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Nostalgic Ghosts and Gruesome Murders: Korea's Summer of Fear 2007

Written by James Mudge Tell a Friend

Although in the West the start of the summer inevitably signals a wave of mega-budget sequels and special effects heavy blockbusters, at the same time in Korea cinemagoers are bracing themselves for the annual parade of ghosts and ghouls. With the temperature rising outside, horror films certainly offer viewers a way to cool down, though of course many may well find themselves sweating with fear despite the air-conditioning. This yearly scarefest has been a relatively new phenomenon, and although horror films enjoyed popularity in 1960s Korea with the likes of Kwon Cheol Hwi's A Public Cemetery of Wol Ha, Lee Yong Min's A Devilish Homicide, and others influenced by the traditional Japanese genre form, they later largely disappeared from screens aside from the odd film during the 1980s and 1990s such as erotic-fantasy hybrid The Fox With Nine Tails.

Indeed, the genre has only recently found its feet again as a viable commercial concern, a development that can be traced directly to the rise of the modern Asian ghost genre, which began proper in Korea in 1998 with Whispering Corridors. Written and directed by a debuting Park Ki Hyung, the film takes place at an all girls' school where a series of supernatural events seem to revolve around the mysterious death of a pupil nine years previously. The film is an excellent example of the modern Asian ghost genre, with director Park eschewing special effects and cheap shocks in favor of atmosphere, mystery, and character drama. Although not the first Korean horror film to feature teenage characters, it was the first to court a younger audience through modernizing the traditional ghost story form. It tackles contemporary issues such as bullying in an open fashion, and has a strong anti-authoritarian streak, openly criticizing the country's education system. As a result it generated a fair bit of controversy when it first screened, with conservative groups attempting to bar its release.

Despite their efforts, audiences proved to be hungry for horror, and Whispering Corridors was the second biggest domestic hit of the year, ushering in a new, modern genre form and setting a trend which continues to the present day. Although perhaps lesser known than Japan's Ring which was released the same year, Whispering Corridors has arguably proved every bit as influential, and its success has resulted in no less than three sequels, namely Memento Mori, Wishing Stairs, and Voice, as well countless rip-offs. Unsurprisingly Park Ki Hyung went on to continue working in the genre, and was soon established as one of the country's most acclaimed horror directors thanks to the likes of Secret Tears and Acacia.

Subsequent years have seen the genre continue to grow in popularity, with a number of horror films scoring big at the domestic box office, including Ahn Byung Ki's Phone and Bunshinsaba, Kim Tae Kyung's The Ghost (also released as Dead Friend), and Kim Ji Woon's classic A Tale of Two Sisters. Tellingly, these films and others have not only been hits at home but also abroad, having been released all over the world and snapped up by Hollywood for remakes. As a result, Korean horror has gone from strength to strength, in terms of popularity and number of productions if perhaps not creativity, with films rarely straying from the long established and time honored vengeful female spirit theme. Unfortunately, it's fair to say that as a result the Korean horror genre has of late become rather stale, with directors being content to cash in on the seemingly unending trend by simply rehashing the same old stories and set pieces which have become all too familiar. To be fair, some filmmakers have offered variations on the formula, such as Kong Su Chang, whose R-Point saw soldiers encountering ghosts in a war-torn misty jungle, and Im Pil Seong, whose Antarctic Journal followed haunted explorers journeying across an icy landscape - though these have sadly been few and far between.

Still, the yearly batch are eagerly awaited by horror fans to help beat the summer heat, and 2006 was no different, boasting several high-profile releases including Ahn Byung Ki's return to the genre Apartment, the plastic surgery-themed chiller Cinderella, the folklore-based Arang, and To Sir with Love, which offered gory killings rather than the usual gloomy ghosts. Although entertaining enough, most of the year's genre outings basically revolved around suspiciously similar plots, and it was abundantly clear that the genre was badly in need of innovation and a transfusion of fresh blood.

Thankfully, the summer of 2007 has been somewhat different, with a crop of genre outings which have at least attempted to put a spin on the usual formula. Although inevitably most films have still featured vengeful long-haired female ghosts, there has been a tangible shift from the modern, Ring-style horror back to that of the classic Korean horrors of the 1960s. Certainly, traditional influences have been more apparent, with some films featuring period settings, playing upon some of the shamanistic values that are at the heart of Korean culture, and aiming for a sense of sinister nostalgia. There has also been a shift to a greater focus on visuals, and the films have been a surprisingly elegant bunch, attaining a kind of eerie beauty which works well to give an otherworldly feel and to underscore the scares with a creepy atmosphere. While the films have obviously varied in quality, this does represent directors making more of an effort, and as such gives hope for the genre's continuing vitality.

