehensive commentary on the state of affairs for education in the nation. The climax inevitably evokes a lot of history and by employing some decidedly Korean melodramatics it reminds us of Korea’s considerable historical trauma without directly referencing it.

Death by washing machine
I would recommend Death Bell to any fan of horror or any general enthusiast of Korean cinema as I believe it has the ability to please both with it’s confident production style and, if not necessarily memorable, its colorful take on the generic territories it occupies. Although some have dubbed this as torture porn (a sub-genre which I despise) I think this film has a little more in common with Battle Royale (2000), although it is nowhere near as original.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Haunters (Cho-neung-ryeok-ja) 2010

Science fiction is a genre that hasn’t gotten too much play in South Korean cinema, outside of monster movies (The Host, 2006), and disaster films (Tidal Wave, 2009) there are perhaps only half a dozen films that could be categorized as science fiction. One, 2009: Lost Memories (2002), is set in the near future but in an alternate universe where Japan sided with the allies in World War II and kept it’s prewar colonies, which include Korea. The only other prominent example and certainly the one that is best known to Western audiences is the delirious, deranged, and brilliant Save the Green Planet (2003), while not a strict sci-fi, as it is equal parts horror, detective thriller, social commentary, romance, and comedy, it plays with the tropes of sci-fi in a remarkably clever fashion. Another genre that has not been seen often in Korea in superhero film, granted this is an American specialty and is a relatively recent branch of cinema. Examples in Korea include Descendants of Hong Gil-dong (2009), Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard (2009), and A Man Who Was Superman (2007). Woochi was a remarkably successful action-comedy about a chosun-era wizard who ends up in modern day fighting creatures from the past, on the other hand Superman is a comedy drama that has a big emotional punch and features all the Superman imagery while featuring a protagonist who doesn’t actually have any powers it acts as a a superhero film as only a South Korean film could. Comic book movies however, are quite popular in Korea and include the immensely popular Oldboy (2003) and even different styles of film such as the recent romantic comedy Petty Romance (2010).

Reminiscent of 'Cinema du Look'
Haunters is all of the above and more, it is a clever sci-fi, an off-kilter superhero film, a stylish comic book movie, and an intermittently effective horror. The story is relatively simple, it starts with a dark, brooding, and malevolent prologue that shows us a child in a broken home who has the ability to control minds and does so to horrifying effect. In present day we are introduced to Gyoo-nam, a young man working in a salvage yard with his two foreign friends, after an unfortunate accident he must find new work and does so at Utopia, an oddly-named pawnshop run by Jeong-sik (played by the brilliant Byeon Hee-bong) and his daughter. Meanwhile the child from the opening, Cho-in, is now grown-up and uses his powers to live a quiet, but luxurious life. One day he robs Utopia, while everyone, including Gyoo-nam’s friends, are there. Suddenly he notices something, Gyoo-nam is immune to his power and then all hell breaks loose. The film then focuses on Gyoo-nam as he pursues Cho-in in a series of explosive set pieces.

The Last Supper
It’s a fun story if somewhat thin and features a seemingly bottomless amount of plotholes and inconsistencies but with two engaging leads, strong supporting characters, and a terrific mise-en-scene, it can excused most of its errors. As I watched it I was reminded a lot of the Cinema du Look of the 80s and 90s in French cinema, a set of fiercely contemporary, visceral, aesthetic, and post-modernist works that came from young directors such as Luc Besson, Jean-Jacques Beinex, and Leo Carax. These films favored style over substance and spectacle over narrative, equipped with visual flair they featured young, alienated characters who symbolized the marginalized youth Francois Mitterand’s France. I feel that Haunters emulates this brief movement of cinema (there were only 7 films) and as a result could probably be excused its flagrant disregard for logic as it seeks to win us over with style. One scene in the film that reminded me of the Cinema du Look was early on at the salvage yard where all the multi-cultural workers sit down for lunch in a Last Supper tableau and when asked by the lunch lady who has produced their lunch ticket, it is the Jesus stand-in who gets up. It is an odd scene that doesn’t add to the narrative but is a stylish visual reference that is in line with the aforementioned French film movement. Most of the film is also played out in seedy backwater Seoul locations, and most often at night, this mimics the Cinema du Look’s propensity for shooting in the Paris Metro in an effort to symbolize an alternative society.

