Living in Seoul is a tough existence for Hee-jin (Nam Sang-mi (남상미). Studying for exams during the day while moonlighting at night as a personal tutor and convenience store clerk, Hee-jin’s health is beginning to suffer from a combination of stress and exhaustion. Her usual routine is disturbed one night when younger sister So-jin (Sim Eun-kyeong (심은경) abruptly calls and leaves a mysterious message…however the next morning when Hee-jin’s mother (Kim Bo-yeon (김보연) informs her that So-jin is missing, she becomes worried and decides to return home to help with the search. Teaming with detective Tae-hwan (Ryoo Seung-ryong (류승룡), the duo begin to notice strange machinations and events occurring at the apartment complex, yet So-jin is still nowhere to be found.
An impressive addition to the K-horror canon, Possessed – as known as Living Death – is a pertinent example of eerily-effective and scarily-suspenseful storytelling on a tight budget. Director Lee Yong-joo’s debut is a potent mix of the horrors of religious fervour and taught claustrophobic locations that, while lacking in terms of character development and resolutions, is an accomplished chiller.
Proving that large budgets aren’t necessary to create unsettling tension and scares, director Lee instead relies on generating fear through the claustrophobic environs of a dilapidated apartment block to great effect throughout Possessed. The methods in which he produces moments of terror by exploiting the narrow confines of rooms and hallways, in conjunction with unnerving close-ups and chiaroscuro lighting, makes the film consistently disturbing and serves to make Hee-jin’s search for her missing sister all the more compelling. Thankfully, director Lee rarely employs cheap ‘jump’ scares to frighten his audience, generally taking his time to develop a sense of foreboding so that the sense of dread resonates throughout.
Possessed is also memorable for its chief source of horror – religious fervour. As Hee-ji and obstinate detective Tae-hwan begin to search for So-jin, they uncover an array of eccentric residents within the apartment complex each with their own odd peculiarities and ties to the missing girl. The narrative potently examines how folk who have endured difficulties turn to religious ideologies with frightening levels of enthusiasm, and the clues uncovered reveal a number of potential suspects in the case that adds greatly to the suspense.
Yet the horror film is not without issues, particularly in regards to character development and resolution which are generally lacking. This is acutely the case with Hee-jin who, aside from the fact her younger sister is missing, has very little of her life revealed. Hints are laced though the film that she has supernatural gifts although such themes frustratingly go unresolved. Actress Nam Sang-mi however gives a great performance in the role and generates enough likeable charm that it’s impossible not to invest in her story. Other resolutions, such as the apparent ‘possession,’ present certain motifs such as the elegant crane yet answers are in short supply, while the film ironically ultimately ties up all loose ends far too neatly in order to adhere to a generically satisfactory finale.
Possessed is an impressive K-horror by debut director Lee Yong-joo, who uses his tight budget highly effectively to craft a suspense-filled tale of intrigue about a missing girl. Employing claustrophobic environs and a story that examines the frightening religious fervour within communities, Possessed is – lack of character development and resolutions notwithstanding – a chilling delight.