Writer & Director: Na Hong-jin
Composer: Jang Young-gyu
Cast: Kwok Do-won, Jun Kunimura, Chun Woo-hee, Hwang Jung-min, Kim Hwan-hee.
In a sleepy South Korean mountain town something strange begins to happen. One morning officer Jong-goo (Kwok Do-won) is called to a crime scene: a man has brutally killed and mauled his entire family. The man is all the more peculiar because he appears to be covered in a mysterious rash that has infected him, causing him to behave violently and irrationally. Eventually the disease kills its host in a rather… unsettling way. The town is unaccustomed to this sort of events, it has never seen violence, not of this sort, and the police is not equipped to deal with it – each officer more ineffective and inept than the last, Jong-goo included, perhaps the worst of the bunch. After a string of murders and crimes, Jong-goo’s own daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes infected as well. The distraught family calls in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to help rid the young girl of the evil spirit that afflicts her. There are also a couple of mysterious strangers that lurk about: a young woman whose name in Korean translates literally as ‘no name’ Moo-myung (Chun Woo-hee) and an unnamed Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura, Kill Bill).
The strengths of this film are most definitely the cinematography, the special and practical effects, the makeup, and the mood and tone. The film is stunningly beautiful. It’s easy to do with scenery as beautiful as the setting provides, but the camera really knows how to make it appear even more beautiful and breath taking. Even scenes in rain, or at the scene of an arson, appear gorgeous and moody in the best of ways. The makeup and effects together are truly disgusting, but this is appropriate for the overall look and aesthetic the film is going for. The skin appears to be actually decaying off the infected, the eyes are vacant and reddened, the bodies move and contort in unnatural and dangerous way, it all adds up to a scary sight, and that is exactly what you want out of a horror flick. The mood works too. You want to feel scared, but also intrigued. Sometimes the film takes things too far, switching back and forth, just as the audience reaches a conclusion things are reversed and a new piece of information is revealed – it’s all a bit maddening, as it causes narrative whiplash, the last half hour becoming nearly annoying, but it mostly works.
What doesn’t fully work is the penchant for Korean horror to want to add slapstick and broad comedy to its films. It’s something I don’t fully understand, and must be cultural (even though I lived in the country for over a year). There always appear to be scenes played for extreme laughs, which feel discordant to the otherwise tense and unrelenting mood of the plot. This causes the performances to read as cartoonish and as caricatures instead of realistic. I must admit it took me out of the film, because I was suddenly seeing the actors act a fool, rather than the characters behaving organically according to their nature. Be warned, I am about to give a major spoiler, but I am also getting really tired of the Japanese as the arbiters of all things evil. At the very end, we discover that the Japanese stranger, who had been victimized and persecuted throughout the film and was a character we as viewers felt sorry for, was the devil himself all along. I was enjoying the fact that the movie seemed to be finally using a Japanese character as a source of good, the one who came to town to help the Koreans in spite of how they were treating him, and instead fell back into the same old same old trope. Japan and Korea have a very tumultuous history, and the Koreans hate their former invaders. No matter how much time goes by, the grudge remains, and it’s such a cheap pay-off in a movie, an easy way to get the target audience cheering. Americans and other non-Koreans will not fully understand, but to me it was really annoying.
I enjoyed the movie. My fiancé loved it. Fans of Asian, and specifically Korean, horror will no-doubt enjoy it. Although long, the film is action packed and doesn’t let up at all, holding one’s interest throughout. It does have some serious flaws, but I will be the first to admit that it is head and shoulders above the type of horror and suspense films that the American studios are making, and I guess that makes it good enough to watch and enjoy. Just have someone to cuddle with, you’re gonna need it!