The Terrible Melancholy of Korean Horror
The conventions of American ghost stories do not apply
The rise of Asian horror in the late nineties was built on a different recipe than the Freddy and Jason knock-offs and post-Blair Witch found-footage horrors of American movies. After the cycle of gore films of the eighties ran its course in both Japan and Hong Kong, horror was relegated to the made-for-video industry (known as v-cinema), where younger talents found ways to create eerie thrills on limited budgets and resources. A 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki laid the groundwork for the coming boom: Ringu (a.k.a. The Ring) was made into a TV film, a TV series, a smash 1998 movie by Hideo Nakata, and a string of sequels and remakes (including a Korean version). Along with the eerie madness and supernatural forces of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's movies (Cure, Pulse) and the vengeful ghosts of Ju-on (a.k.a. The Grudge) and its many sequels and remakes, a new genre was born. J-Horror underplayed the on-screen violence, creating shivery moments of malevolence seeping into the material world from beyond, killing and corrupting everything it touches, with stories built on the vengeance of spirits unable to move on. The conventions of American ghost stories—discover the secret keeping the dead trapped on Earth to send them on their way—no longer applied. The truth will set neither the living nor the dead free.
Where the Japanese industry largely recycled the creepy imagery and angry supernatural killers of those trend-setting films, South Korean directors took the same elements in a different direction. K-Horror also focused on unsettled spirits, but rather than anger and vengeance, they explored regret, anguish, loss, and betrayal; the most resonant films offered spirits more damaged than malevolent, prevented from moving on by unfinished business or unfulfilled yearnings. The Asian horror revival coincided with the sudden relaxation of film censorship rules in South Korea, which helped fuel the rise in Korean action cinema. But even as action thrillers became more visceral and violent, horror cinema was closer to the teen and young-adult serial melodramas that still dominate Korean TV—more focused on the emotional than the physical.
"The first day a girl dies."
Ground zero of this wave of K-horror is Whispering Corridors (1998), about a murder in an all-girls school said to be haunted by the spirit of a student who killed herself years ago. It kicked off an entire series of Whispering Corridors films, and the second in the series, Memento Mori (a.k.a. Whispering Corridors 2, 1999), is the most interesting and emotionally resonant of the lot.
Think of Memento Mori as taking the image of the creepy ghost girl of Ringu out of the post-nuclear family, and dropping her into the social pressure chamber of conformity and popularity that is high school. It opens on the aftermath of a suicide: A girl who leapt off the school roof is found dead in the courtyard below with a flower of blood under her head, an image both restrained and grotesque. Her story plays out when our narrator, Min-ah (Min-sun Kim) discovers a diary and, as she reads through the pages, sees the events unfold around her: An odd, outcast girl is in love with a more popular girl who insists they keep their romance a secret. This is, after all, high school, that crucible of whispers and judgments and cruel punishments meted out to those who don't fit in.
The bitchy portrait of female high-school social cliques is the perfect setting for ghostly revenge—everything is more immediate and important in the hormonally-heightened existence of youth—but is that actually what's going on? Time collapses in the telling (is it a day, a week, a month that passes?), and past and present merge into an ever-present now as Min-ah digs deeper into the diary and sees the dead girl's drama play out before her eyes. It's as if the power of this bond keeps the dead girl's spirit anchored to the school, playing her doomed last days on a continuing loop. All the school's a stage—an idea brought home by an image late in the film, as the students gather in the main hall and a giant eye fills the skylight overhead, turning the student body into the players of a doll-house drama. It can be confusing on a first viewing—already a challenge for discerning the characters behind those matching uniforms and heads of long black hair—but also exhilarating. This is a teen horror picture with the narrative sophistication of an Alain Resnais drama, and the filmmakers Kim Tae-yong and Min Kyu-dong trust their audience to follow it all, emotionally if not temporally. It is also the first mainstream Korean film to depict lesbian characters on the big screen, which it does with compassion and empathy. It was followed by three more sequels, connected only by theme, setting, and the "Whispering Corridors" brand, and untold knock-offs, but this remains the most evocative of the schoolgirl horrors.
“I know I’m a bad father."
Ji-woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) raised the bar from high-school melodrama to family tragedy, and became the highest-grossing Korean horror film of its decade. Kim was best known for the offbeat comedies The Quiet Family (1998) and The Foul King (2000) before moving into horror territory, and he proves himself an even more accomplished director of unsettling cinematic visions. With a coolly attenuated style that hovers at a distance, he observes the chilly relations between sisters Su-mi (the protective elder) and Su-yeon (the submissive, silent younger) and their frayed stepmother Eunjoo (Yum Jung-ah, whose try-too-hard politeness is both sympathetic and suspiciously icy), in a house haunted by past (mis)deeds that are never discussed, and presided over by a father so passive he's practically absent. Kim captures a brittleness that threatens to snap as sublimated hatreds are unleashed in sharp words, increasingly hostile confrontations, and terrible acts of vengeance both emotional and physical.
It’s hard to tell what holds more sway over the creepy doings of the house: guilt, ghosts (both eerie floating specters and a screamingly terrifying figure of rotting black vengeance that crawls under the cabinets), or sheer madness. The shadowy, suggestive images and unnerving silence—interrupted by quiet footsteps, ticking clocks, and squishy Lynchian soundscapes—makes the haunting of this house so shiver-inducing that you don’t really care. The monster is a metaphor, as they say, and as Kim replays the tale from different perspectives, the terrible human story behind the haunting is slowly revealed, trading the eerie, shivery horrors for the resentment and rage that pushes events into aching sadness and tragedy. Kim went on to make the splashy The Good, the Bad, the Weird (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010), which met horror with the madness of obsessive revenge. A Tale of Two Sisters is still his most moving and heartfelt film.
"We are not bad children, but everyone thinks we are."
In Hansel and Gretel (2008), Yim Phil-Sung reworks the Grimm fairy tale as a horror steeped in tragedy. In this take, the children are in charge of the "House of Happy Children" and its artificially cheerful nuclear family hidden deep in the forest. Into this unreal existence wanders crash victim Eun-Soo (Cheon Jeong-myeong), a young man who wrecks his car while fleeing his pregnant girlfriend (and all the responsibility she represents), and follows a literal red riding hood to the magical house where candies and cakes are the stuff of every meal.
It's like Jerome Bixby's "It's a Good Life" (which was made twice into segments of The Twilight Zone), reworked as a K-horror drama with a melancholy ending. Yim never quite gets beyond the surface set-up of damaged children distrustful of all adults yet desperate for parental love. Rather than mine the grim dimension and primal fears of the fairy-tale mythos, he unleashes a new villain in the form of a serial-killing religious zealot who really digs the creepy magic of this candy house. But Yim's world is magnificently realized and beautifully stylized, with unreal idealized settings, discomforting storybook colors, and childish imagery—the family portraits of anthropomorphized rabbits in human clothes just get creepier and creepier as they come. There's no fairy-tale ending here; the evil that men do to helpless children, it seems, can never be healed in this world. But neither is there the flailing cruelty of the J-horror models that kicked off the explosion of Asian horror in the late-nineties. These children are victims and survivors, but they're not driven by vengeance or rage. Like the kids of the best K-horror films, all they really want is to be loved and accepted.