Standout supporting cast
While the film always looks great, if a little dark at times, it does begin to spin its wheels a little as Gyoo-nam always goes after Cho-in, who is clearly a superior opponent, without any plan. Since this blind and frankly stupid bravery leads to the death of a lot of innocent people, it is difficult to root for our hero at times. He is a simpleton who has a good heart but seemingly little brains. Haunters features good performances from its leads (Ko-soo and Kang Dong-won of Woochi and Secret Reunion) as well as its supporting characters, especially from Abu Dod and Enes Kaya who play Gyoo-nam's Ghanaian and Turkish friends. The film is Kim Min-suk's debut work and exhibits a lot of promise for good things to come, perhaps next time he will focus a little more on the narrative. Previously he collaborated with Kim Jee-woon on the script for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (2008), a delightful action romp which also suffers from some loose plotting. Haunters will infuriate a lot of viewers due to its inconsistencies but if you can look past the plotting there is a solid Korean multi-genre film to be enjoyed.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cinderella (2006)

I have not seen a great deal of Korean horror films and this is something I very much want to amend as out of what I've seen, there are a number that I love: Memento Mori (1999), Tell Me Something (1999), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), Bedevilled (2010); and many that I am quite fond of: Whispering Corridors (1998), Into the Mirror (2003), R-Point (2004), and Princess Aurora (2005). The first film that fell into my lap after making this recent, arbitrary decision was Cinderella (2006), a plastic surgery psychological horror from a director previously known for softcore erotica. I knew nothing about it going in but was intrigued by the setting, initially. The film has a few interesting ideas but it’s fatal flaw and what sets it apart from other Korean horror films, in a bad way, is its complete lack of technical proficiency and misuse, or perhaps misunderstanding, of horror conventions. The film isn’t scary, doesn’t look good, and worse is hard to follow, despite a fairly straightforward narrative.

Young girl on the operating table
Plastic surgery is a hut button issue in Korea; its soaring popularity is even a national source of tourism, which is now promoted by the government. Many worry what kind of values this kind of aesthetic and vain obsession instills in young and insecure women. Korean entertainment forums and message boards across the web are replete with speculation as to which actresses have had work done, it is also frequently mentioned in the news. Thus it seems only natural that this topic would transition to cinema and it did, making a big splash in 2006 with at least 3 major films that I can think of: Kim Di-kuk gaves us Time which was probably the film that dealt with the topic in the most damning fashion; 200 Pounds Beauty was the third highest grossing film of the year, it acknowledged the issue in a lighthearted fashion but didn't really make draw any conclusions; finally, of course, is Cinderella, which given how well the subject matter should lend itself to a psychological horror, strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Horrific, or ludicrous?
Martin Cleary over at New Korean Cinema makes a good point in his review. Advertising for Korean horrors, or most Korean films for that matter, always looks sublime and promises a lot. There are a number of highly-varnished Korean films that match this marketing but films that don't can be a real let down. Cinderella suffers from this comparison, the posters look great, full of vivid, freaky (and well photoshopped) imagery that the film simply doesn't deliver on. One scene in the film, probably the only one that people will remember, tries to capture this grotesque imagery in an ill-advised art classroom sequence where two young girls carve each others faces in a trance. It already sounds silly, but in its execution it is evenmore ridiculous than you could imagine.

Cinderella is a definite misfire and I don't think that director Bong Man-dae is someone worth looking out for. I'm not sure what his intentions were at the outset: the film isn't scary so it doesn't constitute the central appeal of horror; it could be interpreted as a psychological thriller but it doesn't really explore this territory adequately; it's possible, as other people have mentioned, that he was paying homage (read ripping off) Japanese horror films like Dark Water (2002), but with no new twist, observation, and such a lack of immaculate mise-en-scene, which we have come to expect from Korean cinema, it's hard to understand who thought this was a good idea. Ultimately, I was bored by the film, the story was less and less engaging as it wore on, the finale fell flat, and I wasn't able to take anything away from it. Only for die-hard Korean horror fans (and I know there are a few of you out there)!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Korean Cinema News (06/06-06/12, 2011)

News this week mainly focused around titles acquired for distribution and film festivals. No trailers but a few videos and the box office report.


