Possessed (불신지옥) – ★★★☆☆

Possessed (불신지옥)

Possessed (불신지옥)

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.

Hee-jin feels something is terribly wrong in the apartment complex

Hee-jin feels something is terribly wrong in the apartment complex

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.

Hee-jin enlists the help of cynical detective Tae-hwan

Hee-jin enlists the help of cynical detective Tae-hwan

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.

Flashbacks shed light on So-jin's mysterious disappearance

Flashbacks shed light on So-jin’s mysterious disappearance

Verdict:

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.

★★★☆☆

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Two young children experience horror by being left alone

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기) – ★★☆☆☆

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기)

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기)

Omnibus films are something of an oddity in cinema. When interlinking narratives – or even stand alone tales – are amalgamated the different directorial styles and/or trajectories can often be jarring, resulting in the audience withdrawing from the constructed realism altogether. Yet when visions align, as with the wonderfully postmodern Grindhouse in 2007, the results can be incredible. Korean cinema (as with French) has employed the use of omnibus structures recurrently, and while most tend to fall by the wayside some, such as Five Senses of Eros, are highly interesting pieces of celluloid.

Horror Stories (무서운 이야기) attempts to resolve such creative differences through a narrative featuring a young kidnapped girl forced to tell tales of horror to her abductor. The concept is an interesting one, giving free creative reign to all five directors to make the short stories they envision. Yet despite such allowances the result is – predictably – quite mixed, although most entries tend to be lackluster examples of the genre with the exception of director Jeong Beom-sik’s (정범식) segment ‘Sun and Moon’. For this review, in the interest of fairness, each short film will be evaluated on its own merits.

A high school girl awakes to find herself gagged and bound in an unknown location, watched by a mysterious man in a cap. After promising to behave, the gag is removed and the man communicates – through writing – that he cannot sleep unless he feels the chill of horror in his blood. He instructs the girl to tell him the scariest horror stories she knows to help him sleep, but if she fails, he will create his own horror using her as his muse.

The high school girl must tell horror stories to save her life

The high school girl must tell horror stories to save her life

Beginning, adjoining scenes, and finale – ★★★☆☆

Director Min Gyoo-dong (민규동) has the unenviable task of providing context for the horror stories, yet he does so competently. The beginning is suitably scary as a young girl is forced to tell stories to her kidnapper. In constructing their fraught relationship the director does well to establish the chilling demeanor of the abductor as he writes his demands rather than speak them aloud. The adjoining sequences are less so, as they each involve the girl attempting to flee, failing, and trying again leading to dull repetition. The finale also suffers in this regard as Min Gyoo-dong (민규동) seems unsure what to do with his protagonists once they are free from the narrative structure of storytelling.

Two young children experience horror by being left alone

Two young children experience horror by being left alone

Sun and Moon – ★★★★☆

Jeong Beom-sik (정범식) directs the first and strongest segment of Horror Stories, told from the perspective of two young children alone at home. As such the director is able to poke fun at the horror genre as the children are frightened by shadows and noises located in the homestead, mixing horror and comedy to great effect. Events take a sinister turn however when a stranger enters the home and begins chasing them, contributing to the suspense and tension as the predictable pleasures of a traditional horror movie are (somewhat playfully) conveyed. Yet the real impact of the segment lies with Jeong-Beom-sik’s contrast between real and imagined horror. The director locates genuine horror within uncompassionate corporations and the ramifications that unfold from business decisions, with the socio-cultural commentary conveying unadulterated, shocking, and highly emotive horror. However, just as the short becomes highly compelling, it unfortunately ends.

The serial killer escapes on the plane, exacting revenge

The serial killer escapes on the plane, exacting revenge

Horror Flight (AKA Fear Plane) – ★★☆☆☆

The second horror story, directed by Im Dae-woong (임대웅), is much more of a thriller than the title suggests yet regardless is a bland and contrived affair. A serial killer of young women is to be escorted by police on a flight to Seoul, but during the flight the murder escapes his shackles and indiscriminately attacks the crew. Through the segment a great number of ‘coincidences’ and logic-bending occurs in which the killer exploits to rampage through the plane, which quickly becomes tiresome. The potential claustrophobia of the plane is absent, while the inclusion of the ghost of a former victim is without meaning or purpose. The contrivances are so acute the writer clearly couldn’t find a resolution, as the segment ends abruptly.

The charismatic cannibal tastes a potential victim

The charismatic cannibal tastes a potential victim

Kong-ji, Pat-ji – ★★☆☆☆

Director Hong Ji-young’s (홍지영) entry is the weakest in the film, involving an attractive plastic surgeon who discovers eternal youth by eating his young brides. The narrative embodies the Cinderella-esque qualities of a wicked mother and sister, yet the over-acting is incredibly distracting as are the ridiculous hints at cannibalism that seem to go unnoticed by the protagonists. The segment does include the most visual form of torture horror, as close-ups of flesh being cut by various devices is suitably gory and unnerving. However there is no escaping the shortcomings of the narrative which is, while tongue-in-cheek, unengaging and trite.

Paranoia creeps in as all begin to wonder who is infected

Paranoia creeps in as all begin to wonder who is infected

Ambulance – ★★☆☆☆

The final segment of the film is helmed by brothers Kim Gok (김곡) and Kim Sun (김선), directors of 2011’s White: The Melody of the Curse (화이트: 저주의 멜로디). The narrative is concerned with a virus that has spread throughout Korea, turning the infected into zombies. A medic, police officer and driver are called to the scene of an accident where a young girl and her mother may or may not be infected, and the paranoia that unfolds in taking them to safety via an ambulance. Initially the claustrophobia of the vehicle and the increasingly disturbing atmosphere unfurls well, as the morality of leaving a comatose young girl alone for the greater good is debated. Yet the segment quickly loses impetus as the in-fighting repeatedly continues, as does stopping and starting the ambulance to jettison the possibly infected. The appearance of sprinting zombies helps to spur interest as they are the only sense of a wider context and horror, but as very little is seen of them or the devastation, their appearance is bittersweet. Blandness sets in as unoriginal ideas are rehashed, and the predictable finale does little to offset such criticism.

Can the girl satiate her abductor's need for horror?

Can the girl satiate her abductor’s need for horror?

Verdict:

Horror Stories is, predictably, a mixed effort. While context is provided for each director to exhibit their creative prowess, the reliance on stereotypes, contrivances and predictable pleasures results in general apathy rather than scares. Only Jeong Beom-sik’s Sun and Moon deviates from this trend, and while he too exploits such traits he does so in a satirical postmodern fashion. While fans of the horror genre may find something to enjoy, Horror Stories ultimately lacks the scares that the title so promisingly implies.

★★☆☆☆

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