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How Korean cinema mastered the art of horror

The triumph of Korean cinema

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

There is a moment in the Jung brothers’ 2007 ghost film, Epitaph, when a young doctor in wartime Korea realises that the wife he adores does not have a shadow. He is entertaining her with a shadow puppet show in their home when he notices the aberration. ‘Walk to me,’ he says as he waves a naked light bulb in front of her. She had been a visiting medical student in Japan a year earlier and, unbeknownst to him, had died in an accident. It’s a moment that perfectly illustrates the psychological subtlety and brilliant scene-making of Korean film.

Epitaph is about a group of young doctors working in a hospital under the Japanese occupation. Linking different stories and the appearance of gwisin — wandering and vengeful ghosts — the gorgeous imagery and narrative complexity marked a turning point in the outside world’s perception of K-Horror, a genre which had hitherto produced its fair share of schlock. Pathos and terror combine, driven on by the emotional intensity of the characters’ realisation.

We are not in the world of Stephen King or Rob Zombie. We are in a very different one: that of the Japanese director Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu, with its ciphering of the supernatural through the instruments of modern technology. In a cursed videotape, shared among high-school students, the fact that the folkloric past is refracted through our technology only makes it more sinister.

Asian film culture is far closer to the ancestral lore of the supernatural than its western equivalent. This too has a long history. One need only think of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1964 masterpiece Kwaidan, based on traditional Japanese ghost stories. Asian directors use supernatural archetypes to explore deeper emotional disorders within contemporary culture.


Today, however, it is Korean film that has mastered the supernatural horror genre most rigorously. In 2002, Ahn Byeong-ki made Phone, which set off a slew of films in which spirits or serial killers manipulate the living through communication networks. (This year, Lee Chung-hyeon’s The Call on Netflix continues the tradition.) Grander Korean films then changed the way horror could be used to explore the torturing enigmas of identity. They made powerful cinematic spectacle out of it in films such as Kim Jee-woon’s A Tale of Two Sisters, Lee Hae-young’s The Silenced and Jang Cheol-soo’s gripping and terrifying revenge drama Bedevilled. The last does not involve ghosts, to be sure, but it does evoke the ancestral world of vengeful spirits on a remote island.

For those of us who have followed Korean film for many years, the triumph of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden or the living dead series Kingdom on Netflix came as no surprise. South Korea’s emergence as — for my money — the most interesting and sophisticated film culture in the world has been decades in the making. It now includes directors like Na Hong-jin, whose shamanistic thriller The Wailing was a sensation at Cannes in 2016. The technical virtuosity and wrenching emotional intensity that have enabled Korean directors to excel in other genres have also enabled them to master horror.

It’s interesting, meanwhile, that so many of these films are about women, female friendship, sisterhood and family. At the start of A Tale of Two Sisters a doctor asks the main character Su-mi, who has been committed to an asylum for reasons we do not yet understand: ‘Who you do think you are?’ Kim has explained that he intended his ‘horror’ film to be an exploration of this question as it relates to memory. Hence he tells his complex story backwards, but to unnervingly convincing effect. Two sisters arrive home to stay with their parents at a lakeside villa, terrorised by a seemingly cruel stepmother. Yet one of the girls is, in fact, already dead. To make this daring conceit work, Kim has to spin a superbly complicated narrative made emotionally lulling by exquisite imagery and timing. Are we in the landscapes of Freud or of medieval ghost literature?

The Silenced features a girls’ school in occupied Korea which is the site of a secret experiment by the Japanese. In a plot not unlike that of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, the girls form complex and violent relations as they compete to win two scholarships to far-off, glamorous Tokyo. Submerged sexuality, colonial repression and technological evil merge into a beautiful and chilling dream. In Bedevilled, one of the most underrated films of the past decade, a Seoul lawyer returns to the remote island where she spent her summer holidays. There she reunites with a fisherman’s daughter she had known when she was young. The latter is played by the ferocious actress Seo Young-hee, who turns in one of the great performances of modern film as she enacts this blood-drenched Greek tragedy set on a 21st-century Korean island.

Indeed, it is remarkable that the success of South Korea’s Hallyu (‘Korean Wave’) cultural renaissance has rested in no small part on the brilliance and power of its actresses. There’s Moon So-ri in Lee Chang-dong’s unforgettable Oasis, where she plays a paraplegic loner; Jeon Do-yeon in Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine for which she won Best Actress at Cannes in 2007; Bae Doona in Bong’s The Host and Barking Dogs Never Bite; and the tragic Lee Eun-ju who starred in the harrowing 2004 crime story The Scarlet Letter and who committed suicide after the filming at the age of 24. In reality, there are too many to enumerate here.

How is it, then, one may ask, that such a visionary generation is only now beginning to emerge fully on to the world stage and to take it by storm? I remember when The Wailing was shown at Cannes, with its 20-minute sequence of a shamanic exorcism ceremony performed by the iconic actor Hwang Jung-min. The standing ovation afterwards was so long that it seemed itself shamanistic. Not bad for a subtitled horror flick.

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