The Yellow Sea Acquired by Eureka for UK Distribution
UK distributor has picked up Na Hong-jin's sophomore feature and plans to release it on October 21st. There are still no plans for its release in the US, although Fox, which produced it, is expected to do so. (Twitch, June 6, 2011)

No Doubt Invited to Shanghai International Film Festival
Park Soo-yeong's new film No Doubt has been invited to the Shanghai International Film Festival which is taking place June 11-19. (, June 6, 2011)

Cinema Guild Acquires US Rights to The Day He Arrives
Hong Sang-soo's latest film, which was well received when it played in the Un Certain Regard section of last month's Cannes, has been picked up for distribution in the US by Cinema Guild. (, June 8, 2011)

Park Chan-wook Casts Matthew Goode in Stoker
Park Chan-wook's English-language debut has added Matthew Good to its cast. Colin Firth was originally attached to star in the picture with Mia Wasikowska. (The Belfast Telegraph, June 9, 2011)

Green Days: Dinosaur and I Reviewed
Anticipated Korean animation film Green Days: Dinosaur and I is reviewed by The Korea Times. The film is set to be released on June 23. (The Korea Times, June 9, 2011)

Horror Films Set to Invade Theaters This Summer
Korea's audiences are in for a scare or two this summer as numerous horror offerings are set to invade the multiplexes. Along with Hollywood's plate of scares, Korean horror will also make a splash this season with films such as White and The Cat. (Joong Ang Daily, June 10, 2011)

Zhang Jingchu to Promote Korea's Cultural Tourism
Korea’s Culture Ministry and the Korea Tourism Organization have selected Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu as a goodwill ambassador in a bid to promote Korea's cultural tourism. (The Korea Herald, June 10, 2011)

CGV Develops 4D Cinema
Korea's CGV Cinemas has developed four-dimensional cinema technology which adds the sensation of smell to the moviegoing experience as well as moving seats, drops of water, and gushes of air. After a successful test screening of Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Cinepolis will open 11 4D theaters across Mexico. (Guadalajara Reporter, June 10, 2011)


Video Report from The Jeonju Film Festival
Kevin Lee reports on Korean cinema in this video for Ebert at the Movies. While ostensibly from the Jeonju Film Festival, it is really just a basic primer on the basics of Korean cinema. (Ebert at the Movies, June 10, 2011)

Jang Jin on Korea's Got Talent Judging Panel
In a curious career move, respected director and screenwriter Jang Jin is currently on of the judges for Korea's got talent. For those interested parties, the above link leads to a recent video of the show, no subtitles. (, June 2011)


Panda Hangs On to First Place
Kung Fu Panda 2 led the marketplace for a second week but saw its haul dwindle by two thirds, nevertheless it has accrued 4 million admissions to date. X-Men: First Class dropped a little less for an additional 320,000 tickets. Meanwhile, Sunny continues to impress with a small drop and 270,000 admissions. Moby Dick and White: The Melody of the Curse both opened this week to midlevel numbers around the 170,000 mark. (, June 12, 2011)

Korean Cinema News is a weekly feature which provides wide-ranging news coverage on Korean cinema, including but not limited to: features; festival news; interviews; industry news; trailers; posters; and box office. It appears every Wednesday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Bestseller (베스트셀러, Beseuteuselleo ) 2010

Production values add to the atmosphere

Along with Moss and Bedevilled, Bestseller is one last year’s rural-set films where local villagers hide an ugly secret or secrets. Each is very different but they all set the countryside as a site of horror and a place for repressed memories. Kang Woo-suk’s Moss is an atmospheric thriller about a son who goes to a village when his father dies and finds that everything isn’t quite right. Soon he begins to suspect foul play in his father’s passing and tries to dig up the secrets of the community, which is lorded over by the village foreman playing by the brilliant Jeong Jae-yeong. Bedevilled shows us an island and a woman who is brutally raped, attacked, and persecuted by the other islanders through the eyes of a visitor from Seoul. Following a cataclysmic event she snaps and exacts revenge in this scopophilic masterpiece. Finally there is Bestseller, which starts out as a creepy haunted house horror when a famous writer gets away from the big city to write her comeback two years after having been accused of plagiarism. A big revelation switches the focus of the film, which becomes a thriller where she tries to uncover the death of a girl who she believes was killed by the villagers.