The shift to traditional genre values can most obviously be seen in a number of historical horrors released in summer 2007, including Kim Ji Hwan's The Evil Twin and Epitaph from newcomers the Jeong Brothers. The two are quite different propositions, with the former being set during the Joseon period of Korean history, and the latter in 1942 during a time of strong Japanese cultural influence. What both have in common is that they see the directors making a concerted effort to step away from the cliche of the modern horror film, such as the possessed mobile phones and television sets which have been so common in recent years. Both films focus far more upon atmosphere and drama than tacky scares, and although they do feature their fair share of frights, seem to draw more from theatrical than cinematic sources. As a result, the two offer strong, and in the case of Epitaph, complicated stories, which although basically quite familiar, borrowing liberally from A Tale of Two Sisters amongst others, do engage far more than the usual tales of haunted schoolgirls. Both have a definite gothic flavour, though with modern directorial sensibilities, and manage to successfully combine terror with emotional substance, boosted by a uniquely Korean feel.

Muoi: Legend of a Portrait sees Kim Tae Kyeong, director of The Ghost, returning to the fold and is another film with a historical flavor, revolving around a curse attached to a nineteenth-century painting. The film is particularly of interest for being a joint Korean-Vietnamese production, shot partly in Vietnam and featuring extensive use of eye-catching traditional local costumes, something which gives it a very different and rather exotic look. Whilst it goes without saying that a fair bit of the running time is taken up with the vengeful ghost that haunts the painting, the film does actually feature an engrossing story, and like other Korean horrors such as The Wig, the supernatural elements are almost secondary to the human drama. However, where Muoi really stands out is in its gorgeous visuals, which make for atmospheric viewing and help distract from the basic familiarity of the proceedings. Another slice of supernatural summer nostalgia emerged in the form of For Eternal Hearts from director Hwang Kyoo Deok (previously responsible for Cheol Su Loves Young Hee), which flits between the present day and the 1970s. More romance than horror, following a teacher who recounts the weird tale of his first love, it nevertheless offers an ambitious mixture of genres very different to the usual fare.

For horror fans looking for something a little more modern, summer 2007 also saw the release of the highly anticipated Black House from director Shin Tae Ra. Based upon the novel by Kishi Yusuke (which was previously filmed back in 1999 by Morita Yoshimitsu) and a co-production with the Japanese Kadokawa Pictures, the film has proved to be a smash hit with audiences and critics alike, and is arguably the genre film not only of the summer, but indeed the year. Following an insurance salesman (played by Hwang Jung Min from You Are My Sunshine) who is pulled into a disturbing game of mutilation and murder by a deranged psychopath, it certainly offers a far more visceral experience than other horrors of recent years, with a Grand Guignol atmosphere and plenty of gory scenes. More bloody slasher scares were present in The Cut (a.k.a. Anonymous Blood), a film following a group of medical students dogged by a series of gruesome murders. Mixing beautiful and grotesque imagery, the film does fall back on the usual vengeful ghost motif (here played by former model Choi Hye Jeung), but serves up enough suspense and bloody thrills to entertain, and it proved a winner at the domestic box office.

The summer of horror recently drew to a close at cinemas with the release of Someone Behind You directed by Oh Ki Hwan. Another modern piece which returns to the popular theme of tormented high school girls, the film stars Yoon Jin Seo, from Park Chan Wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and Oldboy, as a youngster who is traumatized after witnessing her aunt's brutal murder at the hands of another aunt. Needless to say this triggers the expected weird events and mysterious deaths, and though the film gives away its supposedly shocking twist way too early in the proceedings, it performs with enough gusto to satisfy.

Even with the summer now over, horror fans still have plenty to look forward to in 2007 with the upcoming releases of the supernaturally themed M, the latest from acclaimed Nowhere to Hide and Duelist director Lee Myung Se, the apparently gruesome fairy-tale adaptation Hansel and Gretel from Im Pil Seong (think A Tale of Two Sisters with added gore), and Kong Su Chang's GP506, which basically follows the same premise as his R-Point. Hopefully these will be enough to tide viewers over until the summer of 2008 when no doubt the box office will once again be assailed by an onslaught of genre films, which will hopefully follow the 2007 trend of at least vaguely subverting the usual vengeful ghost formula and offer some genuinely frightening and surprising scares.

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Published October 29, 2007

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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