It’s time again to travel the globe and pull together a list of the best in horror to be found, this time in the ripe ground of Korea. Just a decade or two ago, Korea’s horror output tended to feel like an echo of Japan’s cinema, but by the early 2000s, a number of truly wonderful filmmakers began working in the genre and the outcome has been a breathtaking onslaught of the most extreme kind. Hooray!
5. Bedevilled (2010)
Cheol-soo Jang’s first feature film bears witnesses not only to some horrific deeds, but to an amazingly confident new filmmaker who knows how to sidestep expectations, turn the screw, and offer surprising insight in a genre that doesn’t always generate that kind of thoughtfulness.
The film opens as beautiful if cold Hae-won (Sung-won Ji) witnesses a crime and chooses not to involve herself. She takes a (somewhat involuntary) vacation on the remote island where she grew up, to find her childhood friend Bok-nam (Young-hee Seo). On the isolated, backward island – though Hae-won is treated to rest and nurturing by her adoring friend – Bok-nam’s life is about as far from ideal as possible.
Jang captures the rugged, isolated beauty of the island and offsets both ideas with his leads – one, an elegant and pristine beauty, the other a rough-hewn image – and sees two sides of the same humanity. This is a morality tale, but it’s also a brutal but sympathetic (and seriously bloody) comeuppance. Jang does not leave off where you think he might, instead crafting a compelling and satisfying whole that will stick with you.
4. The Host (2006)
Visionary director Joon-ho Bong’s film opens in a military lab hospital in 2000. A clearly insane American doctor, repulsed by the dust coating formaldehyde bottles, orders a Korean subordinate to empty it all into the sink. Soon the contents of hundreds of bottles of formaldehyde find its way through the Korean sewer system and into the Han River. This event – allegedly based on fact – eventually leads, not surprisingly, to some pretty gamey drinking water. And also a 25 foot cross between Alien and a giant squid.
Said monster – let’s call him Steve Buscemi (the beast’s actual on-set nickname) – exits the river one bright afternoon in 2006 to run amuck in a very impressive outdoor-chaos-and-bloodshed scene. A dimwitted foodstand clerk witnesses his daughter’s abduction by the beast, and the stage is set.
What follows, rather than a military attack on a marauding Steve Buscemi, is actually one small, unhappy, bickering family’s quest to find and save the little girl. Their journey takes them to poorly organized quarantines, botched security check points, misguided military/Red Cross posts, and through Seoul’s sewer system, all leading to a climactic battle even more impressive than the earlier scene of afternoon chaos.
3. I Saw the Devil (2010)
An actor who can take a beating, Min-sik Choi plays Kyung-Chul, a predator who picks on the wrong guy’s fiancé.
That grieving fiancé is played by Byung-hun Lee, whose restrained emotion and elegant good looks perfectly offset Choi’s disheveled explosion of sadistic rage, and we spend 2+ hours witnessing their wildly gruesome game of cat and mouse.
Director Jee-woon Kim breathes new life into the serial killer formula. With the help of two strong leads, he upends the old “if I want to catch evil, I must become evil” cliché. What they’ve created is a percussively violent horror show that transcends its gory content to tell a fascinating, if repellant, tale.
Truth be told, beneath the grisly, far-too-realistic violence of this unwholesome bloodletting is an undercurrent of honest human pathos – not just sadism, but sadness, anger, and the most weirdly dark humor. You might even notice some really fine acting and nimble storytelling lurking inside this bloodbath.
2. Oldboy (2003)
So a guy passes out after a hard night of drinking. It’s his daughter’s birthday, and that helps us see that the guy is a dick. He wakes up a prisoner in a weird, apartment-like cell. Here he stays for years and years.
The guy is Min-sik Choi (remember him?). The film is Oldboy, director Chan-wook Park’s masterpiece of subversive brutality and serious wrongdoing.
This is not a horror film in any traditional sense – not even in South Korean cinema’s extreme sense. Though it was embraced – and rightly so – by horror circles, this is a refreshing and compelling take on the revenge fantasy that takes you places you do not expect to go. But that’s the magnificence of Chan-wook Park, and if you have the stomach, you should follow where he leads.
Choi takes you with him through a brutal, original, startling and difficult to watch mystery. You will want to look away, but don’t do it! What you witness will no doubt shake and disturb you, but missing it would be the bigger mistake.
1. A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)
A lurid Korean fairy tale of sorts – replete with dreamy cottage and evil stepmother – Jee-woon Kim’s A Tale of Two Sisters is saturated with bold colors and family troubles.
Kim also directed I Saw the Devil, but where Devil breathes masculinity, Tale is a deep, murky, and intensely female horror.
A tight-lipped father returns home with his daughter after her prolonged hospital stay. Her sister has missed her; her stepmother has not. Or so it all would seem, although jealousy, dream sequences, ghosts, a nonlinear timeframe, and confused identity keep you from ever fully articulating what is going on. The film takes on an unreliable point of view, subverting expectations and keeping the audience off balance. But that’s just one of the reasons it works.
The director’s use of space, the composition of his frame, the set decoration, and the disturbing and constant anxiety he creates about what’s just beyond the edge of the frame wrings tensions and heightens chills. The composite effect disturbs more then it horrifies, but it stays with you either way.