Director Lee Jeong-ho treads carefully in his debut as he maneuvers through the conventions of horror and name checks half a dozen classic horror films in the process. A writer going off to a big haunted house in the countryside for some quiet to write is basically the plot to The Shining (1980), not only this but just like in the famous opening scene from that film we follow the protagonist from various eerie helicopter shots as she drives to the remote location. Besides this the film also makes heavy allusions to Psycho (1960) and Don’t Look Now (1973). The first half of the film is an exercise in suspense and is very effective. The mise-en-scene is wonderfully executed as the sets, sound design, editing, and cinematography are all top notch. The problem is that it feels like a bit of an exercise and can come off as a little lifeless. Eom Jeong-hwa, an accomplished actress who has some horror experience with Princess Aurora (2005), looks good in the role but sometimes misses the mark with her constant staring and paranoia. This could also be a product of Lee’s direction as he takes such pains to evoke an atmospheric horror. 

Like so many other Korean films, Bestseller deals with past trauma and repressed memories. As I mentioned earlier it does this in much the same fashion as Moss and Bedevilled by situating the trauma, by proxy or otherwise, in a rural environment. The villagers, at first welcoming, quickly turn sour on the writer’s presence as she begins to dig up the truth on the 20-year-old disappearance of a young girl. The secrets they hide are predictably dark and while they do not stem directly from political atrocities, like the revealed trauma of films like Save the Green Planet (2003) and A Man Who Was Superman (2008), they do echo a number of related themes. For one the brutal countryside could be seen as a representation of the North, it could also be seen as a metaphor for the past and how modern Koreans choose to deal with it. Various events in the film point to a manipulation of memory and show us how most characters are deeply affected by it a key concern in Korean cinema. 

Unfortunately the film has some very significant drawbacks, I’ve already mentioned Eom’s performance but far more problematic are the atrocious lapses of judgment in the execution of the finale. There is a supernatural bent to the film that is necessary to complement the style of the first half but this angle is played down during the rest of the narrative until the very end when it comes back with a vengeance. The problem is that the logic of the film goes right out the window. Laws of physics are blithely disregarded, generic codes are awkwardly juxtaposed, and the obvious resolution is forced into place. Ultimately the film is a great display of technique and a competently made horror/thriller with lots of fun twists but it lacks cohesion and focus.


The villagers turn on the writer

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Shifting Modes of Representation in Whispering Corridors - Part I

High school girls are punished in class
Whispering Corridors (Yeogo geodam, 1998) was released during a key time in the modernization of Korean cinema. It came one year after the breakout homegrown melodramas, The Contact (Cheob-sok, 1997) and The Letter (Pyeon ji, 1997) and a year before the first true Korean blockbuster, Shiri (Swiri, 1999). It was one of the early films in the new, prosperous era in Korean cinema, it was also the first horror film to leave a significant mark on the box office. While at this time horror films were similarly gaining traction in Japan, such as the Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-On (The Grudge) series, their Korean counterparts were very specific in their focus, which tended to revolve around teenage girls. Surprisingly, instead of being objects that were overtly sexualized and designed to incite lust, these characters highlighted the sensibility of sonyeo (girls). Choi argues that ‘sensibility’ “provides a conceptual alternative to ‘sexuality’”. Beneath this sensibility evident in Korean horror cinema, she believes that “one must uncover a collective fantasy: a form of female bonding and sexual performance that may or may not be socially sanctioned”. Audiences are given the opportunity to share a similar sensibility beyond their typical demographic. Instead of being drawn in by exploitation and sexual fetishization, they are led to empathize with the protagonists.

Whispering Corridors… …indicts Korea’s oppressive educational system, and this South Korean modes of capitalistic socialization.”

