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.


  1. Thanks for the post! The film was screened on TV just yesterday, and i had only managed to watch the later half of it. I have been looking around the internet for discussions since.

    I love the way the director contrasted the two religions, although he had picked the two extremes of each religion and put them together in this film.

    I would, though, like to point out that the spirit of the Crane might be in So-Jin. Compared to the Exorcist where the main character is portrayed to be possessed by the demon (we can debate on this too) and is entirely shown to be negative, So-jin's handprints only reveal the shape of a claw and she has acquired strange powers of healing as well as strong hunger. I compared this film to The Exorcist not only because of the possession, but also because of the Christian portrayal of the Devil (or his advocate) to have a strange body shape which resembles a large bird and has foot prints the shape of a bird's claw. In a scene of The Exorcist, Reagan had made a strange red bird like clay doll, which seems to indicate the presence of a demon. While The Exorcist is entirely different from Possessed, as i had not seen the crane until the end, i had the impression that she was possessed by the demon. =.= So i might have scared myself more than necessary.

    You mentioned about the teeth, did Sojin lose a lot of teeth since the accident? When she was eating the huge chunk of pork while balancing on the top of a wooden chair after the screwed up Shaman ritual, she was seen to be unable to bite a part off the meat. Is this because she has no teeth? Or is this because the crane which might be in her body has no teeth?

    What is the significance of the bell in the shaman ritual? How did the shaman lose her bell, why must she go through such lengths to find it back?

    What is the significance of hanging? Why won't the characters die in another way? Have they been 'judged' and thus are sentenced to death by hanging?

    This film is really interesting to talk about. I would love to watch the whole thing through first though.

  2. First off, thanks for your feedback.

    I see your point about the crane and it makes a lot of sense but I'm going to stick with my interpretation whereby it represents a positive force. The first scene that it appears in is a clearer indicator of this in my mind. I haven't seen the Exorcist in a very long time, perhaps I should give it another look.

    As for the teeth, I'm not sure. I recall a scene where So-jin eats everything in the fridge so she seems to still have them but perhaps she lost them later, I'm not sure what's going on with that.

    I'm afraid I don't remember the deal with the shaman's bell.

    Not all the victims died by hanging, but maybe the majority do because it makes their deaths look like suicide. I would put it down to narrative convenience.

    Boy, a little distance goes a long way. There's a lot I don't remember about this film, although it is still fairly vivid in my mind, at least some parts.

    Glad you found it as interesting as I did and can I ask what other Korean films have impressed you in such a way?

    Hope you get to see the whole thing soon!

  3. On note of buried teeth & crane: some eastern losing of teeth methods are burring lost top teeth (or all) for growing new teeth. As, well as throwing lost bottom teeth on roof/ throwing teeth backwards straight up, for new teeth to grow up & straight. For some, animals (such as a bird) can assist like a tooth fairy. Others, state if a bird eats your lost tooth, it won't grow back.

  4. Comments are far more entertaining than the movie itself.