Sonyeo working to get into college
The film is clearly a critique of the harsh Korean educational system but I think that the same things that point to this also act as metaphors for the larger issue of the whole peninsula’s shared historical trauma. The film is inherently violent, just like Korea’s bloody history, and yet most of the protagonists spend their time on screen internalizing their emotions and avoiding conflict. This contrasts strongly with male-oriented Korean high school films such as Friend (Chingoo, 2001) and Once Upon a Time in High School (Maljukgeori janhoksa, 2004), in which the protagonists constantly react physically and often incite violence. As mentioned above, the Whispering Corridors series as well as Kim Ji-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003) are examples of sonyeo sensibility, where the focus is on “emotional predilections and psychological behavioral dispositions and tendencies”, thus characters do not lash out physically. This style of cinema is well positioned to deal with Korea’s historical trauma. Since the nation’s grief is something that has never fully been resolved and had throughout the 1990s democratization and globalization of Korea been largely swept under the rug, it was a logical move to incorporate these buried anxieties and identity issues in characters that are typically dealing with their own grief which is quietly seething under the surface. Since the 1980s and still to this day, this position has been largely occupied by the post-traumatic males embodied by Park Joong-hun, Sol Kyung-gu and Song Kang-ho in films ranging from Chilsu and Mansu (Chilsu wa Mansu, 1988) to Peppermint Candy (Bakha Satang, 1998) to The Host (Gwoemul, 2006). When Korean cinema branched out to younger audiences in the late 1990s, this was a new way to deal with the nation’s history while also becoming more contemporary and drawing in younger (as well as foreign) audiences.

A young girl look up towards a school on  a dark night
The film starts by very clearly setting out its intent, with a young girl (only visible from behind and below the knees) looking up towards a school on a dark night. This menacing shot indicates someone returning to the scene of a previous trauma. The young girl's trauma is particularly important because of her age, she died young and was thus never allowed to grow old. Her trauma, that turns out to be her suicide, is all that remains of her. Her suicide was brought about by her treatment by the school’s teachers. The first victim is this narrative is an old teacher who feels that the past is about to catch up with her. She is also unable to forget the past and knows that it has come back to haunt her. The young girl embodies Korea and its battered past, or perhaps she could also represent a young victim such as a girl slaughtered during the Gwangju Massacre. Mrs. Park is the older generation which has also been scarred by the past and cannot move forward with these memories permanently etched into their psyches.

The title Whispering Corridors refers to the gossiping girls who roam the schools halls. Perhaps it implies the growing awareness within the minjung (the masses), as they discuss current events and social injustice to the dismay of the authority that tries to eradicate any dissention by scolding the girls for chattering in class.

To be continued...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Possessed (Bool-sin-ji-ok) 2009

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.

The story is simple enough, Hee-jin returns home from college because her sister So-jin has gone missing. She wants to alert the police but her fanatic mother decides that praying is the only acceptable way of finding her daughter. Hee-jin does call the police and we are presented with Tae-hwan a detective who doesn’t really seem to care about the case, until odd events result in bodies piling up in the complex.

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.

I mentioned earlier that all of the inhabitants of the block seem to be women. The only healthy male in the narrative, the detective, is another useless investigator to add to the long line of useless policemen portrayed in Korean cinema. Not only that, his family is in danger of falling apart. Why aren't there any more male characters? There could only be two reasons for this: all the men have gone to make a living for themselves in more prosperous areas or they can be seen, in their absence,  as a reminder of the ever-wandering male of Korean cinema. In fact, the main male character seems only to have stuck around because he is part of the establishment, he certainly doesn't seem to be any good at his job.

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.

Hee-jin’s hallucinations involving the crane seem to be of particular significance within the narrative. In China, the crane represents both longevity and purity and this symbolism is used effectively for the development of Hee-jin’s character. During her first night back in her hometown she sees the crane in the local playground, pecking at what turn out to be teeth. Since the suggestion is that these are So-jin’s teeth, the image is quite shocking, how could such a divine creature be feeding on a young girl’s bloody teeth? I think that the crane is trying to save Hee-jin from whatever possessed her younger sister. The evidence that points to this is the moment when she picks up one of the teeth and the crane, who was a good twenty feet away in the previous shot, suddenly snatches it out of her hand.  While not too bothered by Hee-jin’s presence, the crane does perk up and freeze when So-jin may or may not have appeared behind a tree across the playground, it is as if the crane senses evil.

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.